Friday, June 4, 2010

Tom Roberts on the Purge of Gays from Catholic Seminaries: Start of Honest Conversation about Sexuality Issues and Priesthood?

Ever since reading Tom Roberts' National Catholic Reporter reflections on this week's New York Times article about the gay purge of Catholic seminaries (and here), I have felt itchy.  Something in Roberts' response to the purge and the process by which gays are being weeded out of Catholic seminaries has made me itch with questions I couldn't quite put my finger on.

Now that I've thought about precisely what troubles me in Roberts' analysis, I've just posted a response at NCR.  I'll append it below.

Two of Roberts' points bother me.  One is the claim that the interrogation process now being used by seminaries to weed gay candidates out is the start of an honest conversation about human sexuality among priests and bishops.

I have serious reservations about that assertion.  As my response below notes, I wonder how any conversation in which one party (those asking the questions to weed out gay candidates) has all the power in his hands, while the other party (those being interrogated) has no power, can possibly be either honest or a conversation at all.  The process being used by Catholic seminaries to detect gay candidates is by its very nature coercive.  It does not rise to the level of either authenticity or conversation.

Second, Roberts' off-handed way of acknowledging that this start at candid conversation is all bound up with homophobia bothers me tremendously.  Here's what he says about this issue:

Some might argue that the motivation in part, to rid the seminaries of gay candidates, is at best questionable and at worst homophobic and hypocritical, given the significant percentage of gays in the priesthood.
But any start at candid conversation can only be beneficial.

What these statements communicate to me is this: homophobia is perhaps an unhappy price to pay for the start we're now making to candid conversation about issues of sexuality in the priesthood.  But it's a necessary price.

As my response to Roberts' assertions notes, I suspect that hidden inside the off-handed way in which he admits that "some might argue" that there's a homophobic starting-point for our new "conversation" is an unacknowledged belief that, at base, the abuse crisis is really all about gay priests, about the presumed domination of the priesthood by gays.  As my response states, I think that this unacknowledged belief is actually as prevalent, if not more prevalent, among liberal Catholics in the U.S. as among conservative Catholics.

It is not vocalized, except sotto voce.  It is never brought to the table for honest discussion.

Yet it is there, determining the outlook of many liberal Catholics as they look at issues like clerical celibacy and the abuse crisis.  The unacknowledged homophobia with which many liberal Catholics approach these issues is right at the heart of their continued willingness to go on speaking as if their gay brothers and sisters are simply not there, as they discuss human rights.  Or justice and charity.  Or the church's call to signify God's universal salvific embrace of each and every human being.

And so my response to Roberts, which I've just posted at NCR:

I agree with the conclusion of this article--the really significant questions aren't being asked in these interviews, if we want to get to the heart of the abuse crisis and address it effectively.

But I'm also disappointed by some of the article's assertions.

First, I don't see these interviews in any way fostering the "honest discussions" of sexuality we need.  Interrogations in which one party has all the power hardly rise to the level of discussion.  And for the same reason their honesty is compromised from the outset.

Second, "Some might argue that the motivation in part, to rid the seminaries of gay candidates, is at best questionable and at worst homophobic . . ." is quite an understatement.  The homophobic intent of this interrogation process is written right into the Vatican directives demanding the process.

I think what "some might argue" is that homophobia is not a warrant sufficient to question the entire process and its motivation.  "Some might argue" this because "some might" believe, at unacknowledged levels, that the abuse crisis really is all about the prevalence of gays in the priesthood.  Though that belief is not acknowledged and talked about, it is every bit as prevalent in the liberal wing of the contemporary church as in its conservative wing--in fact, it's perhaps more prevalent among liberal than conservative Catholics.

The candid conversation the church needs to have about issues of sexuality can't throw Catholic homophobia casually over its shoulder--not if it wants to be honest.  And effective at reaching the real roots of the crisis, which have to do with abuse of clerical power and privilege.