Homosexuality & Catholic Culture
By A.W. Richard Sipe
October 9, 2012
Isn’t it time for the Catholic Church to have an intelligent and informed dialogue about homosexuality? Headlines about same-sex marriage, widespread sexual abuse of minor boys by clergy, hate crimes and continuing condemnations by the Vatican—even to the point of questioning the validity of ordinations of gay oriented men—make homosexuality and related issues more confused and urgent than ever.
In 1969 I was on a flight from Baltimore to Chicago to participate in an American Medical Association committee meeting to develop a handbook on Human Sexuality (eventually published in 1972). I had in hand the current issue of Time Magazine that featured a cover story on the Stonewall riot in Greenwich Village where the clients of the gay bar rose in protest against police harassment.
Few people then could even guess how this event presaged the unfolding of the monumental shift in the awareness of the inescapable need to be honest and real about human sexuality.
Even the AMA committee and its consultants who were deeply concerned with educating medical residents in an area of palpable neglect were only vaguely aware of significance of the moment.
The 37 consultants to that AMA committee on Human Sexuality attending the meeting read like a roster of a Who’s Who in U.S. sex education: Dr. Mary Calderone, Director of the Sex Information and Education Council of the U.S.; Dr. William Masters, Director of the Reproductive Research Foundation and famous for his groundbreaking study on Human Sexual Response (1966); John Money from Johns Hopkins; Dr. Harold Lief from the University of Pennsylvania; Dr. Herbert Modlin from the Menninger Foundation; and similar notables.
Homosexuality was not the first topic on the committee agenda. The book was “intended as a guide to the understanding of sexual behaviors, needs, and drives; it is a handbook for those physicians, clergy and others called upon daily to inform the public sector, to allay the fears and anxieties—to correct misrepresentations and misconceptions—of those who seek their counsel.”
The context of the search to understand sex was not merely transmitting information, but aiding individuals to accept responsibility in their interpersonal relationships, consider life options, and reject myths all “within a framework of integrity, candor and understanding”.
That is the spirit and context in which we will take up the discussion of homosexuality with the benefit of nearly a half-century of research and reflection by many disciplines.
First and foremost male homosexuality must be discussed in the broad context of reality and science unconstrained by religious or scientific bias. The Catholic Church rejects open consideration demanding that gay orientation is “intrinsically disordered” and homosexual behavior is “intrinsically evil”.
All scientific, psychological, biological, cultural, developmental, pastoral and spiritual expertise must be summoned in order to sustain a calm and rational discourse vitally important for the lives of millions of men and women—and the credibility of the Catholic Church.
Despite popular assumptions and intuition most men do not want to dialogue seriously about anything to do with sexuality. We can joke about sex in locker rooms and bars and titter about the ever-present innuendo and portrayal of sex on TV, giggle as we read Fifty Shades of Grey, and whisper about it in select situations, but the subject—the secret part of real life—mostly comes too close to home for serious discourse.
The shock caused by Catholic clergy and prominent men assaulting boys (and the institutional cover ups to avoid scandal) brings a whole array of questions about sex—and especially gay sex—into sharp focus.
Pedophilia—sex with pre-pubertal children—and ephebophilia—sex with teenagers should not—and must not—be confused with homosexual orientation despite the fact that that conflation has a long and sad recorded history in which that mistake has been made and is still being made today by the likes of William Donohue and Catholic bishops he fronts.
Homosexuality is an orientation. Sexual attraction to minors is an object of sexual excitation. These are two distinct things—equal and parallel with adult heterosexual men sexually excited and involved with young girls. (i.e. Nabokov’s Humbert in Lolita)
Personal dialogue about sex is not easy also because the history of Christian teaching has the cards stacked against open discussion of sex in the game of “it’s all sinful” anyway.
Gayness especially defies calm discourse in Christian circles because it has been branded with various hideous and distorted terms—perverse, unnatural, diabolic and most recently an intrinsic disorder. (Of course, in church teaching masturbation and contraception are also against nature, inherently and intrinsically—unchangeably—evil.)
Many thoughtful Christians hold that homosexual orientation (and behavior with an appropriate partner) is as God-given as its heterosexual counterpart.
Catholic bishops and priests are preeminent among those in need of sensible, open and honest thoughtful exchange about homosexuality because their numbers include a significant proportion of gay oriented men in their ranks far exceeding those in the general population.
