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                                       politics + culture

Sunday, September 18, 2005

the Pope vs. the People

From a September 15th article by Laurie Goodstein in the NYT

"Investigators appointed by the Vatican have been instructed to review each of the 229 Roman Catholic seminaries in the United States for "evidence of homosexuality" and for faculty members who dissent from church teaching, according to a document prepared to guide the process [...]

In a possible indication of the ruling's contents, the American archbishop who is supervising the seminary review said last week that "anyone who has engaged in homosexual activity or has strong homosexual inclinations," should not be admitted to a seminary. Edwin O'Brien, archbishop for the United States military, told The National Catholic Register that the restriction should apply even to those who have not been sexually active for a decade or more [...]

Some church officials in the United States and in Rome, including some bishops and many conservatives, attributed the abuse [scandal] to gay priests and called for an overhaul of the seminaries. Expectation for such a move rose this year with the election of Pope Benedict XVI, who has spoken of the need to "purify" the church.

It is unknown how many Catholic priests are gay. Estimates range widely, from 10 percent to 60 percent. The catechism of the Catholic Church says people with "deep-seated" homosexual tendencies must live in chastity because "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered."


It's hard to imagine a more disturbing response to the already disturbing priest abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church, or a more alarming set of first public actions by the current Pope, the former Cardinal Ratzinger. 'Purification' apparently means purging gay seminarians, or driving them deep into the closet with a modern-day Inquisition. It also means blaming gay priests for the Church's sexual abuse scandal and, in the process, perpetuates a wider falsehood that blames gays for child sexual abuse committed by pedophiles.

This is cowardly and counter-factual. First, because the abuse scandal represents, not simply a betrayal of trust by the Church, but a fundamental failure of leadership on the part of the Bishops who allowed members of the clergy suspected or known to have committed sexual abuse to retain their positions and to continue their ministry. The documentation is clear. As this June of 2003 New Yorker article by Barry Werth delineates, the Church routinely treated criminal sexual abuse as a mere psychiatric problem for treatment and subsequent return to pastoral responsibilities. Ellen Barry's 2002 expose in the Boston Globe spelled out the magnitude of the number of priests so treated in no uncertain terms, and in tandem with this 2002 Globe report on the Boston Archdiocese's 1990's settlements, an report indicating that Boston alone was home to 70 priests accused of molestation, spells out how deeply the Bishops failed American Catholics here.

Attacking gays when this crisis is about pedophile priests and a church hierachy that protected them (and has never taken true public accountability for that failure) provides a simplistic and hateful frame to a much more complex problem. It also does this without doing anything about abusive priests. This 2002 USA Today article examines how homosexuality and pedophilia have been conflated in this discussion. The piece explains, quite simply, that purging gay men who are attracted to and have sex with other adult men will not do anything about child abuse by priests. The piece, fittingly, ends with this observation by Johns Hopkins University psychiatrist Frederick Berlin:
"Targeting gays wouldn't address the problem of pedophilia, says Berlin, but he notes that child sexual abuse is overwhelmingly committed by males.

"I respect their religious beliefs," he adds, "but you're going to see the least risk of all to children from female priests."


We can thank Mr. Berlin for his candor. You won't find much of that from the Bishops.

As leaders of their flock, the Bishops know that many rank and file Catholics will allow this official anti-gay bigotry to become the lens through which they view the sexual abuse scandal and the priesthood as a whole. Will they accetp this and go along. In the light of the state of vocations and the Church, this anti-gay "purification" is cynical in the extreme. What Benedict is doing is twofold.

The Pope is simply buying time in avoiding a wholescale reassessment of the priesthood that is decades overdue. Further, he is pushing a divisive and destructive issue straight through the heart of every American parish in order to push the Church rightward. But American Catholics are not idiots. They share the assessment of the numbers of gays in the priesthood that priests themselves have. Further, most American Catholics not only know gay priests, but have, at one time or another, entrusted their children to the ministry of clearly gay priests with little fear for their children's safety. A 2002 Washington Post survey conducted at the height of the scandal showed that Catholics still, by and large, supported and trusted their parish priest. How the Pope pushing for a purge of gays from the seminaries will play out in this context remains to be seen. Pope Benedict seems willing to accept a much smaller Church in return for a Church that, under his care, becomes more rigorously right-wing...or to use his term, 'purified'. Will American Catholics accept the divisiveness and personal destruction that this right-ward 'purity' will cost?

