Today’s front-page story in The New York Times, "Prospective Catholic Priests Face Sexuality Hurdles," by Paul Vitello, about the exclusion and weeding out of gay men from seminaries and religious formation houses, made for depressing reading. Why depressing? Several reasons.
First, the article laid bare the cognitive dissonance that theatens a church that relies on celibate gay priests to carry out much of its ministerial work, and yet sets into place policies which would bar those same kinds of men from future ministry. One of Vitello’s sources, Mark D. Jordan, the R. R. Niebuhr professor at Harvard Divinity School, “who has studied homosexuality in the Catholic priesthood,” and has also written extensively on it, called it an “irony” that “these new regulations are being enforced in many cases by seminary directors who are themselves gay.” Yes, irony.
Second is the notion that the sexual abuse crisis was primarily a question of gays in the priesthood. For one thing, the conflation of homosexuality with pedophilia has been disproven by almost every psychiatrist and psychologist. The studies are too numerous to mention. It was rebutted even by the U.S. bishops own study. ("At this point, we do not find a connection between homosexual identity and the increased likelihood of subsequent abuse from the data that we have right now," said Margaret Smith of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.) For another, the increasing number of gay priests entering ministry in the past few years, which critics point to as a stain on the priesthood, coincides with a diminution of sexual abuse cases in recent years. For another, the reason that you don’t see any public models of healthy, mature, celibate gay priests to counteract the stereotype of the pedophile gay priest, is that they are forbidden to speak out publicly. Or they are simply afraid.
And why wouldn’t they be? Vitello provides some context:
“It is impossible for them to come forward in this atmosphere,” said Marianne Duddy-Burke, the executive director of Dignity USA, an advocacy group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Catholics. “The bishops have scapegoated gay priests because gays are still an acceptable scapegoat in this society, particularly among weekly churchgoers.”
Of course it is impossible—or close to impossible--for them to come forward, particularly in dioceses where bishops have spoken out against them, and have said that they will no longer their kind as priests. What priest in Brooklyn (the focus of Vitello’s story) who is celibate and gay, is going to want to be honest about himself now? Particularly after this quote:
“We have no gay men in our seminary at this time,” said Dr. Robert Palumbo, a psychologist who has screened seminary candidates at the diocese’s Cathedral Seminary Residence in Douglaston, Queens, for 10 years. “I’m pretty sure of it.” Whether that reflects rigorous vetting or the reluctance of gay men to apply, he could not say. “I’m just reporting what is,” he said.
That brings us to a third depressing point, about “what is.” Psychologist in particular know how arduously that closeted gay men work at “passing” as straight men, often out of a deep-seated shame. Some spend their whole lives doing it. The goal of a zero-homosexual policy in seminaries, and the weeding out of gay seminarians, is bound to lead not to a climate of transparency and honesty, but to a culture of secrecy, dishonesty and hiddenness--which is one of the main things that led to the coverup of sexual abuse. It is one of the very things that everyone--conservative and liberal--agrees needed to be changed.
In other words, an inquisitorial approach will make it far less likely that a man might feel comfortable talking about his sexuality (straight or gay) to his superiors or formators. Several seminarians, and prospective seminarians, have written to me over the past few months describing their relucatance in mentioning any aspect of their sexuality to superiors for that reason. All sexuality, psychologists say, is on a spectrum: no one is “purely” straight or gay. So what happens when a straight seminarian discovers that he has some homosexual feelings? Will he bring his questions to a superior in a seminary where gays are excluded? Will he be encouraged to speak honestly, perhaps to a psychologist or counselor, so as to move towards greater integration and freedom? This is the kind of psychologically unhealthy, terror-driven, pressure-cooker environment that I thought everyone was against.
Fourth, the collision of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and current thinking. Here's what the Catechism says:
Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.
