Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Abuse Crisis and the Gaying of the Priesthood: My Take on Liberal Catholic Analysis of the Issue

Last Friday, I blogged about Tom Roberts’ National Catholic Reporter commentary on the new interview process for Catholic seminaries in the U.S.  That process seeks to identify (and in many cases weed out) gay candidates for the priesthood.  As I talked through two areas in which Roberts’ commentary elicits my discomfort, I noted that, in my view, there’s an unacknowledged belief in the thinking of many Catholic liberals that the abuse crisis is really all about gay priests. 

I also noted that I suspect this unacknowledged belief is actually as prevalent, if not more prevalent, among liberal Catholics in the U.S. as among conservative ones.  It’s hard to bring to the surface for productive analysis, since it is usually talked about only sotto voce, among liberal Catholics talking to other liberal Catholics.  It is not brought to the table for honest discussion, even now, as we cope with another round of abuse revelations in Ireland, Germany, and other countries.

My posting argues that, among many liberal Catholics in the U.S., there is an unacknowledged homophobia that determines their outlook on and analysis of issues like clerical celibacy and the abuse crisis.  This is a point about which I’ve blogged a number of times in the past, but—at the risk of thoroughly boring regular readers of this blog—I’d like to say more about this issue now.

I’m doing so, in part, because one of the most incisive readers of Bilgrimage, Brian Gallagher, responded to my posting about these issues last week, asking me why I maintain that many liberal Catholics in the U.S. might approach the abuse crisis with homophobic presuppositions, and what could account for this liberal homophobia.

Here’s the first point I’d like to make, as I think through Brian’s questions: much mainstream media coverage of issues like the abuse crisis creates a neat liberal-conservative framework for discussion that doesn’t fit the more complicated reality of where people really are in their views about this and other moral or religious issues.  When we use that framework simplistically to conclude that conservatives are opposed to greater social and ecclesial acceptance of gays, while liberals are for such acceptance, we miss some important distinctions that are obscured by the liberal-conservative media paradigm.

Or so it seems to me. 

As my initial reply to Brian about this notes, I recognize that my experience is limited and my conclusions are therefore anecdotal and not well-researched, though I hope they’re well-informed.  With that proviso: my limited experience suggests to me that many liberal American Catholics of the post-Vatican II generation are convinced that, in the period after Vatican II, the priesthood became more and more gay.  And, for many liberal Catholics who believe this is the case, this observation—that the priesthood began gaying after Vatican II—is, indeed, an explanatory factor for the clerical sexual abuse crisis.

Why did this viewpoint—that the priesthood has become largely a gay enterprise, and that gay priests are to a great extent responsible for the abuse crisis (though we don’t want to say the latter point too loudly)—make such inroads among liberal Catholics in the post-Vatican II period?

It did so, I would argue, because the Catholic theological academy in that generation has been significantly affected by the exodus of priests and nuns from the priesthood and religious life.  And by seminarians who did not receive ordination, but who left the seminary, in many cases, to marry.

When I began teaching theology in Catholic universities in the mid-1980s, almost every theology department in which I taught or about which I had knowledge had a significant proportion of former priests, former nuns, and former seminarians—many of whom had left their previous vocations to marry—teaching in the department.  In many ways, this is a predictable sociological phenomenon.

These are folks who had previously “done” religion as a profession, after all.  In most cases, the church had also provided them with a theological education that included graduate degrees in theology.

It made sense for them, after they left the nest that previously provided for them, to seek employment in theology departments of Catholic universities.  (Not all Catholic universities of this period welcomed former priests, however.  And many bishops had strong problems with permitting former priests who had married to take positions in Catholic universities in their dioceses.)

And here’s where the anecdotal evidence enters the picture: from the time I began to teach theology in Catholic universities, I began to hear mutterings from many of my colleagues about how the gays had taken over seminaries, rectories, convents.  How they had driven “normal” people out of the priesthood and religious life.  How a network of gay bishops and priests, who had significant power in the church, made it difficult for these “normal” former priests and nuns, many of whom had married each other, to find a place in the church or jobs in Catholic institutions.

As my response to Brian last Friday notes, one of my colleagues in a theology department in which I previously taught, who was a former nun married to a former priest, actually said this to me outright: that the church treats gays far better than it does married heterosexual folks.  Because the church is controlled by a network of closeted gay bishops and priests who open doors for gay folks but slam the doors shut for heterosexual married couples like her and her husband.  And she also noted that she and her husband had founded the local chapter of the Catholic Theological Society of America, in part, to provide a new church home for the many other former priests and nuns teaching theology at Catholic universities in the area.

What made her statements mind-boggling for me is that, at the very time this colleague made them, she was working fast and furious to keep my partner Steve from obtaining a job in our own university’s theology department, after he had been dumped by the Catholic seminary at which he was teaching, though the faculty and students of the seminary had voted for him to receive tenure.  

