In the church Pope Francis I has inherited, it may be hard to believe any normal gay Catholic could be sufficiently devout to have abstained from any kind of sex for his whole life.
But that is what Stephen Guest, now aged 44, has done from 12-years-old when he first started to realize his sexuality.
Guest contacted Gay Star News to question whether we were being fair in our coverage of the Catholic Church. He is not a priest but believes that to have gay sex would be a grave sin. It would condemn his soul to eternal damnation.
I invited him to share his story and his views on some of the sexual issues facing the church.
Guest was born in Germany where both his parents were in Britain’s armed forces. When they came home, they settled the small village of Chipping in Lancashire, north west England.
He says: ‘I was the only person in my family to go to church, I was about nine, and being Anglican I went to the Anglican Church. I don’t know what drew me to it. The only thing I can think of is faith. And it’s a social thing as well, because I was quite a loner as a kid so it was somewhere for me to meet people and get involved because the village is very, very small.’
One Christmas he was given a book explaining how King Henry VIII had split from Rome and created the Church of England.
‘Something moved me inside to decide I was in a heretical church so I went to the Catholic Church and converted and I was Catholic by 12.
‘My dad was fine with it. My mum not really so. She was “hell no, you are a Protestant”. Up here it is very sectarian. But I started to go to the Catholic Church and there was nothing my mother could do about it.’
At around the same time, he started to realize he was gay. It was the time when the British Conservative government was introducing a new law effectively banning discussion of LGBT issues in schools – it was called Clause 28 and later Section 28.
‘Even back then I found [being gay] abhorrent,’ Guest says. ‘My mother and father always spoke of it as something that was so disgusting you couldn’t mention it, we are talking back in 1981 or 1982.
‘And then Clause 28 came in and that made things even worse for a boy like me struggling with faith, morals and trying to deal with my sexual identity. It was a nightmare. But I found solace in the Catholic Church.
‘I went to a Church of England school from 11 and as a Catholic I was mercilessly bullied, first for being Catholic and then probably traits or subtle signs I was gay came through so that was another open season for them to bully me. By the time I was 14 or 15 I had got a bit of a mouth on me so I could defend myself.’
‘Horrified’ by his sexuality, Guest decided from around the age of 12 to be celibate.
‘It was a conscious decision. No-one had spoken to me about celibacy. It was my moral conscious decision to not act on any sexual impulse I had.
‘In the Catholic Church the sin is divided into categories, sub-venial sin is the first one like swearing, venial sin is things like missing mass on a Sunday, mortal sins are things that kill the soul and condemn the soul to hell for eternity. And then as you get further up there is another category called “the sins crying to heaven for vengeance” and homosexuality is in that category along with willful murder.
‘I was very aware of that and I felt like a criminal. To link sodomy with murder really knocks the wind out of you because you are thinking “if it’s that bad, if it’s that much of a sin, I don’t want to do it”.’
He also decided never to masturbate.
‘Masturbation in the Catholic Church is called onanism. Playground smut goes around and I knew people were engaging in onanism and I think it was a case of me wanting to remain in a state of purity that I abstained in masturbation.’
That level of abstinence was a ‘constant battle’, Guest admits, in his teenage years with his hormones racing. But a priest friend was able to ‘talk me down from committing sin,’ he said, by turning to prayer and to inspiration from the Bible.
‘I also discussed it with my religious education teacher,’ he said. ‘She warned me that because of Clause 28 she could get fired for talking to me about homosexuality. So everything that was said between her and myself was in secret. She couldn’t divulge anything and I couldn’t divulge anything. It was an atmosphere of fear.’
Meanwhile he was becoming even more involved in the church. He started to serve mass which at the time was still conducted entirely in Latin.
‘It filled me with a fervor to learn more about my faith,’ he says.
‘When I was at school, I always wanted to be either a priest or a monk. So I entered a monastery when I was 17 and stayed in the monastery right the way through until I was 21 or 22.
‘It was a strictly enclosed Benedictine monastery. Homosexuality was never mentioned. It was a heinous crime, a sin that was never brought up. So it was my way of hiding my sexuality within the Catholic Church. Because questions weren’t asked. You went into the monastery to live the life as a monk and I thought that was what was best of me.
‘I saw it as a means of escape but it wasn’t. I couldn’t escape my sexuality. I didn’t have enough information about my own sexuality to deal with it.’
Still, he thought life in the monastery was ‘fantastic’.
‘I was in the fields, I was harvesting. Monasteries were self-sufficient, the one I entered was St Michael’s in Farnborough. We had crops, there was a book-binding industry and they sold books.
‘My role as a postulant and a novice was to do the farming, to pick up rubbish left by people who walked through the monastery grounds. There were three novices in the abbey and we were, sort of, the unpaid slaves. I was doing it for God and you feel to yourself that if you are working for God everything you do is worthwhile.
‘I was coming up to my first vows at 21 and I realized first of all I couldn’t live under the rule of an abbot, I am too disobedient and independent to live under the rule of one person.
