Monday, March 21, 2011

Father John Corapi and the Manly-Man Model of the Priesthood: Survey of Recent Discussion

As I follow the news that another of the manly man hero-priests beloved of the Catholic right, Father John Corapi of EWTN fame, has been put on leave due to allegations of sexual misconduct with adult women (and drug abuse), I’m fascinated by a spin-off conversation now developing on some Catholic websites in the wake of the news about Corapi.  This is a conversation about precisely how and in what specific ways the Catholic church is now benefiting (or not) from its fixation of late on recovering the manly-man model for its priests.

Before I point you to sites at which that important conversation is now taking place, a brief comment about the situation framing the discussion.  Corapi himself broke the news of his having been put on leave with a recent statement at his blog site noting that he’s been charged with “multiple sexual exploits” with several adult women and with “drug addiction.”  Corapi denies the charges, and maintains that Catholic officials are now putting priests against whom non-credible allegations have been made on probation.

I don’t intend to comment on Corapi’s guilt or innocence, or the basis by which any church official may have put him on leave.  It’s not even clear whether Corapi is under scrutiny by a bishop or bishops since, as his blog posting notes, the woman making allegations about him wrote to three bishops, or if it is his religious superiors who have chosen to act.   He belongs to the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity.

It would be inappropriate of me to comment in any way about the guilt or innocence or procedural aspects of Corapi’s case, since I know nothing about the particulars—and he certainly deserves to be regarded as innocent until proven guilty (though I have seen no evidence at all to corroborate the claim that priests are being removed from ministry on the basis of tenuous, non-credible charges).  His case is somewhat different from that of Father Thomas Euteneuer, against whom charges of sexual misconduct with adult women have also been made, in that 1) Euteneuer admitted his guilt in at least one of the several cases about which there has been discussion of credible charges made, and 2) his admission was confirmed both by his former employer, Human Life International, and by the Diocese of Palm Beach, Florida, both of which revealed that they had already known of the charges against Euteneuer when he made them public.  And HLI’s statement about the matter indicated that there were charges in addition to the one to which his admission of guilt specifically responded.

I know little about Corapi except what I’ve seen when I occasionally flick through the offerings of EWTN, and then just as quickly click the television off.  I’ll freely admit I find him unappealing.  I can’t listen to him go on and on about his doctrinal certainties at the EWTN site without feeling queasy.  I had never specifically identified the queasiness as a reaction to the hyper-macho shtick about which there’s now discussion in the wake of the recent news about him.

I had thought of it more as a regional or perhaps even a class reaction: it’s the bullying tone, the shouting, the murdering of the king’s English, and the muddy, nasal, vowel-garbling accent that I find off-putting, as I listen to him.  And, yes, the anti-intellectual certitude with which he offers his reductionist, oh-so-certain understanding of the doctrines about which he preaches.

As I say, I had chalked my visceral reaction up to the fact that I just don’t seem to fit into the normative paradigms of American Catholicism, which emanate from urban centers of the Northeast and Midwest far from home for me.  And so when I read my way through comments about Corapi on some thread at one of the “In All Things” discussions at America in the past year (I'm sorry: I can't remember which thread this was), and read one glowing comment after another about Corapi by Catholic men logging in to praise Corapi’s scintillating theology and even the speaking style and rhetoric I find so repulsive, I just shrugged my shoulders and decided that, once again, the movers and shakers of American Catholicism don’t seem to have much room for me and my kind.

Now, though, I’m beginning to wonder: it may well have been the macho shtick to which I was reacting all along, without knowing it.  I’m wondering about this because, as I scan various Catholic blog sites recently for information about the Corapi case, I’ve happened on a fascinating discussion at several sites—a discussion of that manly-man fixation among some American Catholics who believe that the ills of the priesthood in the late 20th century had everything to do with the loss of machismo in the priesthood.  And who prescribe a return to clerical machismo as the way out of the deep crisis in which the church now finds itself.   And Corapi is at the center of this discussion because—I discover—he represents for a strong, mobilized group of followers precisely the kind of priestly machismo we need in order to cure the ills of American Catholicism.

I became aware of this discussion a day or so ago through something Elizabeth Scalia posted at her Anchoress site.   Scalia notes that Max Lindenmann had recently blogged about “types” of priests and why no one type is better than another.  Scalia excerpts a piece of Lindenmann’s commentary that, in fact, mentions a young priest in his (Phoenix) diocese for whom folks are predicting an illustrious future—a priest who sports what Lindenmann calls “the Fr. Corapi Starter Kit,”  an “aggressively shaven dome” and “a goatee fit for an outlaw biker or a king’s musketeer.”  And this young Corapi knock-off strides rather than walks, intones rather than speaks.

