Monday, May 31, 2010

The Gay Purge in Catholic Seminaries: Washing the Gay Right Out of Our Hair

Paul Vitello reports today in the New York Times on the implementation of the Vatican directives that call for a gay purge in Catholic seminaries to resolve the abuse crisis in the Catholic church.  Fr. Jim Martin has posted valuable commentary on the article at America magazine’s blog.

Fr. Martin’s commentary notes (citing Mark Jordan of Harvard Divinity School) the irony of the Catholic church’s choice to purge gays from the priesthood, when a significant percentage of Catholic clergy are gay, as are a significant percentage of seminary professors and seminary directors, and of members of the hierarchy itself.  Grand irony, indeed—irony that moves beyond the merely ironic to the absurd (and the obscene).

Fr. Martin also notes the gradual but constant increase in the public’s meme blaming gays for the abuse crisis, despite numerous well-researched studies—including one funded by the U.S. Catholic bishops themselves—disproving that link.  One has to wonder if part of the reason Rome immediately scapegoated gay priests for the abuse crisis, despite abundant evidence that sexual orientation is a red herring issue, was precisely to plant in the mind of the public at large the misguided belief that sexual abuse of minors in the Catholic church is really all about gay priests.

Not about misuse of power by the hierarchy.  Many of whom happen to be gay themselves.  But who are shielded from inconvenient questions about their abuse of power and the injustice of blaming the abuse crisis on others by their adroit use of homophobia as they script a diversionary narrative about the crisis by purging gays from the priesthood.

As Fr. Martin points out, the inquisitorial atmosphere the current process of screening now fosters—and the purge of gay seminarians and priests—are hardly calculated to solve that core problem of abuse of power.  In fact, the inquisitorial atmosphere will far more likely foster the kind of shame and dissimulation that compound the abuse of clerical power that is at the very heart of the abuse crisis.  The atmosphere the current witch hunt is producing in seminaries will attract and produce psychologically unhealthy candidates for the priesthood, not mature, balanced, compassionate, pastorally astute clergy.

Finally, Fr. Martin notes that the current directives hinge everything on sexual orientation in a way that seems to undercut the Catholic Catechism itself, which recognizes the possibility that those who have a gay orientation can live virtuous and holy lives.

As Jim Martin does, I find two quotes in the Times article absolutely baffling.  One is the observation of Robert Palumbo, a psychologist who screens candidates for the seminary of the diocese of Brooklyn, that the Vatican guidelines have worked for Brooklyn.  “We have no gay men in our seminary at this time,” Palumbo says.

As I read that line, I can almost hear the cackles of laughter from gay households across the nation.  We know that line, and we know just how much trust to put in the observation.  We’ve heard the line over and over again—invariably as a prelude to some shocking disclosure down the road that will prove the person wishing the gay away from this institution or that workplace absurdly wrong.

We are everywhere. 

And the hubris (not to mention, outright stupidity) represented by the belief of some Catholic authority figures that they’ve washed the gay right out of the church’s hair positively invites an Aristotelian reversal of epic proportions in those seminaries now proudly announcing to the world that they’re gay-free.

I was also struck (as was Fr. Martin) by the conclusion of the Times article, which quotes Fr. Kevin Sweeney, vocations director for the Brooklyn diocese, making the following astonishing (and also profoundly ill-informed) observation:

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.

This is, of course, a reductionistic application of that theology of the body about which I’ve blogged in the past—a theology of male-female complementarity developed by Pope John Paul II, which absolutizes gender roles and their symbolic applications for the Catholic church.  This absolutization off what is meant to be metaphorical and not literal leads immediately to the most outré conclusions possible, when what is metaphoric is made literal in response to controversial contemporary issues.  An ill-advised literalism on full display in Fr. Sweeney's observations . . . .

Priests have to be male because the church is female, and it won’t do to have a female priest marrying herself to a female church.  And now, per Fr. Sweeny, the metaphorical ante is upped to another level: the male priest has to be heterosexual in order to symbolize the marriage of husband to wife that is at the core of the theology of the church and of the priesthood.

