Wednesday, November 30, 2005


I was asked by a news columnist to give a response concerning the recent Church document, Instruction concerning the criteria of vocational discernment regarding persons with homosexual tendencies, considering their admission to seminary and to Holy Orders.

Being very suspicious of news reporters, I requested that the interview be conducted via e-mail so that I could make my answers more deliberate and reasoned. The reporter obliged, although she later informed me that she was changing the story altogether and did not have direct use for my response. However, it did spark a conversation that resulted (as things typically do with me) in this lengthy defense of the document.

Her questions:

What do you think of the document? If you want to be honest about your sexual orientation, that would be good, as well. Are gay seminarians more of a "problem" in seminary than the straight guys? i.e., do they dismiss the chastity rules more easily? Do you think the document would make gay priests feel dehumanized? Why do you think the document is necessary, if you think it is necessary? Do you think it will actually make a difference?

My initial response:

I think the document is very moderate. Bishops seem to have a lot of freedom to work pastorally with their seminarians and seminaries. I do not know any seminarians who openly admit they are gay--at least, not to other seminarians (if seminarians hide their homosexuality, it would be nothing new). But people are never a "problem"--that is dehumanizing language. The document would only offend those gay priests who do not already understand or remember the Church's wider teaching which affirms everyone's sacred dignity as a person. I think the document is necessary, even though seminaries have already been implementing similar practices in the last five years.

A lengthier, 'off-the-record' addressing of the questions:

First, the notion that the document is merely a reaction to the sex abuse scandal is only very marginally correct. Church teaching is always related to what is important to people. But to say that the document is based on a false correlation between homosexuality and child abuse is just silly. There is nothing in the document that wasn't already taught by John XXIII back when clerical abuse of minors wasn't even on the radar. Also, in seminaries, there is workshop after workshop geared toward preventing sexual abuse that have nothing to do with homosexuality. In other words, even if there was absolutely zero correlation between homosexuality and ephebophilia--and the jury's still out on that one--the document would be justified by older principles (which I'll get to). Arguments against the correlation between homosexuality and abuse don't get at why the document was written.

Nor, secondly, do arguments about how good and beloved are many gay priests. Nobody reasonably argues, in the face of obvious exceptions, that a homosexual orientation alone (even a permanent one) is going to make a priest deficient. If a man is taught that his homosexuality is an impediment to entering the seminary, it need not be because the Church has indisputable proof that he would not succeed in a material way (even including fidelity to her teachings in sexual morality). It may also be only because the Church makes the common-sense judgment that seminary life would be especially *difficult* for him, and poses a special risk to him and others. In this sense the instruction is not unique from other mundane, morally neutral reasons men are declined from entering the seminary--struggles with alcohol, or celiac disease for example, or anything that impairs one's freedom for study in a seminary environment, or to exercise ministry. Obviously there are counter-examples to these--I know a few wonderful priests that are sober alchoholics. But in the best centuries of the Church's history, the prerequisites for men entering formation for priesthood were very strict, and one's not qualifying for priesthood was never meant to imply he or she had a defect that affected his or her personal dignity or journey to salvation.

Third, there is the issue of being "called". People are quoted in news articles saying that, since God has called priests who are gay (as evidenced by their good fruits), therefore a general policy of non-admission is a direct affront to God's will in certain matters. I see two things wrong with this.

First is the easy and often unqualified statement that all the fruits are good. Certainly a priest can be talented and beloved. However, from a faith perspective (and "faith matters," [as the column is called]), if a priest purveys moral indifference regarding homosexual lifestyles, this could never be regarded by the Church as a good fruit, no matter if he was very popular and lauded by several members of the community. Now, if he were a loving and compassionate priest, who made the Gospel beautiful to his people and taught the fear of God and universal, self-sacrificing love--those are good fruits, but not necessarily evidence of a real vocation, especially if they are mixed with one big, obnoxiously bad fruit: fostering dischord and disunity by obstinate teaching against the Church. There are authentic calls, and then there are times when God is bringing great good out of human error.

Second, Christianity has never understood a call from God as a private thing that "I" can hold against others who disagree with "me". Way back in the early Church, (a) your call to priesthood was more or less determined by outside forces--i.e., the whole Church, and (b) your status as a Christian in good standing was validated by your unity in belief with the bishop. In other words, there is a distinction, but not a separation between a call from the Church (the whole Christian community), and a call from God. That is not to say that a call isn't personal (we so love to confound the words "personal" and "private"). But it is also, always both public and ecclesial, too.

