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Friday, November 25, 2005

Gays in the priesthood

I'm a few days late in getting to this, but I wanted to react to the new Vatican policy on gay priests and seminarians. The main points were leaked to the press a couple of weeks ago, but the thing itself was finally released on Tuesday.

My first thought is that the policy isn't actually so bad, and that the New York Times really overstated the case with their headline, In Strong Terms, Rome Is To Ban Gays as Priests. The gist of the policy is this: men "who are actively homosexual, have deep-seated homosexual tendencies, or support the so-called 'gay culture'" are barred from entering the seminary (this policy does not apply to men who are already ordained).

Let's take those three items one at a time. As for the first one: well, obviously active homosexuals are barred from the priesthood--as are active heterosexuals. And as for the second two: who's to say? If you're contemplating a life of celibacy, it seems to me very easy to conclude (or rationalize) that your tendencies aren't "deep-seated," or else you couldn't give them up to live as a celibate. And if by "gay culture" the Vatican means, as I suspect, all those stereotypes of gay men as promiscuous and hedonistic, then a man who believes he has a vocation for the priesthood could equally well conclude that he doesn't support that gay culture even if he very much supports gay rights.

The policy also stipulates that men entering the seminary must have had only "transitory" gay tendencies, that "were overcome" at least three years prior to ordination as a deacon (which comes very late in the process, BTW). "Transitory" is a harder term to work around, but not impossible, if one chooses to interpret that as the desire for a sexually active life as a gay man--and frankly I think anyone entering a life of celibacy should have abstained from sex for some reasonable period of time before making that decision, on pragmatic grounds alone.

So, my take on the policy is that it's written to be deliberately vague and to leave individual seminaries and religious directors a tremendous amount of wiggle room. It's a clerical version of "don't ask, don't tell." Now, I don't have any affection for "don't ask, don't tell"--I know too many gay servicemen to think that this is a sustainable policy, and I hope the next Democratic president will allow gay men and women to serve freely. However, as a short-term compromise to allow gay men and women to stay in uniform while the culture shifts more decisively in the direction of gay rights (or at least acceptance)? I'll hold my nose and take it. I feel the same way about this latest Vatican pronouncement: given the papacy we're dealing with, and the papacy that came BEFORE this one, I find the news depressing but better than I expected.

link | posted by La Lecturess at 6:10 PM |


Blogger What Now? commented at 8:07 PM~  

Sadly, LL, I think you're really stretching on your reading of this one. Certainly if you were in charge of seminary admittance and ordination, I'd be resting easy about all of this, and it would be interesting to see your reading of the policy tested. But I think that the intended reading (and the one many seminaries will take) is that "supporting the so-called 'gay culture'" means saying that gay people are not okay. So the only way to be ordained if you've had "homosexual tendencies" is to renounce those tendencies as having been terrible -- and thus renounce and condemn everyone who still has those tendencies. And I would disagree that a call to celibacy is incompatible with a deep-seated sexuality; celibacy is one way to express sexuality, as is monogamy, but it isn't an elimination or absence of sexuality. I know celibate priests and nuns and monks who are all celibate but also clearly self-identify as gay or lesbian and see no conflict between these conditions; indeed, they would argue, we all have both a sexual orientation and a chosen way of expressing that sexuality.

I'm totally sympathetic to the desire to see one's church as better than it is -- believe me, I have my own struggles with the world-wide Anglican Communion -- and perhaps some seminaries are going to try using the approach that you outline here, but I don't think that we can really conclude that this policy "isn't actually so bad."

Blogger La Lecturess commented at 10:51 PM~  


Thanks for your comments, and I'll freely accept your suggestion that I may indeed be trying to make the RCC out to be better than I suspect or fear it sometimes is.

Your points are well-taken--I don't really disagree with any of them--but I do think there's wiggle room in the policy, and I do think it could have been a LOT worse. That's not to say that it's good, though. One of the biggest negatives about the KIND of wiggle room that I see in this policy is that it probably makes it harder for intellectually and emotionally honest gay men to enter a seminary, and for the reasons you note: if one is gay, one's gay, whether celibate or not. Likewise those gay men who are more able to convince themselves or others that the strictures don't apply to them (because their tendencies aren't "deep-seated") are probably those who have a less healthy or fully-developed sense of their sexual identity (i.e., those who may have had a homosexual experience or two or five but who are effectively closeted and in denial). Which is juuust what any clergy needs new members, staight or gay, to be!

And yes: many seminaries are going to take this as a license to clean house, and that's an unquestionable tragedy. But there are others that are going to shrug their shoulders and feel they can ignore the directive. Given what Benny COULD have done, with the bishopric so stocked with JPII's guys, I find the wording of this policy striking.

Maybe it's a depressing commentary on the church or my relationship with it that I'm trying to find the not-SO-bad-news in something fairly bad. . . but, we'll see.

Blogger What Now? commented at 11:18 PM~  

LL, I think that you're right about the wiggle room, but, like you, I find this type of wiggle room deeply depressing.

And maybe some of my response to this new policy and to various folks' response to it is about cultural differences. I think on some level I'm so deeply Protestant that I think people should find a denomination that argues for the same things they themselves believe in, which means that by our presence in the pews we're always signing on to what our elders/bishops/church policies are arguing. But this approach rests on a willingness to change denominations. Here we may run into the Protestant/Catholic divide, because I don't see Catholics having the same response that I do. In fact, a friend of mine who's been a Catholic priest for umpteen years finds converts and seminarians irritating because they want to follow all policies to the letter (which he refers to as "trying to be more Catholic than the Pope") instead of operating within the wiggle room, which he sees as the approach of most Catholics, both layfolks and priests.

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