Priests, Passion & Power
The Dynamics of Celibacy & Homosexuality in the Catholic Church
reviewed by Leon J. Podles
Goodbye, Good Men: How Liberals Brought Corruption into the Catholic Church
Passionate Uncertainty: Inside the American Jesuits
The Changing Face of the Priesthood: A Reflection on the Priest’s
Crisis of Soul
The Unhealed Wound: The Church and Human Sexuality
The Silence of Sodom: Homosexuality in Modern Catholicism
Sex, Priests, and Power: Anatomy of a Crisis
At the beginning of 2002, the criminal sexual misbehavior of a small group of Roman Catholic clerics caught the public imagination. The bishops who had tolerated that criminal misbehavior also felt the full force of public condemnation. A harsh light was cast on the sexuality of a celibate clergy. Men who remain too long unmarried fall under the suspicion of homosexuality, and unmarried clerics are no exception.
Are there disproportionate numbers of homosexuals in the clergy? Does this have an adverse effect on the life of the Church? Does the presence of homosexuals in the Catholic clergy have anything to do with pedophilia?
Michael Rose in Goodbye, Good Men traces the decline in the number of priests to sexual disorders in the Church. He claims that heterosexual, orthodox candidates are discouraged by many vocation directors and have trouble surviving the gay, heterodox atmosphere of many seminaries. The clergy shortage has been deliberately created by the clergy who control recruitment and seminary education to further their agenda of homosexuality, married priests, and women priests.
Dioceses and seminaries that maintain orthodoxy and discipline, according to Rose, are flourishing. Lincoln, Nebraska, has numerous vocations, while liberal dioceses have almost none. Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, is over capacity, while other seminaries are closing.
Rose supports his thesis with mostly anecdotal and partly anonymous evidence. Some of his sources may be unreliable. Some seminarians may have been expelled for perfectly valid reasons (gross sexual misconduct, mental instability, laziness), then later claimed they were persecuted because they were orthodox. The unreliability of some sources weakens the argument of the book. Critics can claim that the anecdotes, even if true, are not representative, and some are probably not true. However, a study of St. Anthony Seminary at Santa Barbara, California, commissioned by the Franciscans, showed that 11 faculty members had abused seminarians sexually, mostly as a result of a human potentials program. The revelations in Boston make Rose’s accusations of widespread sexual irregularity more believable, because church authorities throughout the country have for decades tolerated homosexuality and pedophilia among the clergy.
My own experiences confirm Rose’s analysis of the situation. I was briefly in a seminary in the 1960s. I left because my roommate was a predatory homosexual. He was allowed to continue despite having committed what I now realize was a felony. He eventually died of AIDS, as did others I knew in the seminary. Rose names St. Mary’s in Baltimore as a seminary that tolerates openly gay behavior. I live near it, and once I attended a public lecture there. Behind me the faculty were loudly discussing a priest on the faculty who had been rusticated for awhile because he slept with the seminarians and flaunted it a little too openly.
Rose has missed an important variant of the problem: the orthodox homosexual. My roommate was always very orthodox, favored Latin, and liked traditional devotions; he unfortunately was a criminal. The high-church homosexual that plagues Anglicanism is also present in the Catholic Church. Episcopalians I know recognize the type. Some high-church clerics construct an ultra-rigid world and display a fanatical devotion to the minutiae of rubrics. They seem to feel that without a totally controlled environment their world would collapse—probably into a chaos of homosexual desire and activity.
McDonough and Bianchi base Passionate Uncertainty: Inside the American Jesuits on their interviews with several hundred Jesuits. The number of American Jesuits declined from the peak in 1965 of 8,393 to the 2000 figure of 3,635, and is still falling. The Jesuits have changed from a cohesive, disciplined society to a loose association of groups held together by little more than the name Jesuit and a common administrative structure. The old close-knit Catholic communities from which Jesuits were recruited have dissolved, as have the theological certainties that sustained those communities. Jesuits turned to psychology for salvation, and reinterpreted Ignatian spirituality to arrive at a therapeutic religion.
