VATICAN CITY — Two days before a longtime Vatican official burst from his stained-glass closet last month, he was dining with an Italian media consultant inside an elegant restaurant on the right bank of Rome’s Tiber River. The topic of conversation: How should the official come out?
Krzysztof Charamsa was still employed at one of the Holy See’s most powerful offices, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. But after decades of hiding, the 43-year-old gay Polish priest wanted to come out with a flourish. He was no longer afraid to confront a church he saw as intrinsically “homophobic” and proposed a symbolic news conference outside the headquarters of the Congregation — the very institution charged with defending and disseminating Catholic teachings around the globe.
But Emilio Sturla, a public relations consultant who worked closely with gay Catholic groups and was helping Charamsa, strongly suggested he reconsider, both men recalled. The public and the church, Sturla insisted, would see such a move as too incendiary.
“But that’s what he wanted,” Sturla said. “To be provocative.” And that’s what he did.
Their conversation suggests how even before it happened, Charamsa’s high-profile debut — including its timing right before a major Vatican meeting of the church hierarchy — was already controversial among the small group of gay Catholics aware of his plans.
Charamsa’s move brought the expected denunciations from the church and religious conservatives, who pointed out that he had violated his vow of chastity and the church’s teachings on homosexuality. More surprisingly, his actions have also sparked a split among gay Catholics.
The church officially teaches that homosexual desires are not sinful unless acted upon and calls on gays and lesbians to live lives of chastity. It teaches that gays are deserving of human dignity. But it also describes homosexual acts as a sin that is “intrinsically disordered” and a “grave depravity.”
As Pope Francis opens the door to more inclusion of gay people, Charamsa’s coming out — and the reactions to it — cuts to the heart of a debate raging among gay Catholics worldwide: Should they use gentle dialogue or open confrontation in pushing for change?
Many gay activists are cheering Charamsa’s action, heralding him as a Vatican whistleblower. In two days of extensive interviews with The Washington Post, for instance, Charamsa said the Vatican office where he worked routinely shut down priests and bishops calling for more acceptance of gay people. He describes an angry uproar in its halls on the day in 2013 when Francis, responding to a question about gay priests, famously declared, “Who am I to judge?”
Yet at a time when they can almost smell what they call the sweet scent of change, some gay Catholics counter that Charamsa’s “theatrical” coming out may have done more harm than good. It could, they say, embolden church hard-liners and have a chilling effect on the slowly thawing relations between gay people and the Catholic Church.
Charamsa is unbowed. The church, he said, has deployed “Nazi words” against gays, and the time has come to respond. Referring to the 1969 New York riots that became a milestone in the American gay rights movement, he said, “The church needs a Stonewall.”
“Here I go,” Charamsa said with a grin, walking down the center aisle of the Morality Theater on a recent evening in Arenys de Munt, Spain — a small town 28 miles northeast of Barcelona. He is a tad nervous. Laughing a little too hard. His hands perspiring. It is his first major public appearance since his big splash on Oct. 3, and he wants it to be good.
Charamsa doesn’t get far before 72-year-old Jaume Torrent grabs his arm. Torrent’s bear cub of a husband, a 39-year-old bearded construction worker, is standing close, wearing a tight T-shirt and a smile of admiration as the two gush praise at Charamsa.
“You!” beams Torrent, a self-described gay Catholic. He’s one of a crowd of more than 100 — a good chunk of them gays and lesbians — who have turned out to hear Charamsa speak. “You brave man. You did not hide. We are so proud of you.”
Charamsa is living a sort of self-imposed exile now, in an apartment in Barcelona he shares with his Spanish boyfriend, Eduardo. He refuses to say when or where they met, though people familiar with the couple say it was at least a year ago. Yet Charamsa is not focused on telling his own story — he’s still guarded about his childhood, his partner, his gay life as a priest. Instead, he’s focusing on what he feels is the big issue: homophobia within the Catholic Church.
He grew up in the Baltic port city of Gdynia, the son of an economist father and a mother who was a devout Catholic. At a young age, he became an altar boy, and then, a priest, at a time when the priesthood in Poland was a convenient place for gay men to remain unmarried and yet still obtain a measure of social standing. In fact, some studies have suggested that homosexuality is more prevalent in the priesthood overall than in the general population. But Charamsa describes his calling from God as genuine.
When Charamsa was young, the church’s teachings on homosexuality — something it calls an “intrinsic moral evil” — led him to personal torment and self-hate, he said. Today, he blames the church’s grip on largely Catholic Poland for a powerful strain of homophobia that still lingers there.
“It was the horrible problem of my life,” he said. “It was like hell. I prayed for years for God to take away this illness.”
His thinking had not changed, he said, when he began working at the Vatican in 2003, laboring in a mid-level administrative post and analyzing doctrinal papers. There are regular, if unofficial, social meetings of gay priests in Italy, including those from the Vatican, according to one gay priest who has attended them. But Charamsa says he was never part of that crowd.
