I’m very excited to have Rev. Richard Wagner with me today for the first in a two part interview. A lot of you out there will know him as Dr Dick from his fabulous website, Sex Advice with an Edge, but this man has more layers than a wedding cake and every one of them is totally fascinating. Welcome, Richard Wagner!
KD: I know you as Dr. Dick, who interviewed me on your fabulous Erotic Mind podcast series. When we did the podcasts, I was scared to death, having never done anything like that before, and you put me at ease and made it so much fun. I love your podcasts, and your website, and I’ve found several of your essays on the Catholic Church and sexuality to be fascinating. But I have to admit, it seems strange for me to think of you as Richard or Reverend Wagner, and I can’t imagine you as Father Wagner. You’ve worn lots of hats in your life, and as I read your book, Secrecy, Sophistry and Gay Sex In The Catholic Church: The Systematic Destruction of an Oblate Priest, I am reminded just how different those hats are. Tell us about the people Richard Wagner is, and tell us how do all of those people you are live comfortably together in the same skin?
DD: Wait, are you telling me I don’t have multiple personality disorder after all?
I’m getting a lot of that same reaction from people who have known me as one or another of my “personalities”. But the remarkable thing is that I’ve never experienced any disconnect between, Fr. Wagner, Richard Wagner, therapist and Dr Dick. I suppose that’s a good thing. Imagine if I had difficulty making room for all these personas in my skin.
The truth of the matter is that I am all these “personalities” and there is virtually no distinction between them. I suppose they reflect, as you suggest, different hats I’ve worn over the years, but the hats fit on the same head. Curiously enough, each “personality” compliments and infuses the others. I honestly couldn’t be Dr Dick if I weren’t also Richard Wagner and Fr. Wagner.
Besides my sometimes biting humor when it comes to human sexuality, as evidenced daily on Dr Dick’s Sex Advice, there is also an abiding sense of reverence for our capacities to express ourselves sexually. And I am painfully aware of how short a time we all actually have to explore this gift before our life is over.
KD: The events that ultimately led you from being an Oblate priest in the Roman Catholic Church to doing the wonderful, though extremely different work you do now are an astonishing example of the power of a religious institution to crush anything it considers harmful to itself, whether that threat is real or imagined. They are also the events that led ultimately to the publishing of your book. I know this is a bit like asking you to bring me the ocean in a teacup, but could you tell us briefly what happened.
DD: My book tells the story of my dismissal from The Oblates of Mary Immaculate; a Catholic missionary order based in Rome. My association with the Oblates began at the age of fourteen as seminarian in 1963 and I was ordained an Oblate priest in Oakland, California in 1975. In 1978, The Oblates formally assigned me to pursue a doctorate degree in clinical sexology at the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, a postgraduate school in San Francisco. For my dissertation, I chose to study the behaviors and attitudes of gay Catholic priests in the active ministry. The study, titled Gay Catholic Priests: A Study of Cognitive and Affective Dissonance, was completed in 1981. I was awarded my doctorate the same year. With that I became the first Roman Catholic priest in the world to hold an advanced degree in clinical sexology. To this day, I remain the only one.
To my great surprise, and then alarm, I became an overnight media sensation, attracting attention throughout the U.S. and even abroad. Instead of focusing on my research and its results, the sole object of interest became my own personal identity as a priest and gay man. Nothing else mattered, all context was drowned out, all rational discussion quashed, and what had begun as a story about my work was instantly transformed into a full time red-meat scandal. What followed was a shock that altered my entire life. Within a matter of months, the Oblate Superior General in Rome contacted my provincial superior in Oakland and demanded my immediate resignation from the Oblates. Either that, he warned, or dismissal proceedings would be brought against me.
KD: I still find it difficult to know what to say in response to such an experience, other than how pleased I am that out of your ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ something as eye-opening and truly ground-breaking as your book could come. Could you tell us about your book, Secrecy, Sophistry and Gay Sex In The Catholic Church: The Systematic Destruction of an Oblate Priest, What inspired you, ultimately to write down everything that happened to you? I also know that it was a rough journey to actually get it published. What happened?