Scalia comments (bold-face in the original):  

Now I rather love priests with a bit of Spencer Tracy gruffness to them, but I love the soft-spoken sorts, too. 

Oddly enough, Fr. Mychal Judge was one of the first on the ground to die in the mess of 9/11.

I'm not quite sure why Scalia thinks it was odd that Mychal Judge was one of the first to die on the ground in the 9/11 events.  What she doesn’t say, of course, but what many readers will well know, is this: Mychal Judge was an openly gay priest.  He was, in short, precisely the kind of priest the prescribers of the Corapi manly-man fix are now insisting is at the root of the problem in American Catholicism.  He was the kind of priest they are working very hard to root out of all seminaries, in order to introduce a generation of priests who buy the Fr. Corapi Starter Kit.

Who will cure all that ails us.

And here’s Lindenmann himself on this prescription for the American Catholic church:

If instruction in the seminaries is taking a similar tone, conflating a call to holiness aimed at the soul with an appeal to the male ego (located guess where), then somebody's playing a very dangerous game. Masculine pride is a naturally volatile substance. In a system where masculinity and femininity are rigidly defined and polarized, it becomes machismo, the psychological equivalent of nitroglycerine. It can make men behave in ways that are ridiculous at best, atrocious at worst. Think Mike Dukakis in the tank. No, better, think Tom wedding Katie.

Lindenmann’s reference to “a similar tone” is a reference to the manly-man-as-cure analysis of Todd Aglioro in a Catholic Culture essay entitled “The New Catholic Manliness”—about which more in a moment.  For now, here’s where Lindenmann is going with the “similar tone” remark: he notes that Aglioro’s essay “blames femininity for everything he doesn't like about the Church, from bad catechesis to ‘the worst crimes of the Lavender Mafia.’” And: when Aglioro writes about “manly virtue,” one gets the sense, Lindenmann suggests, that for Aglioro, “manliness is virtue.”

And Lindenmann is skeptical of this analysis.  He’s skeptical for the reasons outlined above: creating rigid, polar-opposite definitions of masculinity and femininity (à la John Paul II's theology of the body)* and making one of these the solution to the problems of the church endows manly men with a dangerous, ego-charging sense of self-worth that easily translates into domination of others.  Of anyone “lower” than themselves.  And, specifically, of anyone feminine—whether women or feminized men—since masculinity is, per the foundational norms of this schema, superior to femininity.

Superiority so cheaply bought—with a shaved head, a bad tan, and a badly dyed goatee, a strut and a shout—doesn’t do anyone very much good, Lindenmann suggests.  Least of all the man who imagines he has reincarnated himself as a demi-god because he’s acquired a cheap starter kit to project the macho image.  Least of all a priest who imagines that a Fr. Corapi Starter Kit equips him for pastoral ministry better than, say, the gospels or the example of Jesus (who humbled himself to adopt a woman’s posture and wash his followers’ feet) does.

And Lindenmann goes further: he notes what a similar mindset—what the Fr. Corapi Starter Kit—has done for those working in the subprime mortgage industry, with which, I gather, he himself has work experience.  Just as Aglioro’s analysis of the new Catholic manliness does, Lindenmann thinks that the subprime industry exalts machismo and denigrates femininity.  It creates the same hard-soft polarity for which Aglioro argues as a prescription for the ills of contemporary American Catholicism.

And in Lindenmann’s experience, in doing so, it creates a model of being human that is not only unattractive, but dehumanizing and morally dangerous—hardly a model any community of followers of Jesus should be keen to adopt:

But subprime does, I think, have a lesson for the priesthood. It's this: once you polarize hard and soft, once you internalize those polarities as good and bad, then your whole value structure will become distorted, and your self will follow. Once you start conceiving missions that can only be accomplished with a stiff arm and a strut—that's when you run the risk of becoming someone you don't recognize, and couldn't possibly like.

As I’ve noted, Lindenmann is commenting here on an essay Todd Aglioro published two years ago at the Catholic Culture website, entitled “The New Catholic Manliness.”  Aglioro’s essay is . . . an interesting  (and I'll be honest: often downright hilarious). . . read for all kinds of reasons.  As Lindenmann notes, it develops a neat analysis of diametrically opposed male-female characteristics, and then implicitly ranks these in a hierarchical schema.  And guess which come out on top?  And which set is the solution and which the problem in the contemporary Catholic church?

