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 Comments

  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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