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Angela Tilby: Secrecy, not sexuality, is the problem

14 December 2018


Pope Francis arrives for his weekly general audience on Wednesday

Pope Francis arrives for his weekly general audience on Wednesday

POPE Francis’s recent comments about the dangers of homosexuality in the priesthood came as a surprise after his earlier remarks suggesting that he took a non-judgemental stance on same-sex relationships. But issues of sexuality are even more divisive and complex in the Roman Catholic Church than they are in the Anglican Communion.

The difference is, of course that celibacy is a requirement for the priesthood, whatever the sexuality of the priest. The Pope insisted that those responsible for training priests must ensure that they were “humanly and emotionally mature” before ordination. He also said that people with rooted homosexual tendencies should not be accepted for ministry or for the religious life.

Twenty years ago, I visited the English College in Rome, and met RC ordinands. Celibacy was, of course, expected, but I found that there was a tacit recognition at this stage that some of the men, not all natural celibates, would need to work their way towards the clerical ideal. Some had girlfriends or boyfriends on the outside, although this was not discussed. But it was clear that there were young men who had not yet given up sexual relationships, whether heterosexual or homosexual.

In his recent interview, the Pope did not seem at ease talking about homosexuality. He may have done so to appease some conservative critics, but he will also have had in mind the biting attack from Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano in the summer, to the effect that secret homosexual networks existed in the Vatican and the Curia, and that priests were promoting and protecting one another.

I am not surprised that the Pope finds this scandalous. But the true scandal here is surely to do with secrecy, not sexuality. As a Jesuit, the Pope would find the secrecy particularly disturbing. Jesuits have worked hard to encourage members of the order to be honest about their sexuality. This has gone against the established habit of RC priestly circles, in which silence is the rule.

Yet silence, as we have all been discovering, is the cloak under which oppression of all kinds goes unchecked. It is the bully’s mask, the blackmailer’s weapon, the paedophile’s protection. It preserves the dignity of the male priest who makes women fall in love with him, and remains untouched by their vulnerability. And it can lead to secret networks whose members do, indeed, look after one another’s interests, to the detriment of the wider community. Silence, in other words, is the means by which clerical power keeps its secrets, and operates below the radar.

Pope Francis has spoken of the distortions of clericalism, but until the openness pioneered by the Jesuits is more widely accepted, homosexual priests will not be the only ones who could find themselves simultaneously oppressors and oppressed.

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