Fourth and final big point: before I was accepted into the seminary, I was already very conscious of the fact that everything depended on God's will; not my own. I knew that if I were not called to be a priest, and I became one, I would not be a happy one; and that if I were called, and tried to run away, God would find me and get me anyway. I knew that, at any time, I could be asked to leave for some reason not in my control. So--very early--I promised myself that I would accept as pleasantly as possible whatever God put in front of me. If, by some freak accident I lose a hand and cannot elevate the Eucharist, or whatever, I will leave, find a way to pay my debt to the Diocese, and seek God's call elsewhere (but always in the Catholic faith). If I did not make that promise to myself, I would not really be trusting God, would I?

The last letter:

You asked why I consider the homosexuality document to be necessary. Well, it only makes sense if we grant that the Church at least has the right to have a priestly formation program consistent her teachings, though they are often rejected by society at large. We have to bracket that more fundamental impasse if we want to talk about the document.

Suppose the document wasn't released, and as a result some seminaries were disinclined to be attentive to "those who practice homosexuality, show profoundly deep-rooted homosexual tendencies, or support the so-called gay culture." One consequence of that negligence would be the actual development of that bugbear of conservatives, the "gay subculture" within seminaries. Now, that phrase has all kinds of sinister and clandestine implications that I'm not sure are true--so far I haven't attended a seminary where I personally observed a "gay subculture," and I've been to three.

Yet one of those three--St. John's Seminary in Camarillo--at one time at least had one, not too long before I was there. I learned this in a conversation with a chance aquaintance, a former St. John's seminarian and homosexual, who was quite open about the whole thing. He told me that he and others would find ways to 'hook up' and that they were quick to find out who was gay so that they could part of the group (thus adding, in my view, a deliberate obstacle of seduction even for well-intentioned gay seminarians). It was almost like a trade union. And though they were basically secretive, the presence of this 'subculture' was generally known, though people generally did not ask questions or confront anyone about it. Now, I don't know about how that situation affected the campus at large. I have read Fr. Cozzens' book, but he has very little credibility with me as a serious authority on such matters.

But I also know, per an instructional account by a professor here at Mundelein, that sometimes an active homosexual does obstinantly remain in the seminary, in spite of being urged by his spiritual director to leave until he can develop the virtue of chastity. In one anecdotal case, the man believed that he could change his behavior after he was ordained; that turned out finally not to be true, and he left the priesthood. Of course, such cases are not unique to homosexuals--any actively heterosexual man would be just as equally urged to leave, and just as equally naive if he did not.

Finally, I like the simple analogy, used by some commentators, of any boarding school for men or for women. A school wishing to maintain a Christian virtue of chastity within the rule of community life would be bonkers to have a co-ed residence hall; the case of a women's dorm with only a few men, or vice-versa, would be fostering dramatic and unnecessary sexual tension.

I know it is a scandal for many moderns that such "pragmatic" considerations should have the force of law, especially within a Catholic theology of "calling". Again, the notion that God can and does work *in* such pragmatic considerations is totally offensive to the basic conviction that God calls people in some wierd, random, private way that has no correlation to structures or institutions or factual circumstances. Obviously there is something deeply attractive and satisfying about God's ways being "not our ways" and the (very Christian) theme of God's action being opposed to 'man-made' conventions and mores (an important part of any preacher's repertoire). Except that the *exclusive* emphasis on this theme does two very bad things.

First, it ignores the Incarnation, where God took human flesh and did lots of things "in our way" in order to save us; not to mention St. Paul's theology that the Church is Christ's body, a sort of 'double incarnation', with the entailment that the Church is not a 'mere' institution that God stomps on just like he offends all others. Indeed, it should be telling that the Church herself, with her controversial teachings, a scandal to so many other worldly institutions, whether her doctrine and action falls scandalously to the left or to the right of worldly convention, or cannot even be categorized as either.

The second bad result of emphasizing the total non-participation of God in any visible institution, is that it tends to fall right into the hands of boring, agnostic relativism, which is ironic, because this state of thinking is not without its own instutitions, authorities, and structures. It becomes a kind of despair at being able to participate at all in God's action in history, and is only part and parcel of the modern prejudice that God does not reveal himself nor is truly active in history.

So, in summary, the document is necessary to prevent the appearance of gay subcultures in seminaries, to minimize the risk of ordaining obstinant sexually active homosexuals to the priesthood, and as a common-sense measure of preventing a situation of a student being surrounded by people he is sexually attracted to across a time span of up to eight years.

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