Sexual dissent among Jesuits is the most controversial issue. McDonough and Bianchi hesitate to guess the size of the gay population in the Jesuits, but one Jesuit they quote estimates it as a fifth of the total, another as a majority of Jesuits under age 40. Sexual orientation has replaced nationality as a way that Jesuits identify themselves. A substantial gay presence in a religious house is disruptive because of the discomfort that heterosexuals feel about the gay lifestyle (celibate or not). As heterosexual Jesuits age or depart, the “‘gaying and greying’ of the Society” advances.
Jesuits have been feminized in other ways: “God the Father has become the least popular manifestation of the deity.” Confrontation is out, dialogue is in. Jesuits have “shifted from a masculine assertiveness to a feminine emphasis on conciliation and healing.” Current Jesuits claim devotion to Jesus, but he does not seem to be the Jesus of the Gospels, the Son of the Father, but an androgynous therapist. Former Jesuits drift off into vague Protestant liberalism mixed with New Age and Eastern elements, but even some current Jesuits have no sure answers to this question: Is the risen Jesus figurative, or divine, or what?
Another line of division is between the Jesuits who wish to emphasize social justice and those who wish to emphasize academic excellence in Jesuit institutions. Both compete for a declining number of personnel. Another question that troubles Jesuits is what priesthood has to do with the kinds of work Jesuits have taken up in the past and present: teaching, social work, and writing. None of these seem directly related to ordination, and they can be done equally well by a layman.
McDonough and Bianchi portray a Society fragmented and unsure of itself, devoted not to the greater glory of God but to the needs and healing of its members. For many, healing consists of accepting their “gayness.” Few accept the fullness of Catholic teaching on sexuality. Some are barely Christian. A few of the oldest and newest Jesuits try to continue the tradition of loyalty to the pope and traditional disciplines, but they do so in a Society that in the United States is indifferent or hostile to the former marks of Jesuit identity.
Daniel Cozzens was a seminary rector in Cleveland when he wrote The Changing Face of the Priesthood. He is trained in psychology and uses a mixture of Freudian and Jungian categories to analyze the priesthood: puer aeternus, Oedipus complex, Don Juanism, wounded healer, and other psychobabble. He traces the decline of the priesthood to practical factors: the low birthrate among Catholics (below replacement level); the opening of secular careers to Catholic boys, who previously sought prestige and security in the priesthood; and the increasing presence of gays in the priesthood. Cozzens accepts the general perception “that the priesthood is or is becoming a gay profession.” The presence of gay priests “has created a gay subculture in most of our seminaries.” He seems to lean to the estimates that 50 percent of priests are homosexual.
Cozzens stresses the need of celibates for close friendships, but he endorses, without using the phrase, the “third way” invented by Teilhard de Chardin. That is, celibates should cultivate sexually charged friendships that do not cross the line to intercourse. Cozzens claims that “celibate, intimate friendship is generally more easily achieved for gay priests than for straight priests,” because priests associating closely with other men do not provoke the comments that a priest associating closely with a woman would provoke. But this is true only if a friendship is sexually charged. Two heterosexual men in a close friendship would have no danger to their celibacy (nor would a homosexual man and a woman). Cozzens’s idea of friendship is, to say the least, not the classical or medieval idea.
Eugene Kennedy in The Unhealed Wound reveals more about himself than about the Church. He fell in love and decided to leave the priesthood and thought the process of laicization was insensitive (it may have been, but Kennedy is a grown-up). He seems to think that the Catholic Church’s constant teaching on sexuality is simply a power grab by celibate clerics who want to tyrannize over each other and the laity.
He is curiously weak on Scripture (which has a lot to say about sexual immorality) and mentions Christ only a few times. He rejects the Virgin Birth as physical reality because it was the root of the church’s high opinion of celibacy and virginity. Since the life of the resurrection, in which men neither marry nor are given in marriage, is anticipated by vowed religious, I would like to hear Kennedy on the physical reality of the Resurrection.
He also is ambivalent about homosexuality. He laments the Vatican’s disciplining of those who refuse to teach that homosexual acts are wrong, but he claims that the departure of heterosexual priests (like himself) to marry has left a web of “lavender rectories” and a disproportionately homosexual priesthood. If it has, according to his standards, so what?
