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August 04, 2011
The liturgical impact of homosexuality in the priesthood
By Louie Verrecchio *

By Louie Verrecchio *

As debate surrounding the recently published John Jay Report (Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010) continues, more and more Catholics are coming to the unavoidable conclusion (contrary to “official findings”) that the overwhelming majority of abuse cases were directly related to homosexuality.

One may further deduce that the historical spike in such incidents also likely coincided with an increase in the relative number of homosexual men in the priesthood - a proposition too unsavory (not to mention too politically incorrect) for many to acknowledge.

Those who are willing to look at the situation with eyes opened wide are left to ponder, not just the aforementioned abuse crisis, but also the broader implications of homosexuality in the priesthood.

I would submit that the impact of homosexual priests has perhaps been brought to bear in a particularly profound way in the liturgical life of the Church, and I would ask the reader to keep in mind as we proceed the warning issued by St. Paul, “Know you not that a little leaven corrupteth the whole lump?” (1 Cor. 5:6)

Let’s begin by considering that the priest who celebrates Holy Mass does so in persona Christi – in the person of Christ – such that he “does nothing of his own power” when he carries out his liturgical duties; rather, it is the Lord Himself who is present and active in offering the Holy Sacrifice (cf St. John Chrysostom – Homily on the Holy Pentecost).

Jesus Christ, the Eternal High Priest, is uniquely present and made visible to the faithful in the person of the ordained minister at Holy Mass (cf Sacrosanctum Concilium - 7) – a reality that compels the celebrating priest to personally surrender to Christ after the example of St. John the Baptist who said, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).

The cleric who suffers with homosexuality, however, will necessarily find this liturgical submission-of-self a most challenging proposition.

Psychiatrist Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons, a consultant to the Vatican Congregation for Clergy and a leading expert with more than 35 years of clinical experience treating priests and others who suffer with Same Sex Attraction (SSA), said in a recent interview with regard to homosexuality in the priesthood, “Narcissism – a personality disorder in which an insatiable need for admiration often leads to attention-seeking behavior – is prevalent among men who struggle with homosexuality. This conflict results in a need to draw attention to his own personality in the liturgy rather than to surrender his personal identity in favor of Christ.”

While narcissistic behavior certainly isn’t the exclusive franchise of homosexuals, Dr. Fitzgibbons’ insights speak directly to the reason why homosexual men are ill-suited for the priesthood – a truth that comes into ever sharper focus when viewed through the lens of the sacred liturgy.  

“The male who suffers with deep-seated homosexuality has difficulty in being Christ visible in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass for a number of reasons,” Dr. Fitzgibbons continued. “For instance, a number of well-designed studies have documented that the homosexual man struggles with weaknesses in male confidence, which in turn makes it difficult for him to give of himself fully in the ministerial roles as a spouse to the Church and as a spiritual father to Her children as the priest is called to carry them out in persona Christi at Mass.”

The Council Fathers tell us that Christ is the ultimate expression of the human person; He reveals to mankind who he really is (cf Gaudium et Spes - 22).

This, of course, is true for both men and women, but we must not fail to recognize that Christ also reveals in a uniquely profound way what it means to be “male,” and the reality of Christ’s maleness is made expressly manifest in the Mass where the Sacrifice willingly offered by Jesus in love for His Bride and their beloved children is re-presented. (The reader may also wish to consider how this factors into the Church’s inability to confer Holy Orders upon women.)

The priest at Holy Mass is called to visibly model, in willing cooperation with grace, the quintessential father and husband who protects, provides and sustains those who depend on him for their very survival. This presupposes in the ordained a healthy appreciation for his own God-given maleness, but whenever this requisite level of self-awareness is deficient, the priest is ill-prepared to render such service to his spiritual family. 

According to Dr. Fitzgibbons, “The insecurity inherent to SSA could also predispose the homosexual cleric to seek the approval of the laity by treating the liturgy as performance or by otherwise calling attention to himself. Furthermore, the underlying anger and disdain for authority that is also endemic to homosexuality could lead to rebelliousness and a determination to ‘do his own thing’ with the liturgy.”

To view this from a more spiritual perspective, consider that when the ordained minister who is called to serve as “father” chooses instead to use the Mass (and by extension the assembly) as an occasion to meet his own needs (e.g., a need for approval and adulation), he is guilty not just of liturgical abuse, but in a certain sense of no less than spiritual child abuse.

A quest for self-fulfillment on the part of the priest is the antithesis of the spirit of the liturgy, but according to Dr. Fitzgibbons, homosexuals often tend “to see and to treat their own pleasure as the highest end.”

This being the case, a substantial degree of tension can exist between the homosexual cleric and the liturgy properly celebrated, one that is overcome only with resolute determination to engage in intensive therapy and prayer, and even then with great difficulty. 

