Former Polish priest, who was sacked after revealing he was gay, on his decision to publicly announce his sexuality and his hopes for the Catholic church
Krzysztof Charamsa, the former Vatican official who was sacked and defrocked after publicly announcing he was gay, breaks out into a wide grin when he is asked whether he has plans to marry his boyfriend. His answer is coy, but his smile and giddy laughter seem to reveal his intentions.
“I understand many people who say ‘we don’t need the institution of marriage. Our love is free’. I am not in this part of society. For me, [marriage] is part of the dynamic of love and I thank God that I live in a century where it’s possible, thanks to the homosexual movement and thanks to many homosexual martyrs.”
It has been less than a month since the Polish 43-year-old, a former senior Vatican aide and monsignor, announced at a press conference that he was gay and in love as his Catalan boyfriend, Eduard, stood by his side. The admission, a day before the start of a contentious meeting of bishops in Rome to debate the church’s approach to modern “family issues”, including homosexuality, resulted in him getting immediately sacked.
The Vatican called the timing of the announcement “very serious and irresponsible” and said it was clear he could no longer work as a senior aide for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the office within the Vatican tasked with defending Catholic doctrine.
If Charamsa’s hope was to force the church to take bold action on its approach to gay and lesbian people, then the attempt was unsuccessful. At the conclusion of the synod this weekend, bishops restated the church’s position against discrimination against gay people but also declared that there was no foundation for same-sex marriage.
Speaking to the Guardian from Barcelona, Charamsa discusses his own journey to the moment when he made the life-altering decision to reveal his sexuality, despite the fact that he was part of a church that believes gay sex is a sin and that homosexuality is a “tendency”. “I was sure [I was gay] all my life. From the first moment when a person realises his sexuality. For me it was clear and a source of suffering,” he says.
In his native Poland, Charamsa says the church was seen as a haven from communism, and a place where “freedom is possible”. “So the church was this space where you can realise yourself and your nation and your desire for freedom. But at the same time, there are homophobic actions and mentality. [The church says] that to be gay is ill, that it is horrible, that it is something from hell, not from this world, something contrary to the nature and to God – and this is God who you love,” he says.
The former priest says he was not tormented by his vow to be celibate, but he could not ignore a realisation that he had to accept himself and his sexuality in order to be true to others. “The first part is coming out for yourself, in your mind. This is the process which is the longest. For me, it was the biggest part of my life. It was horrible. It was terrible. I didn’t accept it for many, many years.”
Then he came out to a few close friends and family, a step he acknowledged could be dangerous in some homophobic societies.
While some close friends urged him to maintain his job and life in the church, despite having a relationship, Charamsa says he could not maintain a double life. “My relationship has not been long but enough to be sure to know it’s love. I love this man and he loves me and I want to offer my life to him. I am convinced that I could [have] done this as a priest,” he says.
“And the third part was [coming out] publicly. Many people have said it [the announcement] was so spectacular, so big, that it did not come at a good time. With these people I have a question: when is it a good time to come out in the church? When? After the synod? The answer is: ‘never’. The responsible time for coming out is never.”
Too many priests, he says, fall into deep depression as they seek to grapple with double lives and suffer a sense of culpability. “I am not a paedophile. I am a healthy homosexual man. I am not a monster. I am not bestial. I am a minority, but I have my dignity and this must be approved by my church.”
Charamsa insists he did not come out because of a sense of frustration or because he was pressured to do so by his partner. “He was perfect in this process. He was really a mature man and was convinced it was my decision, but he was capable of helping and offering his life for this traumatic passage, for this decision which existentially for priests is like going away from prison. Like Guantánamo,” he says.
The former Vatican official was also driven by an understanding, built over years, that a real discussion of homosexuality within the church, and particularly the doctrinal office he worked for, was impossible.
In 2013, the pope uttered his now-famous phrase “Who am I to judge” when he was asked about the existence of a “gay lobby” within the Vatican. Charamsa said it was “like a bomb for the Catholic mentality”.
“My first reaction was ‘fantastic’. This is the man who said marriage equality is demonic when he was archbishop … and when he became pope, he began thinking and talking in another perspective,” he says. “For me, the phrase returned dignity to gay men, which is destroyed by the church.”
But now Charamsa says the comment was merely a “slogan”, because the church is “locked, in a paranoid position against the pope”. “I think the pope has a practical mind. He has the perception that he has no collaborators. It’s like in a government, where a ministry works against the prime minister. I think Pope Francis has also a conviction that he has opposition so great that this is not for this moment,” he says.
“We [in the church] are incapable of knowing one another. Of dialogue. It is like a mental dictatorship. I’m from Poland. I knew the communist system, it is irrational, without argument.”
There were moments in the past, such as in 2009, when Pope Benedict reaffirmed the church’s opposition to gay men becoming priests, when Charamsa says he sought to challenge himself intellectually to rationalise the church’s position, though he now likens it to a “racist judgment”.
He is also critical of the church’s approach to abortion and says he supports the pope’s recent call for a year of mercy for contrite women who have had the procedure. Traditionally, women seeking forgiveness could only be granted it by a senior church official, but Francis has given that power to all priests beginning on 8 December, during the Catholic church’s jubilee year of mercy
“When you think about poor women, about poverty, it is easy for a priest with money, a peaceful life and no family problems to say that women cannot have abortions,” he says. “But we cannot be so drastic, so automatic, so insensible, so inhuman. We defend life – the new life – and condemn the life of the woman.”
On the issue of same-sex marriage, Charamsa believes the extension of rights across the US and western Europe, as well as other countries around the world, is a truly Christian good because it is a development that has strengthened the institution of marriage for everyone. It is the opposite view of many religious-based critics of same-sex unions.
“The homosexual possibility of marriage in our century is very important for the perception of marriage. It helps to explain that essential in marriage is love,” he says. “You can say ‘no, it is to produce babies’. But I think it must begin with love and then we can speak of life, of children. I think homosexual people are prophetic.”