“The Guardian” : What lies behind religious homophobia?

The anti-gay rhetoric of religious leaders like Cardinal Keith O’Brien often masks deep-seated fears about their own sexuality

    • Former cardinal Keith O'Brien
Keith O’Brien, who resigned this week after accusations made by four men, engaged in ‘high-octane language on same-sex attraction’. Photograph: James Fraser/Rex

I approached a director at Channel 4 back in 2000 with a proposal for a documentary on homosexuality and the Roman Catholic church. I had a simple pitch. “I want to show why my church is so anti-gay.”

“And why is your church so anti-gay?,” came back the obvious question. “Because it is so gay,” I replied.

A furrowed brow invited further exposition. I then spelt out the logic. We interviewed clerics and ex-seminarians in the UK, US and Rome and uncovered a huge irony: the very institution that teaches that the homosexual orientation is “intrinsically disordered” attracts gay candidates for the priesthood in numbers way in excess of what one would expect, based on numbers in society at large. One seminary rector based on his own experience told me the number was at least 50%.

Gay Catholics like me will appreciate another irony with the news of Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s resignation: that the very man whose trenchant rhetoric on the subjects of gay adoption and marriage has been brought down by accusations of improper same-sex behaviour from no less than four men who crossed his path in the 1980s, either as a seminary rector or as archbishop of Edinburgh. His decision not to participate in the papal conclave is not to be taken as an admission of guilt and he contests the accusations made against him. Nevertheless, it does raise some general questions about a possible relationship between the tone of anti-gay rhetoric and the identities of those who engage in such high-octane language on same sex attraction.

For our programme, Queer and Catholic, we interviewed two men from the English College in Rome who had fallen in love while training for the priesthood. In seminary they had tried to have open and frank discussions about homosexuality but were told by staff and many fellow students alike that this was not the done thing.

In the TV interview, one of them reported on the fact that it was frequently the very men who were out and about in Rome engaging in casual sexual acquaintances in the Monte Capitolino,  a nearby park, who were often the most vehemently homophobic in the seminars on sexual ethics.

Building on this, the lesbian writer on queer theology, Elizabeth Stuart, in a fascinating deconstruction of “liturgy queens”, made the observation that in her experience it was more often than not the very closeted clergy who deployed an almost neurotic obsession with the size and length of the altar cloth and ecclesiastical protocol as “their own way of dealing with their demons”. We have to be careful of a simplistic reductio ad absurdum here. Love of aesthetics in liturgy does not automatically prove anything about one’s sexual orientation. But I think Stuart had a point.

Of course, “inverted homophobia” as it has come to be known, doesn’t only occur inside the Church of Rome. Colorado evangelical preacher Ted Haggard, married and father of five children, spent years assuring that LGBT individuals would be getting their fair share of hellfire and brimstone before his (male) lover spilled the beans. Republican Senator Richard Curtis, an opponent of gay rights legislation, had the misfortune to be caught with a young man on camera inside an erotic video store. Then there was George Rekers, Baptist minister and leading light of the Family Research Council, who had sloped off on a not-so-secret European holiday with a younger man.

The knee-jerk reaction is to scream “hypocrite”, but I take a more measured view. The coming to light of these tales is a positive development. “Methinks the lady doth protest” is a well worn cliche, but from here on in, those who seek to cover their own guilty tracks by the uncharitable nature of their words know that a watching public is getting wiser to some of the unfortunate mind games that have been played out over the decades.

In the future, when as a gay Catholic I hear a senior cleric describing my orientation in hostile and uncompromising language, I might just want to ask a poignant question: is this really about me, or is it more about you?


Here we have a Roman Catholic journalist giving us his idea of what could be one of the motivational forces behind some of the more vitriolic expressions of classic  homophobia amongst Christians. There can be little doubt that, in more recent years, there have been occasions when some high-profile Christian Leader has been – as the writer of this article, Mark Dowd in ‘The Guardian’ , intimates – ‘caught with his pants down!’

One doesn’t need a degree in psychology to understand that there is something to be said for the theory that those who shout the loudest to protest against a particular form of behaviour, can sometimes be smothering their own potential to act out that behaviour. The words: “Methinks thou dost protest too much” can have a very familiar sound when someone of the likes of a spiritual leader, whose public rhetoric is notably homophobic, turns out, himself, to be ‘caught in the act’.

Besides making the suggestion that many celibate clergymen are drawn into the ministry because of the expectation that they will not have to explain their inability to sustain a heterosexual relationship; this article points to the underlying psychological pressure exerted by his superiors on a closeted gay clergy-person to hide their true sexual-orientation. And what better way than to assume an aspect of vehement opposition to gays and their culture. In this way – they hope no-one will suspect their own inner conflict. Such enforced hypocrisy is one of the most bitter hidden fruits of the Church’s militant opposition to LGBT people.

The sooner Christians come to understand that one’s innate sexuality is a gift from God, and never a curse, the healthier the Church’s attitude towards aspects of our common human sexual nature will become. Perhaps the Church’s most urgent task in this whole business, is to admit that many people who are Christians and active in the Church are actually L.B.G. or T. (or, maybe, even a-sexual) in their orientation.

To have for so long been guilty of feeling we have to hide this fact from ourselves and the world outside the Church, is the primary reason for the present-day double-mindedness and hypocrisy in matters of gender and sexuality – that is crippling and dividing the Church, and inhibiting the proclamation of the Good News of Christ ‘s love, respect and redemption for every human bearer of the divine Image and Likeness.

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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