Thursday, June 10, 2010

John McNeill on the Elimination of the All-Male, Celibate Priesthood in the Catholic Church

One of the gifts the internet has given us is the opportunity to read blogs by scholars of the stature of John McNeill.  Previously, those following the work of a significant thinker like John have had to wait for articles and books to be published, to benefit from that thinker’s latest insights.

Now, through his blog, we have the benefit of John’s thinking about particular issues on an ongoing basis, as his ideas take shape, and as he responds to events happening right now.  John’s latest posting at his Spiritual Transformation blog allows us, for instance, to see his response to the current witch-hunt for gay candidates seeking entrance to the Catholic priesthood.  We can read this response in “real time,” as it were, right now, as the new inquisitorial system gets underway in Catholic seminaries in the U.S.

Several points strike me as I read this posting.  First, there’s helpful commentary about what happened in that period following Vatican II in which many heterosexual priests left the priesthood to marry—a period I tracked several days ago, as I examined how that sociological phenomenon has affected the Catholic theological academy and the media which rely on the academy for understanding of Catholic issues.  As I noted, one of the effects of the exodus of many priests to marry in this period (and of nuns leaving convents for the same reason) was to implant a hidden homophobic subtext in the Catholic theological academy’s analysis of issues like clerical celibacy and the abuse crisis.

John offers a helpful complement to my approach here.  He points out that the purported “gay subculture” in the priesthood, which some of those leaving blamed for their choice to leave, was already there, insofar as there already were significant numbers of gay men in the priesthood.  It did not suddenly burgeon following Vatican II.  In some places, it simply became somewhat visible as many priests left to marry.

(An aside here: though many folks talk about lavender rectories and coteries of openly gay men in the priesthood in some dioceses and religious communities in the U.S. in recent years, I have never encountered this phenomenon anywhere.  As a theologian who has rubbed shoulders with clerics because of my vocation, and as someone living in a long-term gay relationship who gradually came out of the closet during my years teaching theology, I certainly would have had the opportunity to see that gay subculture up close—if it exists.

I didn’t.  I do know of circles of gay priests within some dioceses and religious communities, and I’ve met members of those circles.  In my experience, they’re deeply closeted, fearful of reprisal if they come out of the closet, and without any institutional power at all.  And they certainly do not share their clerical business or how they deal with issues of sexual orientation freely with non-clerics.  The line forbidding frank clerical communication with layfolks about intra-clerical business remains very strong in the Catholic church.

This is not to say that I doubt that there’s a sizable number of closeted—and self-hating—gay men in the Catholic hierarchy, and that they have considerable influence.  But they use that influence not to protect and promote their gay brothers in the priesthood.  They use the influence to keep others as closeted as they themselves are, and to oppress lay Catholics [and non-Catholics] who happen to be gay and unwilling to deny or hate their God-given nature.)

John notes one effect that the exodus of priests to marry following Vatican II had on gay priests: it shoved the burden of keeping the priesthood alive onto the shoulders of gay priests.  Who accepted that burden, in many cases, with all the added work it entailed, as many priests left following Vatican II.

But who received no rewards from the hierarchy for their hard work, and whose contribution to keeping alive the church of the post-Vatican II period will never be acknowledged by a hierarchy that prefers to stigmatize and closet gays, rather than to admit the value of any gifts we bring to the church.

Having laid this groundwork for his analysis of the current witch hunt to identify openly gay candidates for the priesthood and weed them out, John argues that the Spirit is at work in the church today to dismantle the clerical system on which Rome has staked the future of the church—the all-male, celibate clerical system to whose maintenance every other need in the church has been subjugated.

Gay priests have kept the church alive in the post-Vatican II period.  Now Rome wants to bar gays from the priesthood—while maintaining an all-male, celibate priesthood.  The end result is that the priesthood is graying (rather than gaying), fewer men are entering the priesthood, and so it’s dying.

In John’s view, this Spirit-led phenomenon is right in line with two key imperatives of Vatican II.  The council “began a process by which the Church will be transformed from a patriarchal monarchy into a spirit guided democracy.”

The first effect of that move on the part of the Vatican council is that authority will be increasingly manifested not from the top of the church down, but from the bottom up to the top.  In the “democratic church of the Holy Spirit,” in which the laity are every bit as much church as are clerics, there is an imperative for church leaders to hear the voice of the people of God.

Second, Vatican II reaffirmed a traditional Catholic doctrine that was often lost sight of in the church of the Tridentine and Vatican I period: this is the recognition that we have a sacred obligation to follow our conscience, which is the voice of God speaking in the depths of our hearts and minds.  John draws a powerful conclusion from Vatican II’s reaffirmation of traditional Catholic teaching on the authority of conscience:

This decree makes clear that the voice of God which we must obey is the voice that speaks directly to us in our experience of life and not through any exterior intermediary. Discernment of spirits must become the modus operandi in the church. For the leadership to know what God wants them to do they must prayerfully carry out a discernment of spirits in dialogue with the people of God.

In John’s view, these two democratic insights of the Second Vatican Council—that authority flows from the bottom of the church up to the top rather than down from the top; and that the primacy of conscience must be respected as the faithful discern the Spirit’s leading in their lives—assure that ministry of the future will have a very different shape than the shape it has taken in the recent past in the Catholic church.  Catholic  ministry will no longer be defined primarily by recourse to the model of all-male, celibate clerical ministry.  There will be increasing emphasis on the ministry of all believers, of the call of the Spirit in the life of each believer.

And who knows, given the Spirit’s delight in surprises, many of those called may turn out to be the very same gay folks that Catholic officials work so hard to bar from church life and ministry.  The same people who, in hidden, unacknowledged ways, have carried the burdens of much ministry in the church up to now, even as the hierarchy informs the world that gay folks are defective human beings whose ability to be models of exemplary holiness is extremely dubious.