Kennedy attacking the Church reminds me of Charles Kingsley attacking Cardinal Newman—over the same issue, celibacy. Both Kingsley and Kennedy claim to speak for “healthy sexuality” against a church dominated by emasculated clerics, but the teaching of the Church gives a far better guide to a happy married or single life than Kennedy’s attitude that whatever most people want to do must be okay. Kennedy has drowned in the therapeutic culture and forgets that sociology and psychology are not theology, much less the Word of God come down from above.
Mark Jordan, Catholic, homosexual, and Thomist, has written The Silence of Sodom to show that gay is good. A devotee of “Saint” Harvey Milk, homosexual and martyr (whose icon is available through Bridgebuilders), Jordan sets out to prove that Catholicism should affirm the goodness of homosexual liaisons. It is difficult to do this by argument, so he strings together a chain of pensées, which do not argue but assume the goodness of homosexuality. He does not attack the reasoning that Catholics have used to condemn homosexual actions, but analyzes the rhetorical strategy of the critics of sodomy. I shall follow his example, since there are no arguments to analyze in this book.
Jordan, having assumed that homosexuality is good, then sees repressed, self-hating homosexuality in all those who write against it. He faults the ways in which homosexuality is condemned, implying that if there is any flaw in the criticism of homosexuality, then, QED, homosexuality must be good.
He sets himself up as a Thomist. Thomas, says Jordan, did not focus so much on the goodness or badness of individual actions as on the life of virtue, natural and supernatural, to which Christians are called. The focus changed when casuistry became popular after Trent. Even Thomists developed long, detailed, and semi-pornographic lists of prohibited actions.
Jordan has missed some of the sillier ones from moral theology textbooks. The manuals also go into excruciating detail, fortunately often in Latin, about exotic sexual positions and actions. Casuistry has a bad name, which is generally well deserved. It is adolescent legalism gone mad, and is inimical to the life of virtue, however necessary it may be in peculiar and unusual circumstances. However, virtues are developed by repeating good actions, just as vices are developed by performing sinful actions, and sometimes it is necessary to seek guidance on particular cases from moral theologians, especially when the mores of a culture or subculture conflict with Christian tradition.
Jordan rejects the underlying Judaism in Christian sexual morality, such as the goodness of procreation as man’s participation in the divine action of creation. Jordan also assumes that the Catholic priesthood has a higher proportion of homosexuals than the general population and that this proportion is rising as heterosexuals resign from the priesthood to marry. In the 1980s two-thirds of religious communities of men said they would accept openly homosexual candidates.
Although the presence of homosexuals in the priesthood is usually blamed on theological liberalism and indiscipline, Jordan points out that “there seems to be some connection between closeted homosexuality and anti-modern tastes in theology, discipline, and liturgy.” Anglo-Catholics recognize the type, which, as I indicated above, is also present in Catholicism. The master of ceremonies for the archbishop of one archdiocese with which I am all too familiar became chancellor and then declared he was leaving it all for love—of another man. He was the “Liturgy Queen” of a “homophobic organization,” that is, the Catholic Church.
Jordan explains the traditionalist homosexual as the product of a devil’s bargain. Since the Catholic priest enacts a campy, feminine role, homosexuals who are forbidden sexual relations can live out a queer identity in full public view and approval. He can wear a dress, dress up statues, fuss endlessly over church decoration and rituals, and still be regarded as an exemplary Catholic. Jordan’s analysis may contain a grain of truth, if the homosexual and pedophiliac scandals are indeed really, and not just apparently, confined to the English-speaking world. These countries have had a predominantly Protestant culture. Rituals and ways of life that feel deep-rooted and natural in Latin, Catholic countries feel artificial and campy when transported to a Protestant environment. Precisely this artificiality and campiness attracts a certain type of homosexual.