Setting aside “chicken and egg” arguments for the time being, it would seem that the apparent increase in homosexual orientation among the priestly population, coupled with the liturgical crisis that emerged in the decades after the Council, has created a perfect storm.     

Prior to Vatican II, Holy Mass was commonly celebrated in Latin in the ad oreintem posture in which both priest and people faced east, even if only a “liturgical east.” As such, the personality (and underlying emotional health) of the priest was of little consequence in the celebration, and so “losing himself” in order to make room for Christ in the liturgy was far more easily accomplished by the priest than it is today.

In the Novus Ordo, however, the priest most commonly offers Holy Mass in the vernacular versus populum (facing the people) wherein his personality (and at times his emotional health) is unavoidably on display. Aware of the impact that his liturgical persona can have on the experience of the assembled faithful, the priest often feels tremendous pressure to draw upon his personal resources to “perform” his duties in a compelling way. Even in the best of circumstances, it is quite natural for the priest to feel moved to so meet the expectant eyes and ears of the faithful such as they are ever cast upon him in the newly configured rite. 

For the priest who also struggles with an underlying inclination toward narcissism, the temptation to use the liturgy as a venue for seeking attention and personal gratification can be all but overwhelming.

Given the fact that the Council Fathers encouraged neither the dramatic change in the priest’s posture toward the people nor the construction of free-standing altars to accommodate the practice, it is reasonable to wonder what sorts of influences and pressures within the priestly population itself may have allowed for such a radical liturgical innovation to take hold so quickly.

Now, I don’t propose to offer an exhaustive treatment here, but I would suggest that at least one contributing factor among many may be suggested in the data found in the John Jay Report.

In a graph that plots “Incidents of Sexual Abuse by Year of Occurrence” (on pg. 8) one finds a steep increase in cases of abuse (which again, are overwhelmingly homosexual in nature) taking shape just as liturgical experimentation was gathering worldwide momentum in the mid-1950s. From there we see cases of abuse spiking to unforeseen levels that are then roughly maintained over a 10+ year period beginning in the late 1960s - the very point in time during which the push to create a liturgy celebrated versus populum reached critical mass and found favor in so many places. 

Coincidence? Perhaps, but then again maybe not.

As the percentage of homosexuals within the ranks of the presbyterate rose, one may reasonably argue based upon Dr. Fitzgibbons clinical insights that so too did the group’s overall receptiveness to a versus populum liturgy featuring the priest-as-centerpiece.

In other words, it would seem naïve to discount the role that clerical homosexuality (like leaven) may have played in promoting a liturgical agenda that dovetails so comfortably with the emotional neediness that comes with the territory.

Let me be clear - I am not suggesting in any way that priests who favor the versus populum orientation today are necessarily struggling with narcissism, much less homosexuality. Many such priests, I presume, are simply caught up in the current liturgical “lump” as we know it, albeit some more willingly than others.

The John Jay Report also gives us reason for hope as it indicates a steep decrease in the incidence of homosexual abuse beginning in the early 1980s, continuing downwardly right up to this very day when the numbers are below that of 1950.

One might see in the current trend, along with the elevation of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to the Chair of St. Peter, the makings of a potentially new perfect storm - one that will eventually usher in at long last the Council Fathers’ authentic vision of a liturgy renewed.      

Perhaps this will one day include a large scale return to ad orientem worship at Holy Mass; a posture that Cardinal Ratzinger described as a “fundamental expression” of the liturgy’s true nature (Spirit of the Liturgy – Ignatius Press – 2000).

While certainly not an ecclesial cure-all, it could go a very long way toward curing much of what ails our perception and experience of the sacred liturgy, “The font from which all of the Church’s power flows” (SC 10).

It could also go a long way toward curing much of what ails the priesthood in our day by reaffirming its true nature - both for the benefit of the laity (some of whom are being called to a priestly vocation) and for the ordained minister himself - as the ad orientem posture gives bodily, visible expression to the sacramental reality of the priest as that Perfect Male who lays down His life on behalf of His family - Provider, Protector, Sustainer, and ultimately, Husband and Father. 

It might even serve to strengthen those clerics who are currently struggling against homosexuality, aiding them in taking the difficult steps necessary in order to address their inner conflicts; to make room for the Divine Physician who alone can heal all wounds.

Author and speaker Louie Verrecchio was a columnist for Catholic News Agency from April 2009 to 2013. His work, which includes Year of Faith resources like the Harvesting the Fruit of Vatican II Faith Formation Series, has been endorsed by Cardinal George Pell of Sydney, Australia; Bishop Emeritus Patrick O’Donoghue of Lancaster, England; Bishop R. Walker Nickless of Sioux City, IA, USA and others. For more information please visit: www.harvestingthefruit.com

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April 17, 2014

Holy Thursday

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Jn 13:1-15

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Jn 13:1-15

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