He was denied tenure when the rector of the university, now an archbishop, unilaterally chose to override the recommendation of faculty and students and deny Steve tenure, while claiming that the seminary could not pay Steve’s pitifully low salary as a layperson, which had not risen in six years.  And the rector did all of this at a point when almost all schools had already hired their faculty for the following year.

The campaign of my colleague who was a married former nun to block Steve’s employment in our theology department after this resulted in difficult economic and personal upheaval for us.  When he could not find a job to help sustain our shared life, we had to seek jobs elsewhere, sell our house, and move on.  Nor did it ever seem to occur to my college that there is a question of about justice when lay people like Steve and me had paid for our own theological educations, scrimping and saving every inch of the way, while her own education as a nun and her husband’s as a former Jesuit were funded to the hilt by the church.  Which afforded them jobs immediately when they left the priesthood and religious life and married!

Nor was this an isolated incident, or the only time I have heard, as a theologian, similar comments from colleagues.  I have even heard precisely the same analysis from another former priest also married to a former nun, a priest who happened to be gay.  This priest, who once had decisive influence as a theologian, imagined that all of his colleagues understood that he was gay and had married only because he and his wife-to-be (who frequently told friends she was disinterested in sex) needed companionship.  And yet I knew he was gay only because he told me this.  I never heard anyone who knew this priest identify him as gay.

Both he and his wife spoke often in Steve’s and my presence of the problems the church was encountering as the priesthood became more and more gay.  Both viewed this purported development in terms of representation: if more than 90% of Catholics are heterosexual, then surely more than 90% of our priests ought to be straight and not gay.  Otherwise, straight Catholics feel uncomfortable and under-represented in a church whose priesthood has increasingly become gay.

And so why do I link the domination of the Catholic theological academy in the U.S. in the post-Vatican II period by former priests, nuns, and seminarians, many of whom left their previous vocations to marry, to the undercurrent of homophobia that, in my view, strongly determines how many liberal Catholics in the U.S. view issues like the abuse crisis and clerical celibacy?

I do so because these are the voices that claimed the center of the Catholic theological academy after Vatican II.  And they have replicated themselves in the next generation of theologians teaching in the academy, by hiring, if not former priests, nuns, and seminarians (since that pool has dried up), then lay theologians who share their views about these issues.  I know of almost no Catholic theology departments in the U.S., even today, in which lay theologians who happen to be gay or lesbian make their identity public, or would be accepted if they did so.

I link the sociological make-up of the Catholic theological academy in the U.S. following Vatican II to homophobic analysis of the clerical abuse crisis as well because, through their influence from the center of the academy, this generation of theologians has had (and continues to have) enormous influence on how the mainstream media, as well as many centrist Catholic publications, perceive Catholic issues.

These are the folks who have, to a great extent, held their feet firmly against the door as their gay and lesbian colleagues in Catholic universities have struggled to deal with the excruciating demands of the closet, or have tried to come out of the closet, expecting colleagues who talk constantly about love, mercy, justice, and inclusion of all to support their coming out.

These are the folks who continue to keep questions like what gay and lesbian faculty experience in Catholic universities (or what gay and lesbian employees experience working for Catholic institutions) off the table for discussion.  These are the folks who want us to be invisible, even as they talk about inviting everyone to the table.  These are the folks who want to extol the Catholic church’s teaching about human rights and social justice without ever once admitting that the deplorable record of the church vis-a-vis its gay employees and gay members (a record in which they themselves are complicit) completely undercuts all that the church says about human rights and social justice.

These are the folks—not Catholics of the right, who have insignificant influence here—who have crafted, in the period following Vatican II, a powerful theological academy at whose meetings the question of how the church treats gays and lesbians is never once brought to the table for discussion, even as we talk on and on about the marginal and our need to stand in solidarity with those on the margins.

And I absolutely have to note that there have been and there still are a few prophetic spokespersons in the Catholic theological academy of the U.S. who happen to be married former priests or nuns, and who have fought courageously for the rights of their gay and lesbian colleagues.  But those spokespersons have been far too few, and are significantly overridden by colleagues who refuse to stand in solidarity with those who are gay and lesbian, even when, in their own married lives, they reject Catholic sexual teachings about the use of artificial contraception.

And this is why I have argued, over and over again on this blog, that the institutional homophobia of American Catholicism will not decisively shift unless these centrist Catholics, who have become the gatekeepers of our theological conversations and of media conversations about Catholic theological issues, put their homophobic cards on the table and allow those cards to be seen and discussed.

The graphic for this posting is from Karine Barzilai-Nahon's e-karine.org—Information and Society blog.