Apparently, some seminary directors believe that gay men cannot be chaste, or that they are more likely to be pedophiles. But that goes against the Catechism, which recommends chastity for gays and lesbians. So either you think that the Catechism is correct, and gays can be chaste. Or you think the Catechism is wrong; and they cannot be. The Catechism also states that gays and lesbians can “approach Christian perfection” through chastity. “Christian perfection” would obviously exclude sexual abuse. If that is the case, then not allow them into enter seminaries and religious orders?
In contrast to those who believe gays are completely unfit for the priesthood and religious life, Msgr. Stephen Rossetti (pictured above), a respected priest, psychologist and author, provides a measured and sensible approach to the question, which is, in my experience, somewhat more along the lines of what most dioceses and religious orders are doing these days:
Msgr. Stephen Rossetti, a psychologist at Catholic University who has screened seminarians and once headed a treatment center for abusive priests, said the screening could be “very intrusive.” But he added, “We are looking for two basic qualities: the absence of pathology and the presence of health.”
Msgr. Rossetti is not alone in his sensible approach. Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York told Catholic News Service in 2005 that he felt that a man who was homosexual and could fulfill all the Vatican requirements for a healthy emotional life "shouldn't be discouraged" from entering a seminary. Other bishops and religious superiors feel the same. As Rossetti suggested, they are looking for emotionally mature Catholic men who can live chastely and celibately, straight or gay. I wish Vitello, who is a fine religion-beat reporter and wrote a generally well-reported piece, had spent more time scouting around in other dioceses, even the New York archdiocese, for a fuller picture of how that seminaries and religious orders are handling this issue. On the other hand, as Vitello seemed to imply in his piece, it was hard to get anyone to talk.
And how depressing that is. In this time where “transparency” is seen as an essential value for a healthy church, we still cannot talk about this issue.
Fourth, the admission—in 2010—that some people are still confused by these issues of sexual orientation. “Some seminary directors were baffled by the word “orientation,” said Thomas G. Plante, a psychologist and the director of the Spirituality and Health Institute at Santa Clara University, who screens seminary candidates for several dioceses in California and nationwide.” Baffled by the word “orientation”? We are in trouble if “some seminary directors” don’t know what "orientation" means. Perhaps Plante simply meant that they were baffled by what the Vatican meant. Either way, we are in trouble.
But perhaps the most depressing thing about this article was the final quote, the “outro” as journalists say, from the vocation director of the Brooklyn diocese, in which he, on the one hand, admits that homosexuals have been good priests, but, on the other hand, say that they cannot be.
The Rev. Kevin J. Sweeney, whose incoming classes of three to five seminarians each year make him one of the more successful vocation directors in the country. Half of the nation’s seminaries have one or two new arrivals each a year, and one-quarter get none, according to a recent church study. Father Sweeney said the new rules were not the order of battle for a witch hunt. “We do not say that homosexuals are bad people,” he said. “And sure, homosexuals have been good priests.” “But it has to do with our view of marriage,” he said. “A priest can only give his life to the church in the sense that a man gives his life to a female spouse. A homosexual man cannot have the same relationship. It’s not about condemning anybody. It’s about our world view.”
Using the metaphor of marriage to the church to bar gays from orders is unhelpful. Is the only way to look a priestly vocation by comparing it to marriage? There are many other metaphors that one can use. You could suggest that the priest is the "servant leader," which doesn't imply any sort of marriage image. Or the "minister of the Word," which also doesn't imply a marital image. Or you could simply turn to the traditional image of the priest as the one who tries to be the alter Christus, the "other Christ." And, by the way, he wasn't married either.
A homosexual cannot, according to church teaching, have the same relationship that a straight man can. That is true. But the gay priest gives his life as fully to the church as a straight priest does. What's more, he gives up something that a straight priest does not: he gives up his dignity. He willingly makes that sacrifice, which a straight priest does not make. For unlike the straight priest, the gay priest serves a church that will not admit his existence, is trying to weed out future men like him serving, and, in general, increasingly treats his kind like a pariah.
James Martin, SJ