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Michael Cassabon was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in South Carolina in 2007 after spending more than four years at the American seminary at the Vatican. He left the ministry in 2016 when he came out as gay and moved to Toronto to be with his partner.

Last week, my partner and I had to put to sleep our beloved dog, who had been suffering from intervertebral disc disease. Cooper was like our baby and we are going through the heart-piercing grief that we all face when a member of our family passes. It is so difficult.

My partner Luc and I are grateful in this time of profound sadness to have the support of each other. We will remember the love that Cooper brought our little family and our love for one another will be the path out of this veil of tears. Some people have to navigate the valley of death on their own; at least Luc and I have each other on this journey, and we are grateful that we do not have to face this excruciating pain alone.

Also last week, sadly, the Vatican issued a statement refusing to bless same-sex unions because “it could not bless sin.” The Roman Catholic Church teaches that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered. Their statement last week was issued by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the doctrinal orthodoxy office that used to be called the Inquisition until a modernizing rebranding in 1965.

I wish the men at the Vatican could understand what is really at the core of same-sex unions. It’s the same thing that’s at the heart of any good relationship: love. But the Vatican seems to be hung up on genitalia; they would negate wholesale the entirety of a lifelong, committed, loving relationship because the genitalia of two men or two women don’t “fit” together. Their puerile fixation on genitalia is also at the root of the same systemic misogyny that excludes women from meaningful decision-making or from serving in pastoral leadership in one of the largest institutions on the planet.

I am not quite old enough to remember the height of the AIDS crisis. But as Pope John Paul II was ignoring complaints of child sex abuse while preventing Catholic agencies in Africa and elsewhere from distributing condoms, gay couples were loving each other as their bodies wasted away from the merciless virus. In many cases, facing rejection from their families of origin (and too often from their faith communities), gay couples had only each other.

I know the machinations of the Vatican better than most gay men. I lived there for four years in preparation for ordination to the priesthood. In my experience, there is a toxic kind of homosexuality that runs through the Vatican: it is closeted, bitter and hate-filled. Men struggling with their true nature end up either repressing their authentic selves or living double lives.

This toxic dysfunction becomes a prism through which many Vatican officials understand gay relationships. I get it. I know what self-hate feels like. It is both tragic and dangerous because that hatred has to go somewhere: it will be either projected outward or it will be turned inward in self-destructive ways. Suicide among priests for this reason is not unknown. When your own church tells you that a fundamental part of your being is intrinsically disordered, why should we be surprised that some people decide life is not worth living?

I am grateful that Luc rescued me from this soul-killing world. In coming out and allowing authenticity and wholeness in my life, I feel closer to the divine than I ever did as a priest in ministry. I wish this for all people, especially those priests who are struggling with their own sexuality. I wish for them – and for everyone who wrestles with self-acceptance – the freedom that comes from the experience of unconditional, divine love. In the words of the great theologian RuPaul, “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?”

In our grief, Luc and I are so grateful that we experienced Cooper’s unconditional love for us. The Vatican could learn something from our canine companions. It always comes down in essence to love, and love is love.

Just before his final moments, I gave Cooper the Catholic blessing as I made the sign of the cross over his dying body. I was a priest again for a moment. But really, at the end, it was Cooper who blessed me.

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