Breaking the Silence

By the

August 23, 2001

In Edward Ingebretsen’s mind, the majority of Catholics are like the bystanders who watch a crime occur as they sip their coffee.

A few weeks ago, Ingebretsen saw two men pulling on a street sign, trying to bend it to the ground. When the men had pulled hard enough, they slipped a bike chained to the sign over the top and attempted to get away. That’s when Ingebretsen stepped in. He grabbed one of the men and tried to wrestle the bike from him. He screamed for assistance or for a phone call to police thinking that if he could only hold onto to them long enough, help would arrive.

But no one came to help, and the two thieves eventually overcame him, knocked him off and got away with the bike.
The altercation didn’t occur on some dimly-lit side-street in the middle of the night. The bike wasn’t stolen from an alleyway or a deserted street corner. The theft took place across from the outside patio of a popular coffee shop in the heart of Dupont Circle on a crowded and pleasant evening. Dozens of people watched Ingebretsen grapple with the two men. Several witnesses later came forward to tell police exactly what had happened. But despite all of the people standing by watching, no one came to help.

When it comes to the Catholic Church, Ingebretsen feels stuck in a similar situation. He is one of the few people willing to do something about religious intolerance of homosexuality. Many agree with him, but most just sit and watch.

Ingebretsen wants people to recognize how the actions of the Catholic Church harm its members.

Priest and Activist

Ingebretsen is a 50-year old English professor and the head of the American Studies Program at Georgetown. As a 28-year veteran of the Jesuits, Ingebretsen has long been an outspoken critic of the Catholic Church’s official and unofficial teachings on homosexuality. He has published articles and lectured extensively. He has tried to explain to his colleagues and students how he feels Catholic teachings cause harm, both emotional and physical, to gay and lesbian members of the church.

Many of his colleagues agree. In private, fellow priests say they wish they had the courage to speak out, too. They don’t agree with certain Georgetown priests who tell gay students not to take communion or when Cardinals in the Vatican tell homosexual teenagers that they are intrinsically “disordered.” To Ingebretsen, they are the bystanders who watch a crime occur as they sip their coffee, too complacent, scared or irresponsible to do anything. He understands their lack of action, but he refuses to watch idly. He has always known that his words and actions risked a showdown with his superiors. And now, after more than a quarter century as a Jesuit, Ingebretsen has prepared himself to leave the order.

“I’ve always known that it wasn’t a question of ‘if’ I would run into trouble with the bishops but ‘when’,” he said.

Onward Christian Soldier

Ingebretsen says that, for an institution claiming to be an institution of peace, the Catholic Church is modeled on a military structure with the Pope at its head. He points out that the head of the Jesuits is called “father general,” that the term Miles Christi means “church militant,” and that the song “Onward Christian Solider” is still sung in churches around the world. But anecdotal evidence aside, the main similarity between the church and a military institution comes from its “informally recognized system of loyalties, allegiances and ? obediences.”

To many priests, this military-like obedience became apparent in decisions concerning New Ways Ministry made by the Vatican in 1999 and 2000.

Founded in 1977, New Ways Ministry sought to address a growing concern about the spiritual well being of homosexuals. The National Institutes for Health has released several studies in the last decade revealing that homosexual teenagers are three to four times more likely to commit suicide than their heterosexual peers. Feelings of loneliness, isolation and self-hatred plague homosexual teenagers and adults. Many Catholics feel that these problems are exacerbated when people feel excluded from the church. Spirituality can be a grounding force absent from the lives of groups who don’t feel welcome.

New Ways Ministry offered spiritual guidance and ministry to homosexuals who felt alienated and isolated by the Catholic Church and sought to foster understanding between homosexuals and the wider Catholic community. Not long after a 1986 letter from Cardinal Ratzinger to “the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of homosexuals persons,” the Vatican launched an 11- year investigation into Sister Jeannine Gramick and Father Robert Nugent the co-founders of New Ways Ministry.

Critics claimed that Gramick and Nugent’s ministry violated Church teachings and encouraged people to dissent from official church positions. In 1999, the Vatican ordered the nun and priest to cease ministering to homosexuals. A year later, the Vatican told them they could no longer speak publicly on any issues related to homosexuality, nor could they discuss the investigation of New Ways Ministry. Ingebretsen called this decision a crime against charity, and it played a major role in his decision to leave the Jesuits.