DD: The book is in two parts.
Since I wouldn’t resign my priesthood; I contend I did nothing wrong, my community moved to dismiss me. The first part of my book narrates the dismissal process that lasted for an agonizing thirteen years, until the final decree of separation was issued on May 13, 1994. What happened to me was unconscionable and I wanted my brother Oblates to know that. So I wrote my defense as an open letter to them.
It is a lengthy letter reviewing the entire convoluted process leading up to my formal separation, and demanding from my brothers some form of acknowledgment and restitution for the hardships imposed on me. The letter is a fully documented history based on the years of correspondence between me and the successive Oblate administrations with which I had to deal.
As such, it throws a unique light on the internal workings of the Catholic Church and on the typical methods that church officials employ to suppress compromising truths, to exonerate themselves of wrong-doing, and to punish anyone who dares to draw into the open the institution’s interior secrets. It shows how the church silences and hustles out of sight anyone who dares to speak out. It is a sad and disturbing account of corporate malfeasance, canonical corruption, and institutionalized homophobia on a massive scale.
The second part of the book is my complete doctoral dissertation. Soon after the controversy with the Oblates began I learned I was being silenced by Rome. I realized that if I didn’t get at lest a few copies my dissertation out before the order from the Vatican arrived it would have never seen the light of day. So apart from a small run of photocopies made available in a hurried arrangement in 1981 very few people have ever seen my research.
So this is the first time that my thesis has been made available to the public at large. It remains the only large-sample study ever conducted of the sexual behaviors and attitudes of Catholic priests in active ministry, and my sample were all gay men by design. While some may consider the sample of fifty participants to be small, it is in fact quite large given the hiddenness of the target population. As the narrative portion of my study makes plain, the tools of intimidation and control that church authorities routinely employ to keep gay clergy silent and invisible are extremely effective, even in the case of one as prepared as I was to fight against them.
Wardell Pomeroy, my doctoral supervisor, was astonished not only by the size of my sample but also by the candor, depth, and thoroughness of the participants’ responses. During all the years that he worked with Alfred Kinsey on the monumental Kinsey Reports—a project that involved literally thousands of participants—only two or three priests were interviewed. What’s more, the sexual behaviors of these men were not specifically linked to their vocations but were simply folded into the study’s general statistical results.
The only reason I was able to obtain my sample was because I was a gay priest and I had extensive contacts in the informal network of gay clergy that exists throughout the U.S. My sample’s size and the insights it provides into the behaviors and attitudes of gay clergy are still without rival as a primary source on the subject.
And if you’ve just taken the time to read through all of that, you’ll understand why it was so difficult to find a publisher. Some publishers wouldn’t touch the manuscript because they feared reprisals from the Catholic Church. Other publishers thought the subject matter was presented in to scholarly form.
KD: When we skyped before we did The Erotic Mind podcasts, we discovered that we had a lot in common in that our spiritual journeys had led us in directions we never could have imagined. We both felt that our journeys were about healing the split between spirituality and sexuality. Do you feel writing a book documenting the events that led you to where you are now has helped to heal that split? Do you think it may help others?
DD: Yes to both your questions.
As you know, I believe there is a needless and a very artificial separation between sexuality and spirituality in western culture. When I first came out as a gay priest I was absolutely convinced that I had something unique to add to the conversations we, as a culture and we as a church, were having about both of these fundamental human concerns. I believed then, as I do now, that no one will ever find sexual and spiritual peace until he/she reunites these two concepts within themselves. They should never have been rent asunder in the first place.
The publication of my book has helped me do that for myself, and it just might provide a template for others who are trying to reconnect sex and spirituality in their lives.
KD: Dr Dick and I will be discussing that fascinating and all-important link between spirituality and sexuality in more detail next week. Same time, same place. Don’t miss out on Part 2 of my interview with this multi-faceted, fascinating man. In the meantime, here’s where you can find Dr Dick/ Richard Wagner /Fr Wagner and buy his amazing book.
Places you can find Dr Dick/ Richard Wagner