And it quite specifically prescribes this model for—it calls for its imposition on—seminaries, as a solution to what’s wrong with American Catholicism today.  This is the subtext of Aglioro’s analysis I find particularly fascinating because, when I’ve written about this topic in the past, some readers have suggested that I’m over-stating or even making up my case about how the manly-man paradigm is now driving both the thinking of many Catholics about the priesthood today, and the direction now being taken in seminary formation.

As Aglioro states outright, “Good seminaries are not simply enjoying a serendipitous influx of manlier applicants; they're expressly targeting them.”  Aglioro quotes for corroboration Msgr. Stewart Swetland and Msgr. Steven Rohlfs of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland:

For one, they [seminarians] are carrying themselves differently: "They take pride in their masculine attributes," says Monsignor Swetland. "The last couple generations of priests generally weren't too concerned about taking care of themselves physically," but these days "they work out, they play sports, they want to look and dress and act like men." Also in contrast to their predecessors, they're interested in pursuing "a distinctly masculine spirituality," says Monsignor Rohlfs — in part, he adds with a laugh, because "there's a sense of relief that it's now acceptable to talk that way."  

In contrast to their predecessors: this is analysis—this is a prescription—deliberately pitched against what Aglioro and others in his camp imagine seminarians of the immediate post-Vatican period were like.  Seminarians that those promoting the return to a manly-man priesthood want us to imagine are at the root of the abuse problem in the Catholic church in the U.S.  Gay seminarians, you understand.  The Mychal Judges.  Not the John Corapis or Tom Euteneuers.

And so rooting out those “feminine traits and roles” that used to “plague” seminaries is also rooting out the same-sex relationships that have also plagued seminaries (and—subtext—have led to the abuse crisis during the period in which the Lavender Mafia dominated American church life):

The change [to a macho understanding of priesthood] has begun to bear evident fruits in the interactions among younger clergy and seminarians, thanks to a reemphasis on the classical sense of friendship, which helps guard against same-sex attraction while building a lifelong foundation for priestly fellowship and mutual help. Among such men there is virtually no evidence of the affectation of feminine traits and roles that has plagued many seminaries.

The priests now being churned out by our seminaries are not merely bona fide men free of feminine affectation: they’re orthodox men ready to do battle for the church to whom they’re wed, priests eager to teach “hard or ‘crunchy’ doctrine” in season or out of season.  Lump it or like it, people of God.  Father knows best.  Real men don’t waver or yield.  The new generation of manly-men priests who will save our tottering, unbalanced, hyper-feminized church are priests in the image of John Paul II, a manly-man priest “who by all accounts was the inspiration, motivation, and architect of the whole project.”

For some reason, Aglioro’s article never mentions Benedict.

And so the path is bright before us: if we want to renew the American Catholic church, to lift it out of its current (feminine-produced) malaise, we need to keep cleaning out our seminaries—cleaning them out of “effeminate” candidates and the “ideologues” who preferred such candidates over manly men:

In many seminaries, even those that have cleared their staffs of ideologues, who before would give unabashed preference to effeminate candidates while straining out the masculine ones, there are still future priests with a seriously deficient — or skewed — sense of what it means to be a man. Some of these will become deadbeat spiritual fathers; others will have to battle — or will succumb to — homosexual urges.

And, as I read Scalia and Lindenmann, I'm delighted to discover that even Catholics far more inclined than I am to buy into the restorationist model of John Paul II and Benedict are finally waking up to the downright noxious silliness of all of this gay-baiting analysis.  And to the proposal that a church dominated by priests of the ilk of John Corapi or Tom Euteneuer or Ryan Erickson would be preferable to a church dominated by priests of the ilk of Mychal Judge.

Or even—God help us—that we'd have a church free of the gays because more and more seminarians are choosing to work out, play sports, and dress like real men!  No, sir, don't know a single gay to whom that description might apply.  I find this thesis just about as convincing and reassuring as I found that silly little baseball cap Benedict was sporting last summer to be a convincing sign that he belongs solidly in the crowd of of manly-men priests.

*Readers interested in tracking what I've written on this theme can click on the tag "theology of the body" at the bottom of this Corapi posting, and follow postings with that tag back in time.

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