Friday, May 7, 2010

A Priest's Loyalty

It has been almost two weeks since I wrote to my parish priest to tell him that I was excusing myself from membership in the parish I love because I could no longer accept the institutional homophobia of the Church and at the same time maintain my personal integrity. I copied the priest-in-residence in the e-mail. Both of these men know me quite well. As of today, I have not received a response from either priest.

I am frankly not sure whether I am surprised or not by their silence. I do know that I am disappointed. And although I do not like to admit this, I am hurt. I feel as if I have been left in the cold; it may even be that they are glad to be rid of me because my absence means there will be no more letters or comments on the Church and homosexuality. Or they may have sought advice from the Chancery and been told that the best response is no response; after all, this guy has chosen not to accept the wise teachings of Mother Church.

Anyway, although I am obviously feeling sorry for myself over this, and these feelings certainly cannot be separated from what I write here, the purpose of this post is not to elicit sympathy (after all, it was I who made the decision to withdraw; I was not kicked out of the parish) - so please do not offer any. It is rather to muse about what might be going on in the minds of these two men. And I do mean muse - or speculate - as I am in no way privy to their thoughts, nor am I a psychologist.

Both of these priests are Vietnamese; both of them came to Canada in the 1980s as refugees under very difficult and dangerous circumstances. Both come from devoutly religious families. My pastor has one brother who is a priest and two sisters who are nuns. The priest-in-residence has a brother who is a Benedictine monk about to be ordained a priest. The two fathers are outgoing and intelligent; each has a wonderful sense of humour. They are warm and thoughtful and appear to be happy in their chosen vocation.

At one time I believed that there was a budding friendship between myself and each of these men. We went to lunch a couple of times, I helped them to edit documents they wrote, and the pastor even once sent me a Christmas card in which he wrote that he thanked God for our friendship - I was touched by his message and kept the card for a long time. While they remained warm to me in church, the "friendship" seemed suddenly to cease. About a year and a half ago I suggested to the pastor that it had been some time since we had had lunch together and that it was about time we made a date; I was quite cleverly put off. Again, perhaps they were advised by fellow priests or by the Chancery that it was not wise to get too close to a gay man.

In my study of Chinese culture (I have a B.A. in Chinese language and and M.A. in contemporary Chinese literature and taught Chinese history and culture for a number of years in a Vancouver college) I learned that Vietnam and Korea were two countries that were most strongly within China's sphere of influence. These countries,which were "tribute states" to the Chinese emperor, adopted the Chinese writing system and, most importantly, Confucian ideology. One of the most enduring features of Confucianism, which looked to China's past for examples of ideal attitudes and behaviours, has been an emphasis on patriarchal authoritarianism. In addition, in these East Asian countries, loyalty and service to the group - family, clan, village - take precedence over the rights and interests of the individual. Finally, in the 1980s Vietnam was still very much a communist country. When I was a student in China in the mid-seventies, before the economic reforms and the open-door policy instituted later in the decade, a characteristic of communism that I found surprising - for a supposedly radical, left-wing ideology - was its puritanism. It is interesting that Karol Wojtyla, who became Pope John Paul II, also came from a very conservative, communist-dominated country.

All this is to say that my two priests are not culturally disposed to accept homosexuality, to recognize the rights and interests of one individual over those of the group (i.e. the Church), and to do or say anything that might be construed as going against authority. They are also culturally predisposed not to offend. So what do they do when someone they may like personally - and who is older than both of them - presents a compelling argument that is in conflict with their belief system? Where a priest from a Western country might express sympathy for the dilemma the protester finds himself in but kindly yet firmly remind that protester of the inerrant teaching of the Church, my guys take the only option that fits within their cultural paradigm: silence. If my somewhat speculative but also somewhat educated theory is even partially correct, it goes to show how powerful these cultural predispositions can be: both priests have been in this country for nearly thirty years.

Regardless of the reasons for the silence of these priests, I cannot help but wonder at the woeful pastoral inadequacy of a priesthood that is unable or unwilling to come to the aid of a soul in distress even when that soul is constitutionally unable to accept one of the doctrines of the Church.

In the two weeks since I withdrew from my parish, I have felt the loss keenly. Yet I am also beginning to experience a kind of liberation. The Church has unwittingly freed me to explore other options like the Old Catholic Church, which welcomes everyone without judgment, and gay-friendly Anglican communities. No matter which option I choose, however, I believe that if I were ever fortunate enough to find a Roman Catholic parish in which the pastor was truly modern and truly pastoral, I would return in a heartbeat.


  1. Remember that you are The Church as well. Rome will come around.

  2. Ross, I think because they are Vietnamese, it may be difficult to discuss this with them. Also they may have been given misinformation about gay people from what you have said so this could be an issue also. I think if you can that you should look up Dignity and see if you can find a priest associated with them. You need to speak with a priest that can be sympathetic and understanding. Honestly, I think the Church needs you. We can't all leave just because of a few ingnorant people. If we allow ourselves to be chased out, then how can the Church grow and accept gay people. If we leave then the prejudiced people will win.

    Peace - Mark

  3. Mark: You make a good point, but I felt that it was necessary for me to make a strong statement, and I will continue to remind the Church, in my small way, of the truth that, straight or gay, we are all Christians and that God is not going to be as much concerned with our sexual orientation as he might be about the quality of our relationships - and not just sexual relationships. As I said in my original e-mail to my pp, my article on Courage was attached to that e-mail. That article certainly contains food for thought and an invitiation to seek more information in addition to the information it does provide.