Hothouse flowers

The so-called Hudson Funeral Home Murders are gone from the news already, having had their allotted fifteen minutes and more. But the tragedy is far from over, and for the lives of those it has impacted, it never will be. The thought that a Catholic priest could violently take two lives to keep concealed his own dark sins is like a wrecking ball against the already-crumbling foundations of the faithful’s trust in the presbyterate. The truth of the case may never be proven beyond the shadow of a doubt, but that caveat will be small, cold comfort to a people who may never trust their priest again, no matter how worthy he may be.

This is a case that strikes very close to home for me, both geographically and spiritually. Not only was this melodrama played out a twenty minute drive from my desk, but this was a priest of more or less my generation. I could have known him (though I did not). When the news broke that there were credible allegations of sexual misconduct involved, while it surprised and saddened me deeply, it also made perfect sense. Following the Boston debacle it is no longer feasible for dioceses in this country to cover the tracks of offending priest, shuffling them about in a misguided attempt to simultaneous save face and give these troubled men a new chance (to redeem themselves, but in actuality to offend again). My first thought was Of course, this is the post-Boston world: the deviant priest has to deal with matters himself. He can’t count on his bishop to cover his tracks. This is the next step in this horrible saga. It has moved naturally to the next level. Harsh and cynical, I admit; but how easy it is to adopt such an attitude when you read tales like these.

In reading commentary on the case in the more conservative Catholic news forums, I am once again amazed how easy it is for devout Catholics to dismiss the entire sex-molestation crisis in the Church as simply and solely a ‘gay problem’. I turn to my fellow Catholic bloggers, the earnest lads at Democracy of the Dead for a lovely tidbit. Responding to the question of whether seminary admission should be closed to gay men, chief ideologue Justin Dziogwo writes “I think it is quite important. […] Homosexual priests evidently have had an incredibly hard time living the life of celibacy.” He goes on: “…I think it makes sense not to accept homosexuals [into the seminary] because you’re leading them into temptation. Even those trying to live chastity [sic] are being put into temptation. It would be like a heterosexual living in a sorority.”

This hackneyed summation of the salient points of the case is astounding to me. He says that homosexual men should be excluded from the priesthood because the seminary environment provides an insufferable temptation to them — by which, presumably, he means the other hot young seminarians they shower with every morning or kneel behind in the chapel at Thursday adoration. There is certainly an element of truth to this, of course (for reasons which I trust are self-evident), but there is hardly a monopoly on temptation — sexual or otherwise — in the world of seminarians. In my nearly four years of seminary experience I was never under the impression that the gay seminarians (yes, there were some) had a corner on the temptation market. Having a seminary situated on the campus of a major coeducational Catholic university poses very real challenges to young men discerning a vocation to the priestly life, but these are challenges they need to be able to deal with, not hide from, and it is the responsibility of the seminary staff to ensure that they are able to do so.

The word seminary comes from that Latin seminarius, meaning a seedbed or, loosely, a greenhouse — a place where seeds (semen) are nurtured and grown. (Believe me, my fellow Latinists and I got a lot of mileage out of this one.) The particular architecture of our 1980’s chapel lent extra weight to the greenhouse analogy. And that is the way it works. It is an relatively easy task to be, if not holy, at least religious in the seminary. Surrounded by a hundred other men facing the same difficult decisions and sacrifices that he is, a man feels the support of a very real community. In praying and living together day after day, there is a strong force of positive peer pressure which keeps a lot of men steering the right course. The danger, of course, is that these nurtured seedlings can develop into hothouse flowers; young men can achieve the semblance of spiritual maturity, but their spiritual and personal integrity is fragile, susceptible to the least frost of crisis once they are placed alone out in the big bad world. And seminarians instinctively know this, and this leads many of them to shrink from the world outside the walls, fearing its corrupting taint will weaken them, make them lose their faith, keep them from reaching their goal of ordination. And in this insulated environment all too many of them create a self-fulfilling prophecy for themselves.

