My lover Darryl was raised in a very devout Catholic home. His mother still goes to Mass every day. Like so many good gay Catholic boys, Darryl, too, thought during high school he might want to be a priest.
But then he went off to Catholic University in Washington, D.C. and discovered sex. Gay sex, to be precise. When he eventually came out to his mother, she responded, "Why are you telling me this? Go tell a priest."
Darryl's mother, of course, was not being flip. She thought a priest could help her son "change."
But by this time, Darryl was fully aware of what gay peopleand Catholic Church leadershave long suspected: That the priesthood, particularly in the Catholic Church, is chock full of gay men.
The topic has long been an uncomfortable one for the Catholic Church, so much so that it is most often greeted by Church officials with denial. As a reporter who has worked in several predominantly Catholic cities, I know first-hand that the prickly issue has also been one of the unofficial "taboo" topics mainstream newspapers dread delving into, and thus mostly ignore. The refrain nervous editors who don't want to offend an already declining readership often use to counter a proposal on the topic is that it is too hard to "prove" there is a disproportionately large number of gay men who are Catholic priests.
In light of all these obstacles, much kudos must go to The Kansas City Star, which recently published a bold look at gay priests with AIDS. Based on interviews with priests, a review of medical statistics, and estimates from medical experts, the newspaper concludes gay priests are dying of AIDS at a rate at least four times higher than the general U.S. population. ( Some individual estimates went as far as to say priests were dying of AIDS at a rate 11 times higher than the general population. ) And based on a confidential national survey sent out to 3,000 priests ( of which 800 responded ) , the newspaper estimates about 30 percent of Catholic priests are gay.
This explosive report is worth pondering, regardless of whether or not you are Catholic.
On the most elemental level, the findings confirm what AIDS educators have long understood, but still must fight for in school policies and public health policies: The "just say no" approach to sex, combined with ignorance about sex, safer-sex practices, and HIV transmission, will not stop the spread of the disease; it will only exacerbate it.
Never was that more clear than in the case studies of the Catholic priests with AIDS. There can be no doubt that the Catholic Church's insistence on clinging to 12th century doctrines, its refusal to educate its priests about sex, and its ongoing blindness to teaching safe sex, has condemned many of its own clergy to death.
But the issues go even deeper than a review of AIDS and sex education attitudes in the Catholic Church. The resulting deaths of gay priests are a direct result of the Church's continued attitudes towards gay people.
As the Rev. Tom Casey, an Augustinian priest from the Boston area who cared for a priest who died of AIDS in 1991, told The Kansas City Star, the Catholic Churchhas "created a tremendous amount of homophobia."
In many ways, the Church continues to deal with the AIDS deaths of priests in much the same way shamed families dealt with their sons' deaths in the 1980s: With silence. The Kansas City Star reports that many priests leave their own parishes to die where they are unknown. Many death certificates list the particular cause of death ( i.e. lymphoma ) but never say it was AIDS-related; and other death certificates are simply forged to say cancer or leukemia or some other "acceptable" cause of death.
In The Kansas City Star series, the best any Catholic church official would concede was that the church needs to do a better job of teaching priestsgay or straightabout human sexuality in general, and their own in particular. No details were given about what, exactly, those teachings should include, but it would be a fantasy to believe it might include even the most rudimentary lessons on safer sex.
And even if, somehow, some kind of real AIDS education miraculously found its way into the lessons of life for Catholic priests, it would still be little more than window dressing.
Like the rest of America learned 20 years ago, combating AIDS and combating homophobia are inexorably linked. Without exploring, and then overcoming, anti-gay sentiments, no AIDS education is going to be successful.
The immediate task before the Catholic Church is to reverse this tidal wave of death that is consuming its foot soldiers. Traditionally, the church has done little more than promise those afflicted with AIDS it will care for them as they die. That is simply not enough when it is so easy to teach them the simple techniques they need to know to keep from getting infected in the first place.
But beyond the tough issue of AIDS education, the Catholic church will need to address the core conflict between its teachings on homosexuality, and the fact that so many who serve in its holiest ranks are themselves gay. Because it is not just AIDS that is killing these gay priests. The Church's homophobia is killing them, too. Mubarak Dahir receives e—mail at MubarakDah@aol.com