Saturday, September 17, 2005

The Vatican & the seminaries

Pope Innocent III, the great early 13th- century pontiff who understood his own time well. For the action figure, click here.

My cousin has asked me if I was planning on commenting on the report that Vatican officials visiting American seminaries will be looking for evidence of homosexuality among the seminarians. I certainly was, but was waiting to read a bit more on the issue. The officials will be asking some 56 questions about each seminary, ranging from queries about the seminarian's sexuality to those about their spirituality and orthodoxy. The question of homosexuality arises, apparently, from the sexual abuse scandal that has damaged the Church so seriously in recent years.

A wider question is whether or not the Vatican plans to ban gays from the priesthood altogether. One prelate, Archbishop Edwin O'Brien, is awaiting a Vatican statement on the issue and has proposed that homosexuals should not enter seminaries. Since Archbishop O'Brien is coordinating the visitations, perhaps his idea should be seen as something more than one churchman's particular opinion.

It remains to be seen how this will affect American seminaries and the American Church as a whole. Were the archconservatives at the top right now to be successful with their purge, it would be a great injustice, both to gay priests and to the rest of us, depriving us of the excellent pastoral care of a number of dedicated and devout men. If the percentage of gay priests is as high as some suspect (as much as 50%), and if all these men were to pack their bags and leave our Church, it would exacerbate an already critical shortage of priests. Adding gay men to the list of people who are called to serve but are not allowed to (women, married men) by a short-sighted hierarchy will leave the sacramental structure of the Church in a desperate crisis.

Another disturbing aspect of this issue is the scapegoating of homosexuals for the abuse scandal. It is disturbing because it is utterly false. A homosexual is no more likely to abuse a small boy than a heterosexual is a small girl. It is especially disturbing because the hierarchy continues to refuse to admit its own responsibility in the manner. What made the abuse scandal so horrifying was not only that there were sick men who abused children, but that their superiors covered up the crimes and gave these men the opportunity to abuse other children.

Perhaps mandatory celibacy is part of the problem, although I believe that many good priests (and brothers and nuns) are quite capable of living according to their vows without turning into sexual predators. Celibacy makes sense for members of religious orders, if not always for parish priests. No, I believe that the greatest problem here is a clerical culture that sees the laity as fundamentally inferior, to be taught and to be put up with, but never to be listened to or taken seriously. This obviously creates an "us/them" mindset in which the clergy sees any cleric, whether he be a bad administrator or the worst of sexual criminals, as one of "us," to be protected from "them." While I think a clerical culture had its place in the history of the Church, in a world with an educated laity that demands more participation in the decisions of Church administration we need less division between clergy and laity, not more. The clergy has to trust us and see us as partners, not as children who need to be disciplined and whose role in Church affairs stops at the collection plate.

Of course, I don't mean to suggest that all the clergy is like this. In the most dynamic parishes (like mine), enlightened priests work side-by-side with knowledgeable and dedicated laity to create a true sense of community. If only this could be understood by those a couple of levels up on the totem pole!


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hugo said...

you got the point: the identification of abuses and homosexuality, that implies the idea that heterosexual abuses don't exist or aren't abuses.

but, part of the problem has to do mainly with the fact that what is considered abuse is the last step of a process that has to do with this paternalist attitude of dominion and posession that is part of the traditional way of understanding education. in a way, abuses are connatural to religious (and not only) education...