The Rev. Bill Dickinson, who once worked in leadership development for bishops and priests nationally, came out to his bishop and family and resign from priesthood last fall. Last week, after 25 years in the closet, he came out to the world in an op-ed for the Daily Beast.
“I am offering to be a part of the solution for the Church leaders in their struggling relationship with LGBT people,” he wrote.
Dickinson, who freely left ministry, isn’t the only one. Rev. Warren Hall was recently dismissed from his chaplaincy position for being gay. He, too, is asking the Catholic Church to do more for the LGBT community. Hall, and many other American LGBT Catholic advocates, are requesting for a presence with the Pope this fall when his holiness arrives to the United States.
Yet, Dickinson believes he is in a unique position to reach leadership with his past leadership experience and service within the Church – including with the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops. In his first interview since coming out, he argues that flawed and indifferent leadership are the reasons he believes the Catholic Church fails the LGBT community.
What made you come out now?
I understand that every journey is a road to discovery. I think this is true when you’re straight or LGBT. I had been on a wonderful journey and life’s vocation, and somewhere along the line I thoughtfully decided it was time to own my identity as a gay man. Indeed, I am a man of God and a gay man, and unfortunately, the church does little to support this truth among those who own and share both identities as one.
Initially, it was not as relevant for me because I had made a commitment to be a celibate Roman Catholic priest. So, because I made that commitment to celibacy, I didn’t spend a lot of time with my attraction to men much like straight priests do not spend as much time contemplating their attraction to women.
But you know — it catches up with you. In my case, as I was evolving in self-awareness, I was also becoming frustrated with the Church’s insensitivity to the LGBT community – their identities, stories, and contributions. Jesus would seek to understand. I have no doubt the Good Shepherd would use language to us, and about us, that would be respectful and inviting.
So, I began to feel obligated to speak up as a gay man. My only other choice was to come out and to own that proudly, and for me to leave the priesthood honorably on my own terms. I could have chosen to remain a quiet gay man and celibate but I felt there was no support for me to do so had I wanted to. In my opinion, there a number of priests and bishops quietly closeted because there is little support to courageously create forums of conversation around LGBT identity within the existing structure.
What has the reaction been to your coming out?
Fortunately, for me, it was overall a very pleasant, affirming, loving experience – particularly among family and friends including former parishioners. When I came out, after I formally left, I chose to write to 30 bishops and 40 priests informing them of my decision and why I made it. I did not want there to be a rumor, I wanted them to hear it from me. I didn’t hear from any bishops, I did hear from some priests. The first eight or nine priests I heard from were all gay, came out to me, and were very supportive of my decision.
That’s a lot of priests. Do you think they’ll ever come out?
I don’t really know the answer to that question; what I do know is that it would demand a great deal of vulnerability and honesty within a Church structure that I think isn’t prepared to welcome their coming out publicly and freely. In other words, they may choose to share this truth with their bishop, but there is little hierarchical support to share this truth with their parishioners, brother priests, and the larger public.
What is the Catholic Church currently doing for LGBT people?
As far as I know, bishops really are doing nothing formally to understand or minister to the LGBT community. In fact, they don’t speak about the LGBT community, they speak about ‘gay persons’ or really ‘persons with homosexual inclinations.’
They don’t understand that it’s bigger than individuals who are attracted to the same-sex. They don’t acknowledge the lesbian, bisexual, or trans community. It’s not in their framework. They have to understand who their audience is, inclusively. We are strong contributors to the kingdom of God and in society. We are beautiful people and we deserve to be spoken to with respect.
What are some ways the Catholic Church can do better by LGBT people?
My work is leadership. And frankly, their silence on this issue is not an act of good leadership. The bishops, today, have an opportunity to create an ad-hoc structure or committee that invites lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and straight leadership to conversation.
They need to understand who we are, and learn just how vital and vibrant a part we are in the fabric of society. Again, they need to use the appropriate language that reflects that we are far more than just persons with ‘homosexual inclinations.’
What is something you would like to see come from the Synod on the Family scheduled in October in Rome?
They are having this Synod on the Family, and essentially what they are going to do is promote and affirm the traditional understanding of family life — marriage between a man and a woman and the beautiful commitment that husband and wife has to the upbringing of children. In this conversation, I have no doubt they will talk about persons with same-sex attractions and of course the same-sex act. I’m suggesting instead that they have these conversations with LGBT persons at the table in person. I’m recommending that before publishing any formal response, the Synod leadership demonstrates that they have met with LGBT persons, and their families. [In order] to understand their stories and show they value their contribution to both the Church and society.
They should never forget that LGBT persons are members the Lord’s flock. Responsible, pastoral leadership demands not speaking about or to LGBT persons in a hurtful or offensive manner. It is not the way of the Gospel.
I have a great relationship with the Lord. I love the church. At the end of the day I think this is what Jesus would ask of us. We’re just modeling something the Good Shepherd would invite and support—understanding, respect, and love. Let’s understand, together, we don’t always have to agree on issues, or even doctrine, but we do have an obligation to invite and support the conversation, especially with those who historically have felt particularly marginalized or misunderstood. It’s my hope to be a part of the conversation and solution however it evolves.