Monday, August 16, 2010

Colm Tóibín on Gay Culture in the Catholic Hierarchy: Now You See, Now You Don't

Irish writer Colm Tóibín’s review of Angelo Quattrocchi’s The Pope Is Not Gay in this week’s London Review of Books is one of the most brilliant statements on the Catholic clerical sexual abuse crisis I’ve yet seen.  Artists see, by profession.  Tóibín sees what many of us who lack the novelist’s eye otherwise miss, as we look at the abuse crisis.  The telling nuances, the all-important occlusions, the skull beneath (and hidden by) the skin . . . . 

And that Tóibín sees specifically as a gay man raised in a heavily Catholic culture whose church has been decimated by the abuse crisis matters significantly.  His analysis of how a twisted and vitriolic, hidden but omnipresent and pervasive homosexuality in the culture of the Catholic hierarchy turns into cynical blame of openly gay men as a diversionary tool in narratives about the church’s role in the crisis is breathtaking.  And undeniable: Tóibín not only sees what’s there.  He also makes us see.

As he notes, the problem of seeing—the problem that clouds our ability to see what is there and yet not there in the clerical culture of the church—is inbuilt in the very motivations that have long led young gay teens in Catholic communities to embrace the priesthood.  Entering the homoerotic culture of a male elite whose powerful ritual role in the church depends on cross-dressing (and how bright, how fabulous the couture!) has long required gay candidates for the priesthood to know and not to know—to know at some level they were gay, but to deny that reality at other levels.

Tóibín speaks from his own experience as an Irish teen who considered a clerical vocation:

That you were gay was something you managed to know about yourself and not know at the same time. I am almost certain, for example, that when I was warned by a priest at school that a boy who had parted his hair in the middle had by this act given a sign that he was homosexual (the only time the term was mentioned in those years), the priest himself had no clear and open idea that he himself liked teenage boys. (He would spend time in jail more than 20 years later for abusing teenage boys.) He would have had a way, learned for good reasons in adolescence, of keeping some of his actions and desires secret from himself. His sense of power and entitlement would also have meant that such crimes as he committed would most likely not see the light of day. The priesthood had, as far as he was concerned, solved his problems for him.

As Tóibín notes, when self-acceptance allows a gay or lesbian person to build a bridge between the two halves of this double consciousness—yes, church and society stigmatize my very nature, but, yes, this is my nature and it is good and holy because it comes from God—creativity and spirituality can flourish.  Tóibín notes that many gay priests have been exemplary priests precisely because they are gay and have come to terms with this stigmatized, precious fact about their humanity:

The struggle between our knowledge and their prejudice often meant that a spiritual element in our being – something private, wounded, solitary and self-aware – had reason to come to the fore and seek nourishment in a close relationship to God. This is another reason so many gay men have become priests.

And then there are those—notably among the princes of the church—for whom the gay identity remains problematic, hidden, often even to themselves.  Even when it is glaringly obvious to those who scrutinize the “red shoes from Prada that would take the eyes out of you.” These are the ones who issue the diktats that rain misery down on their gay brothers and sisters, who inscribe terms like “intrinsically disordered” in the lexicon of ecclesial and secular culture as more and more gay persons begin to recognize that being gay is natural, God-given, the wellspring of spiritual life for those made this particular way by God.

Here’s how Tóibín, with his novelist’s sensibility, describes some of the princes of the church, in whom the double consciousness never finds a healthy bridge, and who appear often to become remarkably twisted and disordered in their natures, when it comes to finding compassion for and understanding of their gay brothers and sisters:

In Czestochowa in August 1991 after morning Mass said by the pope, I was wandering around the monastery of Jasna Gora when something caught my eye in the cloisters below. Twelve cardinals and more than 200 bishops were being disrobed of their splendid and colourful vestments by a swarm of nuns. A prelate, fresh from the altar, would stand with his arms in the air while two nuns removed his richly coloured vestments and carried them to a clothes rack to hang up, leaving the prince of the church with his hair tousled, wearing only black. A few years later, on Easter Sunday, as I wandered around the inside of St Peter’s in Rome after Mass, I noticed vast numbers of bishops and cardinals, all in their regalia. Since the sun was shining, some of them had the most beautiful seminarians or young priests standing behind them holding yellow umbrellas over their heads. It was a sight for sore eyes.

And so the bind in which the princes of the church now find themselves, as they dictate moral rules to the rest of us: given all the recent revelations about abuse and its cover-up, given what we now know, we do, of course, listen when they speak.  But listening, we also see—and we can no longer help seeing, seeing what we saw before but which escaped our attention, since one knew but was not supposed to know:

However, rather than listening to this message or bowing our heads as he [Pope Benedict] offers us his blessing, because of what has happened, because of a new suspicion which even the most reverent feel about the clergy, we will find ourselves examining Ratzinger’s clothes and his accessories, his gestures, and checking behind him for a glimpse of the gorgeous Georg  [Gänswein] with whom he spends so much of his day.

And therein lies the tragedy of the pastoral leadership of the Catholic church at this moment of history, the tragic reason for its inability to build coherent, convincing bridges between the message the church seeks to proclaim and a secular culture desperately in need of that message.  It’s all about admitting what we know and see, and moving forward from there.

But admitting what we know and see is not the game the princes of the church intend to play.