One Catholic charismatic leader whom I knew was also traditionalist in his devotions. He attended the Latin Mass, had an apartment full of statues, and a banner of the Immaculate Conception in his bedroom. He also hosted a party on Spy Wednesday after Tenebrae (which I always thought a bit odd). I later learned that he spent his summers in the gay beach scene and eventually died of AIDS. His combination of contradictory traits may have been the result of the common sinfulness and self-deception we all share, but it may also have been a result of an attraction to the campiness of Catholic trappings in a Protestant culture. Opera attracts similar homosexual followers in the United States, but not in Italy, for many of the same reasons.
Jordan realizes that Rome is not going to change, so he proposes a schismatic Catholic homosexual church that will fully affirm homosexual behavior and relationships. Somehow I doubt it will attract many families, and it would hardly satisfy homosexuals who want the approval of the whole Church, not just a tiny breakaway group.
A W. Richard Sipe, a former Benedictine who was laicized and married, has, as a psychologist, treated numerous priests with sexual problems. In Sex, Priests, and Power he sees the Catholic Church in the throes of a sexual crisis. He points to pedophilia by priests and the cover-ups by bishops as but “a symptom of an essentially flawed celibate/sexual system of ecclesiastical power,” which is based on a “false understanding of the nature of human sexuality and primary Christian experience.”
That is, the Catholic Church does not simply have flawed priests and bishops, but has gotten the matter of sexuality all wrong. Sipe thinks that celibacy is particularly attractive to homosexuals, that 25 percent of priests are homosexual, and that the proportion is growing. Celibacy encourages the idea that sex is bad and that women are dangerous. As a tool of a power structure, celibacy is especially dangerous: Sipe laments, “I cannot forget that the people and forces that generated Nazism and the Holocaust were all products of one Christian culture and the celibate power system.” Celibacy caused Hitler?
Homosexuals constitute about two to four percent of the general population; all these writers agree that homosexuals constitute a large proportion of the Catholic clergy, perhaps as much as half, and that the proportion has grown recently. Many suspect that the presence of homosexuals has something to do with pedophilia, either directly (homosexuals are disproportionately pedophiles) or indirectly (homosexual clergy participate in a distorted sexual system based on real or pretended celibacy as a key to power).
Attitudes toward homosexuality among these authors range from Rose’s clear disapproval to Jordan’s celebration of sodomy. The others waffle. Kennedy, Cozzens, and Sipe (along with Richard McBrien and Andrew Greeley, who writes of the “lavender mafia”) seem to dislike homosexuality without wanting to say it is wrong or disordered. Perhaps they wish to appeal to the dislike of homosexuality that almost all parents (who want their children to reproduce) feel, and are using claims about clerical homosexuality to undermine Catholic support for a celibate male priesthood.
This undermining has been successful. Most American Catholics, especially younger ones, would accept both married and women priests. Because the issues of clerical homosexuality and pedophilia are so sensitive, inevitably a reader is affected by the ethical appeal: Is the writer a good person, and does he show good judgment? Rose comes across as good man, sound in his principles, but perhaps naive in his judgment of sources. McDonough and Bianchi sound like they have an agenda, and therefore one wonders whether the small numbers of Jesuits they have interviewed are really representative. Cozzens lacks spiritual depth. Kennedy has a chip on his shoulder and rejects the Nicene Creed (“and was born of the Virgin Mary”). Jordan’s word games display the lack of seriousness for which homosexuals are famous. Sipe rejects Christian sexual morality and its basis in the biblical view of man.
A just estimate of the situation demands prudence, good judgment, an acceptance of Christian doctrine and morality, and a respect for Catholic traditions. None of these writers demonstrates all these qualities (although Rose comes closest), and therefore none of them provides a sure guide to action. I doubt that the Catholic bishops, or even the pope, have secret sources of information that give them an accurate picture of the state of the clergy for which they are responsible. The Catholic Church is therefore operating blindly, subject to external secular pressures that may occasionally push the Church in the right direction but that cannot be trusted to achieve God’s will for the Church, which he is fashioning for his Son into a Spouse “without spot or wrinkle.”
Leon J. Podles holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Virginia and has worked as a teacher and a federal investigator. He is the author of The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity and the forthcoming License to Sin (both from Spence Publishing). Dr. Podles and his wife have six children and live in Naples, Florida. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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“Priests, Passion & Power” first appeared in the September 2002 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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