The problem in my view is not that the Church has let homosexual candidates ‘slip through’ to ordination; the problem is that whole generations of men have been formed in an institutional environment that gave them no real sense of who they were sexually, and then turned them loose in a world full of far more temptation than any seminary could contain. For those interested in further reading on this troubling but important topic, I highly recommend David France’s excellent and very fair book Our Fathers (New York: Random House, 2004); in it he follows the careers of several priests of the Archdiocese of Boston from seminary on to the sexual predators they became, and the connection between the stifling atmosphere of their seminary years and their confused and destructive sexuality was (for me at least) quite clearly drawn. Repression and suppression of sexuality is a dangerous game on any scale, and we are seeing today the terribly fruit of what has been sown by its widespread institutional imposition.

I remain a strong believer in the celibate priestly state; let me make that very clear. This is not an argument that priests should marry, nor that seminarians should fornicate experimentally. But I do believe that the Church will build a strong, vital presbyterate free from the rotting canker of these sexual scandals only when She finds a way to form seminarians into men who have come to terms with their own sexuality and made their choice in the full knowledge of who they are as human persons, created by and precious to an all-loving God, rather than men who all too often are hiding some aspect of themselves from family and friends, from superiors and spiritual directors, and — most tragically — from themselves.

2 thoughts on “Hothouse flowers

  1. Beaner,

    I think you’ve partially misrepresented my case. You echoed many of your remarks in the comments on Democracy of the Dead, and I responded there as well. Given that you may have missed my response, I post it here.

    I can’t speak for anybody else here, but I don’t recall ever saying that the sexual molestation problem was “simply and solely” a homosexual problem. There is obviously more to it than that, one of the factors being, as you pointed out, inadequate formation in the seminary about their sexuality. That’s obviously important, as is peer accountability. It is also important that people don’t use the priesthood or the seminary as a masquerade. I would also note that the reason homosexuality was addressed was because Nash, the poster, had specifically asked if that was important in light of Vatican reviews of our nation’s seminaries.

    With all that being said, however, I would still say the scandal was homosexual, not pedophiliac, in nature, given the ages and genders of the majority of the victims.

    You bring up a good point that the women on campus can be equally tempting for the heterosexual seminarians as the men in the seminary are for the homosexual seminarians. In regards to your question about my own seminary experience – and to that I would add personal experience with priests – every single scandal I’ve ever been involved in or that happened in either of those groups during my undergraduate days involved homosexuality.

    What it boils down to is whether you believe homosexuality is intrinsically disordered. If you do, then you would have to minimally agree that it should be treated like any other objective disorder, e.g. alcoholism, addiction to gambling, etc. If those are good reasons to exclude men from the priesthood, then so is homosexuality, celibate or otherwise. If you don’t believe those are good reasons to exclude men from the priesthood, then I guess you might not think men should be barred because of homosexuality. If you don’t believe it’s a disorder, then you have intrinsic issues with the Church.

    My belief that homosexuals shouldn’t be allowed to be priests comes from the Vatican. I was merely trying to list reasons why the Vatican has decided that. Those may or may not be their actual reasons.

  2. Justin,

    Thank you for your response. Yes, I did read your respose previously on your own blog. I am gald that we are able to engage on this matter in this forum of our own making. Of course, I think we are revealling a fundamental difference of, if not opinion then certainly of focus in our respective views on this matter.

    Seminary was, and remains, an important part of my life, and my experiences in those years have indubitably shaped my life as I now live it. That being said, I can neither turn my back on hte Church I have always and will always love, nor can I ever again be the sort of Catholic I was before I entered seminary.

    These are troubling times we live in, and difficult times to choose to live proudly as Catholics. As we shape our still-young post-seminary lives as Catholics actively engaged in the world, I hope that we can remain engaged with each other as occasion warrants, and that we may both be the better for our exchanges. As you may or may not have noticed, I have expressed admiration for your work previously in my blog, and I do so again now. This topic is far from exhausted, and I am sure we will both find much more to say on it. May the Spirit of truth and love always guide our pens.

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