Instead, he said, until meeting Eduardo, he led a highly closeted life that allowed him to observe homophobia close up at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — once known as the Holy Office of the Inquisition.
Inside its halls, Charamsa said, the issue of homosexuality “is only spoken about in jokes.” He compares it to the macho climate of, say, a sports team. Modern textbooks on human sexuality are rarely, if ever, studied. He said he saw careers destroyed after clerics appeared to get soft on gays. Suspicion of being gay, meanwhile, was reason enough to bar the promotions of priests to higher ranks.
Any move toward a more accepting stance, he said, was routinely stamped out. He recalls, for instance, an “internal persecution” of Bishop Piero Marini in 2013 after the Vatican official openly called for recognition of the moral value of same-sex unions. The Congregation, Charamsa said, insisted the bishop clarify true church teachings.
On the day in July 2013 when Pope Francis responded “Who am I to judge?” after being asked a question about gay priests, Charamsa said, there was an uproar within the Congregation. Its conservative prefect, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, had “only bad things” to say about the pope in response, Charamsa said.
The Vatican declined to comment on any of Charamsa’s allegations.
Today, he calls his highly public coming out a form of “protest,” one that came together recently after he accepted himself and came to feel that the church, not his sexual orientation, was the problem. He is now on a one-man mission to challenge its teachings — something he is doing in regular media interviews, a book he is penning, even a blunt letter to the pope in which he derided the church for its “diabolical instruction.” It is a series of decisions that have come with a high price.
In fact, by Oct. 3 — the day that Charamsa held his news conference — he had already come out in interviews published over the previous 24 hours in the Polish and Italian media. But it was only that day, as he faced reporters, that his story truly went global.
Sturla, the media consultant, ultimately persuaded Charamsa to move his news conference to a lower-key setting at the Rome restaurant where the two had dined two days earlier. As the cameras rolled, Charamsa held hands with, and hugged, Eduardo while vowing to make “an enormous noise for the good of the church.”
Soon after, Charamsa was evicted by the nun running the Rome convent where he had lived for years as a chaplain, he said. His brother’s children are being bullied at school, and his mother is facing pressure at her church in his native Poland, he added. The Vatican fired him on the spot, leaving him unemployed. And his bishop in Poland suspended him, stripping him of the right to wear the Roman collar and celebrate Mass.
Technically, Charamsa said, he remains ordained. In a statement, his bishop left the door open for Charamsa’s return to the practicing priesthood should he repent. But it’s an offer, Charamsa told his applauding audience in Spain, that he has declined.
“I’ve come out of the closet,” he said, “and I’m not going back.”
Critics of Charamsa’s public protest also question his timing. On Oct. 3, the day of the news conference, Andrea Rubera was across town helping manage a major meeting in Rome of gay Catholics. Rubera, the spokesman for an Italian gay group advocating a gentler approach toward change in the church, was hopeful about the major Vatican synod starting the next day. Bishops were set to discuss, among other issues, the church’s approach toward gays and lesbians. His group had even managed to secure a Catholic bishop — the Rev. José Raúl Vera López of Saltillo, Mexico — to speak at the meeting.
Then Charamsa dropped his bombshell.
“We spent a year organizing that conference,” Rubera said. “But the day it happened, the press showed up, and all they wanted to talk about was Charamsa.”
Under Francis, Rubera said, he has sensed a subtle but important shift in the icy relationship between homosexuals and the Catholic Church in Italy. One local parish in Rome, he said, is now openly inviting gay Catholics to participate in church events — something once unthinkable. Yet Charamsa’s “theatrical” coming out, he says, put those gains in jeopardy and sabotaged the synod, which failed to break any new ground on homosexuality.
“Our fear now is that his coming out, and the way he came out, will build a wall, not a bridge,” Rubera said.
Said Michael Brinkschröder, coordinator of the European Forum of Christian LGBT Groups: “I think many cardinals — for example, Cardinal Müller — might have felt pressured [by Charamsa’s move]. My position is that pressure is not the appropriate means to achieve change.”
In fact, shortly before Charamsa’s announcement, the priest had consulted with a small group of leading voices in the gay Catholic communities in Poland, Britain and Italy. All were strongly in favor of his coming out. But several disagreed with him on key points.
Charamsa says that gay Catholics advocating less confrontational methods have thus far failed to produce results. He welcomes Francis’s more inclusive approach but also describes it as mostly “words.” Rather than being a product of his coming out, the lack of a new approach at the synod is the product of entrenched church thinking that needs to be more boldly challenged, he said.
That, he says, is his new calling.
“I was in a prison of my mind,” he said.
But no more.
Stephanie Kirchner in Berlin and Stefano Pitrelli contributed to this report.