A conservative estimate of gay Catholic clergy is thirty percent. That figure has held steady for several decades in the face of assiduous scrutiny; many Vatican insiders speculate that the accurate figure is closer to fifty percent.
Seminarians and priests, especially those I had the privilege to teach and counsel, taught me a great deal about human sexual development—heterosexual and homosexual.
First: sexual orientation has a semi-permeable membrane rather than a rigid wall of demarcation dividing heterosexual from homosexual. Second: sexual behaviors are often dependent on circumstances and opportunity as well as on orientation.
I recall a statement by psychiatrist Louis Hill, “Man is a loving animal and he is going to love what he is near”. Prison is one institution that speaks to his point, as do situations where men live or work in extreme isolation.
The culture of Catholic seminaries and religious houses actively cultivates sexual and affective isolation. It is also a culture that signals a safe and satisfying place for gay oriented men—a good place for gay men to thrive.
A Vatican report on seminaries coined the term “transitional homosexuality” to distinguish men from others who are deeply entrenched in homosexual behavior and who approve a “gay lifestyle”. The latter are excluded from seminaries and ordination. I think that this construct of a temporary orientation is based on the Vatican’s long and intimate awareness of clergy behavior and priests’ psychic development.
The Catholic Church has a long history of concern about priests having sex with men (and children); that is amply recorded in church documents (quoted in an appendix to this series). Even recent Vatican documents list the “worst crime” as a priest having sex with another man. (Crimen Solicitationes 1922 & 1962)
For the last several decades bishops and the Vatican have propagated the myth that the problems of sexual abuse by clergy are minimal—“a few bad apples,” exaggerated by the press, an anti-religion/ anti-Catholic attack, and the result of poor selection of candidates for ministry.
These are public relations myths aimed at diverting focus from one basic problem in the clerical culture’s sexual reality: namely bishops and priests in positions of authority who are serving in ministry (sometimes with distinction) at the same time that they have sexual partners, male and female.
Many Roman Catholic bishops and priests do have a sexual life. Because much of it is with age-appropriate and legal partners they seem to miss the connection between their own behavior and clergy who have sex with under-age boys and girls.
The Catholic hierarchy in the U.S. apparently think that accepting older candidates for ordination and men ordained in other countries are safer sexually and will solve a manpower problem. They are mistaken. Older candidates carry their own baggage—not all of it positive.
Clerics from foreign countries will not alleviate the problem of sexual violations by clergy. Quite the opposite: they are importing problems. The Irish experience in America is a cautionary tale.
Psychologist Thomas Plante who serves on the U.S. bishops' National Review Board claims that in recent years about 50 percent of the newly identified priest child abusers “were seminary trained and ordained in foreign countries that do not have the same formation programs and screening used in the U.S.”
The nexus between the violation of celibacy and the abuse of minors does not reside in candidates, in their nationality or in their age. The most careful selection of candidates, although important for any professional training, will never solve the problems that the clerical cultural system inherently conditions and perpetuates.
The basic factors that induce and preserve clergy sexual abuse of minors fulminate within that clerical cultural system.
The force and dynamic of that system resides on the top—with sexually active, sexually permissive, sexually tolerant and secretive authorities. Many favor or fear gay men because of their own unresolved identity. Many do not dare to act against priest perpetrators lest it threaten the exposure of their own sexual lives, past or present, heterosexual or homosexual.
The homosocial authoritarian clerical culture that remains in place to maintain monarchical power and control perpetuates a psychosexual distortion within the culture and power system of the Church; all who enter it are in some peril.
Clergy do accomplish a tremendous amount of good. How? Religious ideals and spiritual integrity continue to exist while hypocrisy and duplicity thrive even in high places.
Priests who are compromised sexually can render genuine compassion and service. The whiskey priest portrayed in Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory is the ultimate literary expression.
Understanding positive and negative among Catholic clergy is like puzzling out the parable of the wheat among the weeds. (Matt. 13:24) Good and evil co-exist. Bad clergy can do good.
Some men of strong character, both homosexual and heterosexual, who enter seminaries and religious life, can escape the morally distressing and psychically deforming forces of religious training and the clerical culture. They enter training with a mostly unconscious strength to resist the major perverting influences within the process of the culture.
At one time there were enough of these men to keep the homosocial system in a kind of homeostasis where sexual restraint was more prominent than sexual expression and violation. History demonstrates that those periods have been sporadic and always tenuous.