Friday, September 30, 2005


I am not a Catholic. I know and admire many Catholics, including some priests, and I don't feel I have the right to pass judgment on their church. It's not my church, and for many people being Catholic is not quite a free choice; it's something they're born into, and to be loyal and committed to one's ancestral religious tradition is a praiseworthy thing, in my view. Mind you, I said loyal and committed, not blindly or uncritically obedient. The Catholics I admire see the problems of Catholicism, struggle with them, and work within the system to address them.

Despite not wanting to judge, and despite not wanting to betray the confidence of some Catholic "insiders" I know, the situation of Catholic priests fascinates me and I want to comment on it. For all that the Protestant Reformation rejected and denounced about Catholicism, there's still a sense even among Protestants that Catholic worship is the real 200-proof stuff. I've heard Protestant ministers speak that way explicitly, kind of an inversion of the way British Invasion rock musicians spoke of Muddy Waters and B.B. King. Lutheran and Presbyterian preachers (some, at least) are dazzled by the solemnity of Catholic worship, the sense of an unbroken 2000-year tradition, the power of ceremony, of stained glass and incense, the priest's focal role in confession and absolution. And as little tempted as they are to a life of celibacy, they are also a little in awe of it: the way Catholic priests so utterly set themselves apart, the dedication entailed in forswearing sex and other worldly comforts. The figure and the office of the priest are so highly esteemed. It certainly must clarify many things about who is the leader, who is the follower, things which can get very mixed up in Protestant parishes.

I wanted to get that on the record: some of the qualities of Catholic life and ministry that even non-Catholics admire. Of course, there are lots of aspects of Catholicism that an American Protestant layperson like me finds strange and incongruous. Something I blogged about once or twice before, and call me a fool but I put some stock in it, is the connection I have found between being active in one’s church and being a citizen of the American republic. America was founded, largely, by religious dissenters from Catholicism and Anglicanism. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were heavily informed by the principles and structures of representative government that Congregationalists, Quakers, Moravians had followed and were accustomed to. The Catholic Church didn’t come onto the scene in American culture until relatively late, in the 19th century, brought by Irish and other immigrants. And Catholic church governance is not characterized by transparency, or checks and balances, or representation of all its members, or freedom of dissent. I don’t mean to be nativist here: I think America must welcome and accommodate immigrant cultures, but it must uphold American-style democracy in doing so. Catholicism and American-style democracy are nervous neighbors, and always will be.

The priest sex abuse scandals exposed the conflict between Catholic governance and American jurisprudence. It exposed the dark side of the church’s (how to say this non-judgmentally) rigidly pre-modern views about human sexuality. And it exposed the capacity of American priests to be incredibly self-deluded and out of touch with the larger culture and how priests were perceived in it. It showed that what priests are ordained to is not simply a life of devotion, integrity, and self-denial. It is also, to say the least, a secretive and self-protective guild. I was struck, in some of my conversations with Catholic leaders circa 2001-2002, how they tended to see priest abuse as a P.R. problem that they had to manage, rather than a huge moral failure that they ought to confess and beg forgiveness for.

Incidentally, I haven’t read The Da Vinci Code. I know there are leaders and scholars (Catholic and Protestant too—Catholic controversies, including the priest sex abuse scandal, bleed into the Protestant world) who worry that overly credulous readers will take too seriously the stuff about centuries-old conspiracy and deception in the Vatican. I don’t know if this kind of paranoid speculation is a real problem (for instance, really keeping people away from or decreasing their trust of the church, not just being light entertainment), but I know that the Church’s modus operandi invites paranoid speculation.

Given the opacity of authority in the Catholic Church, the absolute and forbidding tone especially on matters of gender and sexuality, it's been hard to get my head around the idea (I’ve been working at it for five or six years now) that the Catholic priesthood is a gay vocation. (I'm sure this difficulty of mine reflects my limited view of sexuality as well as ignorance of Catholicism; I must underrate the erotic thrill of the taboo, for one thing.) A lot of knowledgeable people estimate that around 50% of American priests are gay in orientation. For centuries, "sensitive" young sons of Catholic families were attracted to, maybe even nudged toward, the priesthood. I am told that there are priests who interpret the vows of celibacy as not prohibiting same-sex activity. As long as there's no vagina in the room, anything goes, I guess, under that view.

I should qualify one statement: the Catholic priesthood in the U.S. and Europe is a gay vocation. In Africa and other developing regions, it’s a different story, which is an important bit of background. Catholicism is booming in the Third World, and stagnant in the developed world.

The news of the last couple of weeks is that the Vatican is preparing to issue an order that gay men (even sexually inactive gay men) will be barred from entering seminary to study for the priesthood. Obviously, this would be big, and lots of Catholic writers and commenters are voicing objections. As Michael Sean Winters points out in Slate, some bishops seem eager to make gay priests the scapegoats for the sex abuse scandals, when scheming, buck-passing bishops themselves are more culpable.

Winters suggests that a valuable reform would be for the church to restore the rule that bishops cannot “job-hop,” cannot be transferred to plummier bishoprics. This would eliminate one motivation for a bishop to duck accountability for problems in his diocese, since, to use Winters's example, the bishop of Bridgeport cannot angle to be appointed Bishop of New York.

John Allen, Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, observes here that the Catholic Church follows Italian conceptions of the law as an expression of ideal behavior, and doesn't expect its priests to live up to the letter of Catholic doctrine. A ban on gay priests would be enforced flexibly and with discretion. Well, that would explain a lot-—Allen’s piece made some light bulbs go off for me-- but my Protestant American self objects: Laws that are enforced unequally are no better, arguably worse, than no laws at all. Which brings us back around to the strangeness of Catholic authority in the American context.

If it comes to pass, a ban on gay seminarians will worsen one significant practical problem: the steady decline in numbers of American men who want to enter the priesthood--a decline that, judging by this and other actions, the Vatican seems not to be terribly concerned about.

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