"R. Scott Appleby, director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame, said the "silver lining" of the poll's findings is that "although people are upset by the scandal, there is a sense that the church is both bigger and smaller than this: bigger because the church belongs to the whole people of God, not just to the clergy . . . and smaller because they are satisfied with the church and their priests at the parish level."

But other experts said the results dovetail with many years of previous polling that has found growing numbers of Catholics turning away from the church's teachings on divorce, birth control, homosexuality and sex outside of marriage.

"An unexpected source -- pedophilia -- has become the locus for open struggle and unhappiness with the leadership," said Catholic University sociologist William D'Antonio. "The disagreement is not over the life, death and resurrection of Jesus -- the heart of Catholicism. The issues are democratic participation in the church, returning married priests to active ministry, the ordination of women and the church's teachings on sexuality and marriage." [from the WaPo article linked above.]


The Church in Rome, given the choice between reform of the priesthood and a rightward push on social and sexual issues has consistently chosen the rear-guard view. The previous Pope's commitment to a celibate, all-male priesthood in the face of the widepsread decline in vocations in the West is what yielded the dwindling pool of pastors out of which parish priests were drawn. American Catholics understand that pedophile priests should have been reported to the police and never allowed to perform parish functions again...and these same Catholics know, on some level, that the shuffling of pedophile priests from parish to parish has everything to do with a shortage of pastors and the Church's insistence on celibate priests, and nothing to do with the majority of pastors, gay and straight, who have worked so hard to lead their parishes in this difficult climate.

These questions face American Bishops. Do the Bishops think that purging the seminaries of gays will somehow address the decline in vocations that was the cause of the crisis in the first place? Do they think that straight Catholic men will now line up en masse to sign on to a life of celibacy and inquisition into their sexual tendencies? Do they think that American parents, perhaps already unsure of whether their child's sexuality, or even questions about that sexuality, was the spur to look into a life in the priesthood...will now send their sons off to the seminary to be grilled about whether they are gay, or have 'gay inclinations' and, perhaps, even be expelled and publicly shamed?

One thing the Bishops may have forgotten, and the Pope may simply not realize, is that the American Catholic experience is one of having built its churches and communities within living memory...oftentimes in communities of immigrants for whom the parish was the center of one's social and educational life. Watching those institutions victimized by the Bishops' mismanagement and moral bankruptcy is like watching someone sell your heritage. What American Catholic institutions need now is equitable and democratic management and a reform of the priesthood that removes the barriers of celibacy and gender from spiritual service and allows quality leaders to emerge. Gay priests, married priests, women priests; Church history has known all three. Most Catholics are very familiar with dedicated, spiritual women or married men who might easily serve as priests and lead the Chuch in this new millenium. Will these Catholics stand in silence while the Pope purges gays?

This is fundamentally a political question for American Catholics, and it will pose a deep challenge to a Church with little or no democratic traditions. Watching generations of hard work and communal investment dissolve under the mismanagement of the all-male, anti-democratic leadership of the American Bishops may very well prove to have been a turning point in modern American Catholic life. Do American Catholics share Pope Benedict's vision of the Church; and what will they do if they don't?

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3 Comments:

  • I'm from a social justice Catholic family.

    I'm proud of my folks and my heritage and I know that their faith has informed who I am today.

    I also think that purging the seminaries of "gays" and those with "gay tendencies" is among the most hurtful, damaging, and destructive things the Pope could do right now. And, while I've no real stake here...

    I've known hundreds of priests and brothers and nuns...and the thought of how destructive this is...on top of how hurtful to gay catholics everywhere...just cuts too close to home. This is wrong.

    Imo, the priesthood should be open to everyone...and the Church should be much more democratic....so we can all get back to working for justice together...inside and outside of the Church.

    On this one, I can't stand idly by.

    By Blogger kid oakland, at 8:27 PM  

  • who got the power, that is the question/
    the preacher, the book or the congregation?

    -rage against the machine

    By Anonymous wu ming, at 8:59 PM  

  • I was raised a catholic...As long as this fool is pope I will not step into a catholic church unless it is for a family funeral or wedding. He is a pig. How many people are signed on here? I tried 6 different names and all were not avail..wow..pretty popular ko

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:23 PM  

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