Sunday, July 15, 2018

A Story of Two Jesuits, with Commentary on the Current State of the Catholic Church (Especially re: LGBTQ People)

This is a story of two Jesuits. I'm telling it now primarily because news I read about one of the two this week gave me a shock, and, after having read that story, I've been mulling over my years as a student at Loyola University in New Orleans from 1968-1972. Because what I say about these two men involves personal judgments and neither is around to defend or explain himself, I'm not going to name them — though I'm perfectly aware that anyone with access to the internet, who knows how to dig for information, can fairly easily identify both men.

I think that I've stated in previous Bilgrimage postings that I wasn't ever really enthralled with most of the Jesuits who taught me at Loyola in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Steve, who came to Loyola in 1970, found them more intellectually stimulating than I did. But he's a cradle Catholic and I'm not, and he grew up in a culture in which male teachers and role models were the norm, while in my culture, teachers were almost without exception female and my family was decidedly matriarchal.

I have to admit, I've always viewed most men with a cold eye. I'm not as prone to the kind of intellectual infatuation with male thinkers, male teachers, male writers, that Steve has always had — and with good reason: there are some strong and good men in his family, some of them connected to the Benedictine communities that loom large in Steve's family's Catholicism. Most of the men with whom I grew up were, I felt at some instinctual level, to be avoided. They were dangerous, with an edge of violence about them. And it was clear to me that they were weak, in comparison with the women in my family.

I tell you all this to explain why very few of the Jesuits I encountered at Loyola in my years as a student there drew me to Jesuit spirituality. That militaristic aura of Jesuit life did the opposite of attracting me: it appalled me. I was a callow young Catholic convert at the time, and it wasn't militaristic obedience to Christ I was seeking, or all the head-trip answers in the world spun out of the mouths of high muckety-muck intellectuals. I wanted family, a place to be myself, a place to belong and be accepted. I wanted what my own family had never been able to give me. I could not have cared less about the catechetical formulae and head-trip philosophy and theology.

So the story of the two Jesuits at Loyola, both of whom Steve and I knew, both of whom were our teachers, to whom we responded very differently: the one about whom I read this past week raped a five-year-old-girl, it's alleged, and a settlement has been made in the lawsuit that was filed in this case. He continued sexually molesting her for years, she alleges, according to media reports, and threatened all sorts of dire things if she told anyone what was happening.

I don't want to believe any of this, in part, because this Jesuit went on to leave the priesthood and marry someone who also taught me at Loyola, who is still living, and who is, I always thought, a decent, good person. I grieve for her sake. 

At the same time, a large part of me is inclined to believe the allegations, and to conclude that the settlement offered in this case is a statement that the allegations are true — and the part of me that is inclined in that direction is also not shocked to learn that this priest was capable of this abominable behavior. Something about him always made me want to run the other way.

He was, in a succinct phrase, self-promoting. He engaged in very showy, theatrical religiosity. He developed a kind of hybrid version of Zen and Jesuit spirituality that became his claim to fame, and he had quite the following as a result. There was a kind of cult around him, and he acted the part of the cult leader.

To repeat myself: this all made me want to run the other way anytime I ever crossed his path, and the residue of those feelings — those intuitions — remains strong inside me still, so that when I read the shocking news about this former teacher the past week, they bubbled up all over again inside me.

The other Jesuit: he himself was in some ways a cult figure, but he handled the cult around him in an entirely different way than his Zen master Jesuit confrère did. He laughed at himself. Where the other Jesuit I've discussed pointed always at himself, this Jesuit did precisely the opposite: he pointed away from himself to the large world in which he had that immense Jesuit interest that encompasses all parts of the world, all fields of knowledge. He had a light touch regarding his reputation as a Renaissance man who could, it was said, learn a new language simply by flying over a country.

He was a polymath, a distinguished musicologist, an amazing linguist, a learned historian with particularly deep knowledge of Jesuit history, a man who had traveled the world and had the ability to make friends with just about anyone. He was, I always suspected, gay — but he never said this to me, and I could be entirely wrong in concluding this.

In the classes I took from him, he'd sometimes appear wearing flamboyant Baroque outfits, black, long-sleeved shirts with elaborately frilled cuffs from which he'd pull a chased silver snuffbox and take a pinch of snuff as he lectured. In anyone else, this would have turned me off completely: in his case, I rather liked the quiet in-your-face cheeking of that hyper-masculine militaristic Jesuit thing that so many of his fellow Jesuits projected.