Dignity, a group ministering to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Catholics, began to be banned from church property soon after Ratzinger’s 1986 letter. In that letter, Ratzinger called homosexuals “inordinately disordered,” and although he said violence against homosexuals was deplorable he accepted it as “understandable.” Speaking to an audience in Rome, Pope John Paul II supported Ratzinger and called homosexuality “an offense to Christianity.”

A 1997 letter from the National Council of Catholic Bishops called Always Our Children addressed the parents of homosexual young people. The letter recognized that “a shocking number of homosexual youth end up on the streets because of rejection by their families.” The bishops urged families not to reject their homosexual children. The letter went on to say “it seems appropriate to understand sexual orientation (heterosexual or homosexual) as a fundamental dimension of one’s personality and to recognize its relative stability in a person.”

Ingebretsen says that Always Our Children sets up a conflict in church teachings that is difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile. All Catholics are called to a life of chastity, which in practical terms of sexuality means that sexual activity must be fundamentally procreative within the confines of marriage. Celibacy, in contrast to chastity, is a lack of sexual activity, and it is a “gift” from God and a spiritual calling that should be freely chosen.

Homosexuals, like all people, are called to chastity; but Ingebretsen argues that since the Catholic Church does not recognize any situation where homosexual activity is allowed, this call to chastity becomes forced celibacy. For Ingebretsen, the contradiction becomes clear since homosexuality is “a fundamental dimension of one’s personality,” but homosexuals can never rightfully engage in homosexual acts. Ingebretsen maintains that to call homosexuals to a chaste life is really eliminating any distinction between celibacy and chastity, and one of the Catholic Church’s most highly-regarded choices is now forced on a whose group of people.

Denied the Sacraments

While the religious arguments concerning homosexuality are complex and difficult, the real-life examples of how Catholic teachings affect homosexual Catholics drive Ingebretsen.

He always knew he was different. He describes his former self as a dweeb, kicked off his high school track team because he couldn’t run in a straight line. Painfully unsocial during his school years, he ate lunch alone behind the school on top of the trash heap, while everyone else talked and laughed inside. He was often beat up.

He always knew he was different, although he was well into his 20s before he even began to think of the idea that he might be gay.

“If you had told me at 18 that I was homosexual I probably would have done physical violence to myself,” he said. “That’s how deeply internalized my fear was.”

Ingebretsen is the first to admit that he ran to the Catholic Church to hide from the feelings he had. He said some people have closets of their own making, and the Catholic Church was his.

He applied to the Society of Jesus for the first time at age 14. He was denied entry. The society denied his entry again at age 18 after he entered Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. The Jesuits told him he was too unsocial, too withdrawn and too introverted to make a good Jesuit.

The Jesuits were the only authority figures he had ever known, and they were the people he admired and respected. Joining their order was his way of staying comfortable and not having to face the real world. While other college men were out getting drunk and taking home girlfriends, Ingebretsen took refuge in the Sacred Heart Chapel at Loyola Marymount University, sneaking in at odd hours and falling asleep on the cold marble floor.

At the age of 22 and after his third application, the Jesuits finally admitted Ingebretsen. The seminary was not a good place to learn about sexuality, since most discussions of sexuality were shrouded in secrecy or shame. He had his first sexual experience at the age of 23 while in the seminary. He took five years to work up the courage to enter a gay bar in New York at age 28, but he ended up running away when a man offered to buy him a drink. He confessed all of his secret desires to his superior while still in the seminary. The priest, a man Ingebretsen speaks of with reverence, told him to trust his feelings. But it wouldn’t be until Ratzinger’s letter in 1986 that he could even begin to do that.

A Turning Point

After reading Ratzinger’s 1986 letter, Ingebretsen said he began to realize the conflict that being a gay priest posed. To him, the Ratzinger’s letter offered no positive change and little compassion. He said the letter amounted to nothing more than a death watch as homosexuals died of complications from AIDS by the thousands. On one hand, young gay men were dying alone, isolated from the church and from their families. On the other hand, his own church contributed to this isolation and even implicitly encouraged it by the language it used about homosexuals.

Ingebretsen draws parallels and tries to connect the position of homosexuals and women in the Catholic Church. Both are invited to participate, but neither group is given full access to the sacraments. In essence, both groups are second class citizens of the church.

Other specific memories still drive him, such as the one of a former student who was gay but with whom he never talked openly and never guided. A gay student who was brutally murdered and died without any spiritual guidance. That part haunts him. His student may have died thinking that God deemed him a sinner; and he, Ed Ingebretsen, too scared of the consequences, did not do anything to help him.

