Friday, November 7, 2008

Rome and Gay Seminarians: No Wounds Need Apply

The new "Guidelines for the Use of Psychology in the Admission and Formation of Candidates for the Priesthood" released 30 October by the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education feature a novel new analysis of the danger of psychological “wounds” in seminarians. I haven’t seen anyone commenting on this aspect of the document, which calls for the exclusion of seminarians with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” who show themselves incapable of overcoming this “grave immaturity.”

The preoccupation of this document on priestly formation with psychological “wounds” is fascinating—and dangerous. It deserves attention. It does so precisely because it is dangerous language, volatile rhetoric likely to have unforeseen consequences for our understanding of what ministry is all about.

Today’s Clerical Whispers blog uploads the text of the new document
( In the relatively brief text of the document, I count four explicit references to psychological wounds and the need of those forming priests to identify, assess, and help heal these wounds before a priesthood candidate is ordained.

On the face of it, this is a benign and even laudable approach to priestly formation—and one that has been going on for some time now. Thomas Merton wrote essays in the period immediately following Vatican II about the upside and downside of the use of psychological screening by religious communities. The use of psychological screening of priesthood candidates and the exclusion of those considered psychologically immature is nothing new at all in the Catholic church.

What is new in the current document is its strong insistence that gay seminarians are wounded, and must not be ordained until they begin addressing and healing their wound with the assistance of psychotherapy. The spurious psychology underlying this document, which links a gay sexual orientation to psychological immaturity, and thus to “woundedness,” moves with inexorable logic to the conclusion that gay seminarians who do not renounce (“heal”) their “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” will remain wounded in a way that makes them unfit for pastoral ministry.

In case anyone doubts that this is the analysis the document pushes, she/he should hear what Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, prefect of the Congregation that released the document, has to say about this matter. As Clerical Whispers reported several days ago, at a press conference following the document’s release, Cardinal Grocholewski “reiterated that even celibate homosexuals cannot be ordained to the priesthood” (

As he did so, he helpfully noted,

Therefore it [i.e., a “deep-seated homosexual tendency”] is a type of wound in the exercise of the priesthood, in forming relations with others. And precisely for this reason we say that something isn’t right in the psyche of such a man. We don’t simply talk about the ability to abstain from these kinds of relations.

“A type of wound.” “Something isn’t right in the psyche.” “Grave immaturity.” A wound in "forming relations with others." What the Vatican is driving at with its new document, the good cardinal suggests, is the long-debunked bogus psycho-developmental explanation of homosexual orientation as arrested development.

In the view of therapists who once “explained” a gay orientation as arrested development, the man or woman who fixates erotically on members of the same sex has not matured beyond what is an acceptable stage of psychological development for a budding adolescent, but is unacceptable in a mature adult. This “explanation” of the genesis of a gay sexual orientation was decisively repudiated by the American Psychiatric Association as long ago as 1973, when carefully conducted comparison studies of the psychological maturity of gay and straight men failed to show any correlation at all between psychological immaturity (or other forms of psychological pathology) and sexual orientation.

The 1973 APA rejection of this spurious arrested-development “explanation” of “wounded” gays in need of therapy has been repeatedly upheld by across-the-board consensus in all therapeutic and medical communities, until it is now considered incontrovertible. Except by the Vatican, apparently. And by right-wing evangelical Christians for whom biblical “evidence” trumps scientific.

It’s bad enough that the Vatican document seeks to resurrect bad science after over a quarter century of resounding rejection of that bad science among professionals qualified to judge whether the science is valid. In my view, however, what makes this document particularly dangerous is its insistence that a wounded priest must necessarily be a bad priest. For a religion founded on a bedrock principle that wounds are efficacious, this would appear to be a highly suspect line of thought to entertain.

By his wounds we are healed, and by his stripes are we made whole. Catholic churches around the world feature depictions of the open wounds of a Christ who is said to be the savior of humanity because blood flows from those wounds to those in need of healing.

Three times Paul asked the Lord to remove the thorn from his side, and the Lord replied, “My grace is enough for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). This led Paul to conclude that his effectiveness as an apostle was directly—genetically—related to his wound: “When I am weak, then I am strong.”

Over the course of Christian history, Paul’s text has consistently been used as the locus classicus to describe what apostleship and ministry are all about: it is the wounded who reach out to heal the wounds of others. It is through their own wounds that healers learn to see and care about the wounds of others.

Christian churches have historically been chock-full of wounds—of pictures, carvings, windows depicting people exhibiting wounds, of light emanating from wounded hands and feet, of saints holding gouged-out eyes on trays, of saints carrying their gashed-off breasts. Decapitated, boiled in oil, tied to the stake and relieved of digits one by one: we've got it all, and more aplenty. Being wounded is now a bad thing? An unholy thing? Something other than the premier path to sanctity, now?

I think that, were he still living, Dutch priest-theologian Henri Nouwen would find Rome’s new document—the Vatican’s novel attempt to shove all the negative “stuff” of a clerical system badly malfunctioning in the abuse crisis onto the backs of uniquely wounded gay priests and gay seminarians—shocking, indeed. Nouwen, whose identity as a gay man was not made public until after his death, wrote a book called the Wounded Healer in 1979.

In that book, he uses the rich bedrock theological, mystical, and iconographical traditions that I have just described to talk about the effective pastor as the wounded pastor. Nouwen employs Jung’s archetype of the wounded healer to suggest that the healer's wounds are an entry point to understanding and solidarity of those who are wounded.

In other words, being wounded in some essential respect, accepting this, and caring enough to reach beyond one’s own wounded condition, is a sine qua non to good ministry. Without wounds, we don't reach beyond ourselves.

Strange, indeed, isn’t it, that the Vatican should now try to convince the world that “wounded” gay priests and seminarians are unfit? Is it possible, I wonder, that the new document is seeking quite specifically to counteract a growing awareness among many layfolks that gay priests are often outstanding priests precisely because they are gay?

Nouwen makes the connection between his sexual orientation (which he struggled hard to accept and apparently never acted on sexually) and his efficacious ministry in journals that were not published until he had died. In the period following the publication of his Wounded Healer book and the posthumous publication of his journals, a virtual mystique has developed around the notion that gay priests who struggle to accept their sexual orientation while remaining celibate are among the finest priests in the church.

Rome seems discontent with that conclusion. It’s a conclusion that “legitimizes” homosexuality in that it implies that a gay sexual orientation is value-free, a given, a wound only insofar as it allows the one bearing it to understand and care about the unmerited suffering of others.

The Vatican doesn’t want that analysis. It opens the door for those who have not made vows of celibacy and who do not have to reject their “wound” by repudiating marriage to accept ourselves and seek healthy bonds of intimacy with others. Rome cannot and will not have that possibility, because entertaining the possibility would call for a reassessment of the whole house of cards of Catholic sexual teaching, with its lugubrious fixation on acts and not relationships.

Better to continue asking gay people to consider ourselves "wounded," "intrinsically disordered" in our very personhood, regardless of whether we commit "intrinsically disordered" acts or not. Better to continue calling on gay Christians to bear the cross in a unique way that transcends the call to cross-bearing issued to all Christians. Better to keep on representing gay people as unique signs of the fallen state of postlapsarian creation.

More’s the pity, in a church founded on the bedrock insight that the healing of a fallen world begins in wounds and that wounded healers are effective healers.