Monday, May 31, 2010

Straightening Out the Ranks

The Roman church is working overtime to keep gay men out of its seminaries, an enterprise fraught with irony -- not to mention dubious theology.

A recent Times article linked above tries to describe the situation, and we think does reasonably well. But let us admit that the Times is notoriously tone-deaf to religious nuance, and we will happily stand corrected by anybody with better information. Basically, Paul Vitello describes two "initiatives" within the church's seminaries: (a) to screen out pathological cases with a high potential to become sexually abusive, and (b) to screen out gay men. Two different tasks, Vitello says, and he also says that the church knows this:
Scientific studies have found no link between sexual orientation and abuse, and the church is careful to describe its two initiatives as more or less separate. One top adviser to American seminaries characterized them as “two circles that might overlap here and there.”
Hmm. The problem as Vitello describes it, is that both these overlapping initiatives seem to have begun since the abuse crisis erupted in 2002.

The question his article raises, although not explicitly so, is whether the people giving the orders here really understand that "gay" does not equal "pathological." It has long been clear that some influential voices -- we're looking at you, Ghost of Neuhaus -- have done their best to claim that the church's sexual abuse problem is, in fact, a homosexuality problem, end of story.

Frankly, we think that Vitello may overstate the relationship between the two initiatives. Both the faithful and the faithless have been talking about clergy with wandering hands, sotto voce, for centuries. 2002 is just when when journalists started to talk about it. And in the early 90s, a priest with years of experience in the Vatican itself described what were then quite serious efforts to keep gay men out of seminary, and to remove them if they were detected.

The article also takes a certain glee in describing the screening processes in use, as well as in suggesting that they boil down to barely-educated guesswork. Vitello describes typical vetting procedures:
... most candidates are likely to be asked not only about past sexual activities but also about masturbation fantasies, consumption of alcohol, relationships with parents and the causes of romantic breakups. All must take H.I.V. tests and complete written exams like the 567-question Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, which screens for, among other things, depression, paranoia and gender confusion. In another test, candidates must submit sketches of anatomically correct human figures.
Again, we wonder how new any of these procedures are. Our friend in the 90s described very similar questions. And we ourselves took the MMPI in 1990 or '91 as part of our synod's psychological screening. We were also asked to draw a man and a woman, although they were discreetly clothed. (Incidentally, seminarians have a notoriously difficult time with the MMPI, which repeatedly asks questions like "Do you ever feel that you are being guided by some power outside yourself?" Answer "no" and you have denied your call; answer "yes" and you look like a nutcase.)

But Vitello also touches, obliquely, on a couple of other things, where we think that he is closer to the mark. One of his main points is that the screenings are not consistent, and that even the procedural guidelines informing them are vague.

Some Catholics have expressed fear that such vagueness leads to bias and arbitrariness. Others call it a distraction from the more important objective of finding good, emotionally healthy priests.

This would seem pretty obvious. Clear criteria are essential to any sort of meaningful selection process. You have to know what you are looking for (and what you are looking to avoid) and why.

Part of the problem, we suspect, is the very use of words like "homosexual" and, especially, "gay" to describe anybody, and especially a cadre of men who are committed in principle to lives of sexual abstinence. Some people use those words to describe an ontological condition, like being blue-eyed; others a preference, like Gouda over Swiss. Some people use the words interchangeably, others separate them, so that one describes a quasi-medical condition and the other a political position. Because a newspaper article cannot give its sources the leisure to spell out their semantics in detail, a certain murkiness inevitably creeps in.

Consider this quotation:

“A criterion like this may not ensure that you are getting the best candidates,” said Mark D. Jordan, the R. R. Niebuhr professor at Harvard Divinity School, who has studied homosexuality in the Catholic priesthood. “Though it might get you people who lie or who are so confused they do not really know who they are.”

“And not the least irony here,” he added, “is that these new regulations are being enforced in many cases by seminary directors who are themselves gay.”

Jordan says something that many observers have surely thought. Nobody knows what proportion of the Roman priesthood in the US is inclined to homosexuality. But what nearly everybody does know is that there are plenty of priests who, if they were to break their vows of celibacy, would do so with other men. The problem, of course, is that we don't know whether he is talking about seminary directors who do in fact keep their vows, or who struggle and fail, or who ignore the vows completely.

The semantic problem is exacerbated with a quotation like this one:
“Whether he is celibate or not, the person who views himself as a ‘homosexual person,’ rather than as a person called to be a spiritual father — that person should not be a priest,” said Father Toups, of the bishops’ conference.
To many readers, the guy sounds like a raging homophobe, and maybe he is -- how would we know? But to us, it sounds as though he is concerned about identity, as in "identity politics." Replace "homosexual" in that sentence with "heterosexual," "differently-abled" or "Irish," and it could be just as true.

What really catches our attention, though, are the last few paragraphs:

Father Sweeney said the new rules were not the order of battle for a witch hunt. “We do not say that homosexuals are bad people,” he said. “And sure, homosexuals have been good priests.”

“But it has to do with our view of marriage,” he said. “A priest can only give his life to the church in the sense that a man gives his life to a female spouse. A homosexual man cannot have the same relationship. It’s not about condemning anybody. It’s about our world view.”

Really? We aren't as up to speed as we should be on the Papist understanding of holy orders, but this sounds a bit suspicious. The idea that priesthood requires heterosexual longing in order to be genuine is new in our experience. We aren't sure what it says about, for example, the Uniate clergy, who supposedly celebrate the same sacraments as their Latin-rite brothers.

Anyway, the article is interesting enough, but we invite you to read it with the customary grain of salt.


Pastor Joelle said...

I heard that back in the old LCA when you guys had to take those tests that they got nervous cuz you boys were all testing high in the effeminate department and it was freaking out the higher ups.

I don't think it was until the girls joined the party that they figured out maybe the job requires some "feminine" attributes

Also don't ya think it's strange that the one body part you MUST have to be a Roman Catholic priest you are not allowed to use?

Father said...

Fascinating, if true, about anxiety in the LCA. The whole "muscular Christianity" movement of the 19th century was fueled by fear that the Church and especially the clergy had somehow become "feminine."

And the movement isn't dead. It has at least two modern forms. One is old-fashioned: Johnnie Ray Youngblood famously insisted that men take over the leadership of his Brooklyn church as a remedy for a perceived excess of female leadership. One of my first posts was about some modern fundamentalist types going in the same direction.

The other is a new and ironic twist: scholars like Paula Nesbitt, arguing that, in fact, churches aren't really feminized, even if everybody thinks so. Which most people wouldn't, if scholars didn't bring it up.