Ingebretsen is also highly influenced by the refusal of certain priests to administer the sacraments to homosexuals. Several gay students at Georgetown have been asked by Georgetown Jesuits not to take communion. Children of gay couples have been denied baptism.

In 1997, Ingebretsen published a paper calling for a Catholic bill of rights, the most important provision of which would guarantee all people access to the sacraments. He said he took his inspiration from the new Catholic left, activists such as Dorothy Day and Daniel Berrigan, S.J., (See: The Georgetown Voice, For the Love of You, Exploring Jesuit Identity Part One, April 19, 2001.) He wanted to call attention to Jesus as a political figure and the gospel as a political work. His call was taken up by some but largely ignored by the Catholic church as a whole. Even priests who secretly agreed with him didn’t dare to openly say so.

“I just wanted it written into law that one person is as inherently gracious as the next,” he said.

When an openly gay man was refused baptism, Ingebretsen intervened to the bishop on his behalf and received permission to baptize him.

“They’re still asking how I got permission,” he said. But Ingebretsen says that many bishops and countless priests use a “wink and nudge” to implicitly disagree with the official doctrine of the church without explicitly saying so.

Ingebretsen said a large number of priests will listen to a confession and sigh as they recite the position of the church and shrug their shoulders to say, “I have to say it, even if I don’t believe it.” They use body language to apologize or break with church teachings while minimizing the risks.

And the risks are great. For a Jesuit who has lived most or all of his adult life living under the vow of poverty, breaking with the order means being set free with no assets and little hope.

A New Church

Ingebretsen’s current status as a Jesuit is complicated. Several years ago, he was about to take his final vows, the spiritual equivalent of tenure for a priest. At that time, his superiors asked that he stop publicly criticizing the church. They demanded he conform. The New Ways Ministry decision made it clear that the vow of obedience he took as a priest could and would be used to keep priests like himself from doing the work they valued. Rome forbids any ministering to homosexuals that did not include discussions of the immorality of homosexual acts. As a member of the Jesuits and as a Catholic priest, he could be told what he can and cannot say. He did not take his final vows.

“For 28 years they had my body, my heart and my mind,” he said. “I will not give them my soul.”

“My own participation in this silence for 30 years had its consequences in my own shame, guilty, hiding and subterfuge,” he said. “As I began to understand the consequences of this on my life, I had to leave.”

He took a leave of absence from the Jesuits and moved out of the Jesuit community at Georgetown. He has no retirement account, no house, no savings and no car. The Jesuit province eventually sent him a letter and asked him to sign it. The letter said Ingebretsen voluntarily agreed to leave the society.

Ingebretsen refused to sign it.

“In layman’s terms, I’m AWOL,” he said.

Despite his ambiguous status as a Jesuit, Ingebretsen makes it clear that he is and always will be a priest. He has joined the American Catholic Church, a sect of the Catholic Church founded on the belief that all people should have access to the sacraments. He has dedicated his most recent book to the Jesuits. He loves the order and will always think its members as his brothers. It is the Catholic Church in general and the pope specifically that he blames for the problems homosexuals face within the church.

A quote by the Catholic priest Martin Niemoller hangs on the door to his office and describes the frustration he used to feel as a gay priest who was compelled by his superiors not to speak up. Niemoller was a Catholic priest in Nazi Germany and also a prisoner at the Dachau concentration camp.

“First they came for the Jews, and I did not speak up for I was not Jewish. Then they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak up for I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak up for I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak up,” he wrote.

He wants the Catholic Church to recognize how its teachings cause shame, guilt and what he calls “spiritual anorexia” in homosexuals. He wants his message to go far beyond homosexuals, however, and extend to all people who are made to feel guilty by the church’s teachings. He said that the church views many things as wrong, from birth control to divorce to premarital sex, but homosexuality is the wrong singled out from the steps of the Vatican and demonized by the church.

He wants all people to recognize how they participate in a system that does not have their best interests at heart. He said too many people are drawn to Catholicism because they feel anything is better than nothing. They “offer up” their pain and suffering to God, while continuing to allow themselves to be hurt.

He spends his time now developing better alternatives as a member of a new church.

“Don’t let them take your soul from you; defend yourself,” Ingebretsen tells his students. “The greatest gift God has given us is only our ‘disordered’ selves.”

This story is the second in a series of cover stories on Jesuit identity. The first story appeared April 19, 2001, and focused on Daniel Berrigan, S.J.

The series profiles particular Jesuits who have devoted their lives to various social causes. The articles attempt to explore what it means to be Jesuit, Catholic and socially aware.

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