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The Double Lives – And Second Lives – Of Gay Priests

Peter Priller was a Catholic town chaplain in Germany until he fell in love with a male parishioner, and was subsequently excommunicated. Though many closeted gay Catholic priests live in “secret societies,” Priller says there are other choices.

Members of the Rosa Alter group at a rally in Germany
Members of the Rosa Alter group at a rally in Germany
Ingrid Hügenell

MUNICH -- Peter Priller is a priest. He's also gay. For a long time he assumed he could reconcile the two by leading a celibate life. So in 1991 he was ordained and became a chaplain in the Bavarian town of Bad Tölz. Soon after, however, he realized it just wasn't going to work.

"I was conducting 11 o'clock mass one morning when I noticed this guy with a mustache," he says, laughing wistfully. The man was Josef Hanfstängl, who became the young chaplain's life partner in 1992. They were still together when Hanfstängl died in 2009.

By that time, Priller, now 50, had long ago parted ways with the Roman Catholic Church. The couple kept their relationship a secret for three years before Priller outed himself to Cardinal Friedrich Wetter. "Within his framework, he tried to find a solution," Priller recalls. There were attempts at building "a golden bridge" by asking questions such as: "Is it really a sexual relationship? After all, there's nothing wrong with platonic friendship between two men."

Asked how often Catholic priests out themselves to their superiors, the Archdiocese of Munich had no information to impart. Every case was handled individually, their press spokesperson said, and concrete figures were not available.

In the Roman Catholic Church a culture of silence appears to surround this issue: gay priests keep quiet, and their superiors look the other way for as long as they can. Because the resulting secrecy is hard to deal with, gay priests meet at Pastorosa in Munich. "It's a kind of self-help group for gay priests trying to come to terms with their extremely conflicted, tense situation," says Michael Brinkschröder.

The Catholic theologian and sociologist, who is an assistant professor at the University of Munich, is a member of a working group of gay theologians. He knows many gay priests throughout Germany who have organized themselves into groups resembling secret societies.

Priller is also aware of the groups, and knows that if he'd been willing to quietly hide the sexual nature of his relationship, he could have stayed a Roman Catholic priest. But neither he nor his partner wanted to conduct their relationship in secrecy. Priller was excommunicated.

God wanted me this way...

The small man with his round rimless glasses quietly relates how he lost his job, and his church, because of his sexual orientation. But he says that God not only made him this way, God wanted him to be this way. "I'm fortunate to be alive at a time when I can survive being the way I am," he says.

But the sexual morality of the Catholic Church disturbs him. "The axiom that any sexuality outside marriage is a sin is absolute nonsense," he says. "All it does is give people a bad conscience so that the Church can have more power over them."

But Priller managed to live not only his love and his sexuality, but his calling as priest – the latter albeit within limits. In 1996, he converted to a religion called: Old Catholicism. Despite the name, Old Catholics are not particularly conservative. In Old Catholicism, celibacy is not mandatory, homosexuality is accepted, and women can be ordained. What primarily distinguishes Old Catholics from Roman Catholics is that they do not recognize the validity of the dogmas of the 19th century First Vatican Council – which among other things means they do not accept papal infallibility. Priller had found his home.

Old Catholicism has only about 20,000 members in Germany, including 600 in the Munich area where Priller's pastorate of some 100 people is located. His work as a priest is, however, unpaid, so to earn a living Priller has always worked a second job. The first was in Bad Tölz, at a day center for the mentally ill. However when his partner died in 2009, he made fundamental changes in his life that included changing jobs – and his new position turned out to be ideal.

Priller works at the "Rosa Alter" counseling service, founded in 2009 to help older gay, lesbian and transgender folk whose felt identity as a man or a woman does not match their biological identity. Priller says that older homosexuals are often reluctant to go to conventional help centers: "They're embarrassed," he says. "They fear discrimination, or being treated with condescension."

"Rosa Alter", which is supported by various public and private sector entities and also works with Deutsche AIDS-Hilfe, offers all the services that other counseling centers do. Priller and his lesbian colleague help visitors fill out forms and deal with issues such as care for themselves or an aging partner, or what to do if financial circumstances mean no longer being able to afford present living conditions.

At 50, Priller himself is part of the "Rosa Alter" target group. He says: "Being gay and getting old is an interesting process." He also says that "finding the people who need Rosa Alter" isn't easy. Men particularly -- who until 1969 lived with the fact that their sexual orientation could actually land them in prison in Germany -- are reluctant to this day to publicly acknowledge being gay. And while he himself, as an openly gay man, was twice elected to the Bad Tölz city council, Priller says that even today in small communities and villages, coming out can still be as hard as ever.

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