When I got to know this man more intimately years down the road from Steve's and my graduation from Loyola, my regard for him increased — immensely so. In the final two years of his life, when we were in New Orleans several times following Belmont Abbey's destruction of our careers, he specifically asked to spend time with us. 

He was heartbroken at what had been done to us. He had been called by Belmont Abbey when we were considered for the jobs we were offered there, and had given us his highest reccommendation. He knew personally the man who is now abbot of that monastery, had spoken to him about us, and was shocked at that man's large role in destroying our theological careers.

He was also a good, faithful Jesuit and he said nothing uncharitable about the man. He listened with deep concern as we told our story to him, having asked to hear it. The last time we ever saw him, when he was very frail and asked that we drive him to Lake Pontchartrain to see the purple martins that nested in droves under the causeway there, he took both of our hands, clasped them in his hands, placed our hands together, and told us that no matter what anyone tried to tell us to the contrary, God loved us and had brought us together.

A few months later, he died while listening to some of his favorite music — Mozart, I seem to recall — with his fellow Jesuits in the room watching as he moved his arms and hands in time to the music and then gently dropped them to his chest and breathed his final breaths. I don't mean to turn this man into some kind of mawkish saint figure. What I do want to say is that he is one of the rare Jesuits in his community who exemplified for me the core of Jesuit spiritualty — to be a man for others.

He wore his learning and his piety very lightly, and seldom talked about religious matters, though his deep Jesuit spirituality was very evident. I know from stories he and others have told me that he played a courageous, quiet role in fighting for racial integration during the troubled years of the 1950s and 1960s when there was a price to be paid — even for priests and nuns — for speaking out. He and others working to support the integration process often met in secret to plot their actions, due to the hostility vented against anyone who spoke out. A sister of a member of that same Jesuit community at Loyola told me that her brother, who wrote books about racial matters, was targeted by members of his own Jesuit community, who would tack notes onto his door calling him a dirty n——r lover who deserved to burn in hell. These notes could have been written only by fellow Jesuits, since the Jesuit residence was locked and only Jesuits had access to it.

And you know what bothers me immensely as I think about all of this, about these two Jesuits, one an exemplary Jesuit, in my estimation, the other decidedly not? It's the mean game-playing that went on with that community regarding matters of sexuality and sexual orientation in the years I was a student at Loyola — years in which I saw two of my lay teachers fired with plausible rumors that it was their homosexuality that earned them the ax; years in which a young African-American man I knew, who wanted to be a Jesuit, made the mistake of telling those interviewing him when he applied to enter the community that, yes, he had had sexual contact with other men — and he was rejected.

While, it now appears, a professed member of that same community was raping a five-year-old girl…. While all of us young, searching folks on that campus who were trying to find our way as LGBTQ human beings would have given our eye-teeth to have those Jesuits who were gay — we knew they existed — out of the closet and honest about who they were, as they dealt with us…. While we'd also have given the world not to go to confession, as I did several times, talk to the confessor about our sexual "sins," and have the priest hiss at us and tell us that we had done the worst things possible in the eyes of God, and were in dire danger of hell if we got hit by a bus and hadn't gone to confession after having sinned in that hideous way…. One of the priests who told me this in confession was one of the most imperious, unkind men I have ever had the misfortune to know as a human being or a teacher, a man who in no way tried to hide his contempt for students in his class who did not come from rich and famous families, a man who took New Orleans society ladies on lavish "pilgrimages" to holy places in Europe every summer, with them footing the bill….

That was the Catholic church, its Jesuit incarnation, in the 1960s and 1970s in New Orleans. Have things changed enormously now, with the new Jesuit pope who is supposedly so gay-friendly?

Maybe I've been shoved too far outside the doors of the church to see the wonderful changes now going on inside it. I'm rather of a mind to think that not much has really changed, at any substantial level — since the institution remains as decisively in the grip of men as it ever has been. And I don't see most of them willing to stop playing the homophobic, heterosexist, misogynistic games. To the contrary….

For a footnote to this posting, please see the next posting regarding the 16 July report of the New York Times about Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

The graphic is from the Quotefancy website.

For a footnote to 

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