‘And it wouldn’t be fair on the other monks for me to carry on living there when I knew I had this “condition” of being gay. I saw gayness as something separate to me. It was my way of not accepting it because to a certain degree I haven’t even accepted it today at 44.’
He left the monastery but still kept ‘tight reigns’ on his sexuality. As a young man in his 20s, training to be a nurse, he found that even more difficult.
‘I was doing my nurse training when I left the monastery and I was confronted with everything the human condition can throw at you. I did treat gay people in hospital and I felt pity for them rather than anything else.
‘There was one particular night I was working night duty. I walked into a side room it would have been about 2am or 3am. Just as I walked into the door, I saw a man masturbating, I was dumbfounded, I was shocked someone would do that in a hospital. I walked to the nurses’ station and apparently I was white as a sheet.’
He also had more positive, although ultimately not happier, encounters.
‘I met a gay man and he was very, very nice and we had a friendship. He would have been in his 40s and I was in my 20s. We became friends but he wanted more. I told him either he could accept the fact this isn’t going to happen or the friendship will have to end and the friendship did end.
‘I went to a gay club once in my 20s, I was invited with a whole group of girls I was training with. I felt extremely uncomfortable. It was such a threatening environment for me. It was like being in a cage, being circled by sharks or lions, I felt I was the prey and they were the predators.’
Guest says he is helped in his choice by a lower than average sex drive, but despite this, he continued to battle with staying celibate.
‘Words can’t describe how difficult it is to avoid temptation because sex is one of the primal acts that keeps the human race alive,’ he says.
Guest believes he is created by God and that he was born gay. So I ask him if it wasn’t surprising or even cruel of God to expect him to stay celibate.
He replies: ‘The priest I spoke to said to me “the more God loves you the more crosses he gives you to bear”. I was bitter with God because I was homosexual but I also realized we are all given things in life to suffer as a means to get to heaven. Things are given to you in life by God, whether it be illness, or sexuality or you use your family in a house fire and these things are all sent by God for you to bear.’
Isn’t it extreme to see it as such a great sin, comparable to murder?
‘I don’t think it’s extreme. You look at the story of Sodom and Gomorrah and how they acted and they were destroyed by fire by God because of their sins. They were practicing all sorts of disgusting things, bestiality and pedophilia.
‘The only way I can describe it, willful murder is the taking away someone’s life, sodomy takes away someone’s soul. By committing sodomy you are murdering your own soul, you are condemning your soul to eternal damnation.’
The Catholic Church has been rocked by the biggest child sex abuse scandal in the history of the world, but it’s not enough to rock Guest’s belief in the institution.
‘I believe those people who committed those acts against these children are inherently evil. And Pope Benedict XVI has purged the church. John Paul II was far too liberal. He actually forced the resignation of priests he knew had committed pedophilia and priests who admitted to being gay were sent to monasteries to live out their lives.’
He does however, agree there is a difference between gay priests and pedophiles but thinks the purge was necessary.
‘I haven’t got the time of day for him. He is one of the biggest hypocrites the church faces. It is people like him who give the Catholic Church a really bad name. People like that should never have entered the priesthood. The only thing I can think is it’s a means of escape for him.
‘But we are all responsible for our own actions. The priests who he abused, there has to be a certain level of culpability on their part because they are grown adults, they are not children. They know sex is wrong within the priesthood. Even if it is coercion they should have reported Cardinal O’Brien.’
And on another big issue currently dividing the church, gay marriage, Guest also has clear views. He is not on the side of the 60% of American Catholics who are now in favor of marriage equality, even as a civil rather than religious function.
‘I am against gay marriage only because in the Catholic Church, marriage is a sacrament which is very important for Catholics,’ he says.
‘I don’t have anything against partnership. It’s that word marriage. Love between two men or two women is love and love is good and should be celebrated. But to want to go down that avenue of marriage strikes me as being immoral only because it breaks up the sanctity of marriage which is between a man and a woman for the procreation of children.’
Guest welcomes the news Argentinian Jorge Mario Bergoglio has become Pope Francis I.
‘I was absolutely delighted. He has not said a great deal about homosexuality but he did say ‘hate the sin and love the sinner’ so he is preaching compassion towards gay people and he is referencing what I have always held in as my belief.
‘I think he will be a really positive uniting figure for the church.’
More than anything, Guest seems keen for me to help him tell people of his view that celibacy is a realistic possibility, even for non-clergy. And he doesn’t fear he is making the wrong choice, missing on love and happiness through fear of a final judgment that may never come.
‘I am perfectly at peace. We don’t know what’s going to happen after we die. But for me living a chaste life is first of all an act of choice. I have decided I want to live a life of celibacy and purity because I believe in the power of God and he gave me this as a cross to bear.
‘You engaging in homosexual activity is right for you because you don’t have the same convictions I do. No human can judge another human for their moral actions, unless they burgle or murder.
‘But now, as I get older, I think it will get easier and easier. I have actually withdrawn myself from the world. I don’t have anything to do with the gay community. I think I am over the worst.
‘Chastity is possible. It is something that can be easily lived by people who make the decision to. I am sure I am not the only one.’