Metaphors are tricky things.  Absolutize any of them in a religious system based on metaphor, and you have to absolutize all of them, if you’re going to be logical, consistent, and fair.

But start down the path of literalistic logic in a religion of analogical imagination and you’ve set forth on a shaky path, indeed. In a religion whose Trinitarian God comprises (metaphorically) three male persons whose abounding love for each other is so overflowing that this divine love pours itself out to create the world . . . . And whose Savior figure was born of a virgin who never had intercourse with her husband—throughout their entire lives as a married couple, the church tells us.  But which now wants to literalize metaphors about gender and marriage and to make them central to everything . . . .

Perhaps absolutizing what is meant to be metaphorical is just not the route to go, if we want  to convince people to respect the truth claims of our religion.  And if we want to address serious, complex problems like the seemingly intractable abuse crisis in the Catholic church.  Or the crisis of finding and fostering psychologically balanced, pastorally astute clergy.

I vacillate between anger and indifference as I read comments like Palumbo’s and Sweeney’s.  Anger at the stupidity and the plain meanness that they (and many Catholics today) offer in lieu of thoughtful, humane, pastoral approaches to the problem of clerical sexual abuse of minors. 

And indifference because I can no longer sustain the anger I feel at the path my church’s leaders are choosing as they address the abuse crisis.  As a gay man, I’m happy to claim the distance the church has put between me and itself when I read remarks like those of Palumbo and Sweeney.  I'm happy to claim that distance as decisively as possible when an institution that professes to be all about love chooses to batten on stupidity and outright meanness, as it addresses the lives and needs of its gay members.

In its response to the abuse crisis and in the gay purge of its seminaries, the Catholic church is proving itself yet again profoundly toxic for gay and lesbian people.  The unexamined subtext of what Palumbo and Sweeney (and countless other Catholics) say today about the abuse crisis and homosexuality is an astoundingly hurtful subtext, and it is one all the more hurtful for being wrapped up in sugar-coated words about spiritual works of mercy and concern for the sinner even as we hate the sin.

The message that Palumbo and Sweeney (and many Catholics) are choosing to give to their brother and sister Catholics today—despite their disclaimers and their insincere professions of love for us—is simply cruel.  It is a message that our lives do not count and our gifts are not needed.  We are not wanted in the Catholic church, and we are not welcome there.

And that subtext will continue in the Catholic church, as long as centrist Catholics, who are the gatekeepers to the church’s public discourse, continue to allow it to roll forth unchallenged, even as they benefit from the silence of the hierarchy about the widespread rejection of Catholic sexual teachings re: heterosexual matters.  The damaging subtext will continue in the Catholic church, as well, as long as the real-life stories of real-life gay and lesbian Catholics, with all the pain those stories comprise, continue not to have any hearing at all in the church at large.

Amazingly, the Palumbos and Sweeneys of the church continue to maintain that the Catholic church is just and non-discriminatory towards those who are gay and lesbian, even when Catholic institutions continue to fire employees who are open about their sexual orientation, and even as Catholic leaders fight as hard as possible for the right to discriminate against gays and lesbians in hiring and firing.

And as they pour thousands and thousands of dollars into the battle to remove the right of civil marriage from gay citizens in states that have upheld that right, and to block civil marriage in other states as it comes under consideration.

The Catholic church is, at an institutional level, toxic today for those who are gay and lesbian.  As I read articles like Paul Vitello’s, and the hate-filled comments about those who are gay and lesbian that continue to plaster Catholic blogs—while the centrist gatekeepers who reject Catholic sexual teaching in their heterosexual lives maintain their silence—I continue to think that the best place possible for younger Catholics coming to terms with a gay or lesbian orientation today is as far as possible from the Catholic church.

P.S. I also recommend Mark Silk's pithy take on the seminary story today at Spiritual Politics.