This piece was presented as an editorial commentary on WBUR in March, 2002. I recalled it when I read a recent NY Times article about he unfolding sex-abuse scandal in Ireland, which I discuss in a companion piece.
There is a crisis of vocations in the Catholic Church. As Cardinal Law decimates the ranks of local priests in light of sexual abuse revelations, who will replace them? I recently met a seminarian, and I was troubled by what I found.
I met ‘Steve’ at a gay night spot. We exchanged small talk and telephone numbers. Steve told me he was a philosophy student and an artist, looking for that special someone. Several phone conversations and a dinner date later, Steve’s story was quite different. He is not a graduate student at BC; he is studying for the priesthood at St. John’s Seminary.
Steve is in his thirties. He talked about struggling through college and holding a series of hourly wage jobs. He described his dream of being an artist on the coast of Maine. He wished he had a regular boyfriend. But his jobs had been dead ends, he never completed a piece of art, and he considered himself ‘unlucky’ in relationships. Steve was at loose ends when he struck upon the idea of becoming a priest. His local diocese pays his expenses now, and though he has little money, seminary life is nicer than what he managed on his own. Once ordained, Steve anticipates an even higher standard of living.
Dinner conversation centered on his vision as an artist, and his attraction to men. He admitted that most of the seminarians were gay, although “no one ever talks about it, especially with the scandal going on.” He spoke of his studies only once, how much he enjoyed teaching morality to junior high school students. But his enthusiasm alarmed me when he continued by saying, “I have always found young boys and men to be so beautiful. I have always been attracted to them.”
The application requirements of St. John’s Seminary include interviews, psychological testing, and discussions about spirituality, and sexuality. So how does a sexually active homosexual with an artistic fantasy more vivid than his calling to Christ manage to pass the tests? I fear the Church evaluates their seminary applicants with the same blind eye that continually found John Geoghan and other abusive men ‘fit’ for priestly work.
When I dropped Steve off, St. John’s, the imposing building and elegant lobbies graced by portraits of Pope Paul VI and Cardinal Law struck me as an ironic place to prepare for priestly vows. Although diocesan priests do not take a vow of poverty, such as Franciscans do, there is something unsavory about a person going into the priesthood for creature comforts. Perhaps their vow of celibacy is equally incongruous.
In my 1950’s youth, priests were revered for sacrificing spouse and family in order to serve God. But these days sacrifice is not so highly regarded. People can lead lives of service without having to deny their essential aspects. This makes the priesthood a pragmatic choice only for a man like Steve, a guy with few prospects and no qualms about teaching morality in the afternoon then disguising his identity in search of men at night.
As long as the Church extracts the price of celibacy from those who wish to be priests, the dilemma of finding qualified vocations will increase. But celibacy’s harm is greater than simply deterring talented men from entering the priesthood. It actually offers a haven for men of conflicted or deviant sexuality; men willing to wish away their sexual selves in exchange for positions of respect and influence greater than they can achieve elsewhere.
A vow of celibacy does not drain a man of his sexual desire, it merely denies it. The ongoing scandal of abuse by priests painfully illustrates that when the desire overwhelms the vow, heinous crimes and irreparable suffering follow.
Handing abuse claims against current priests to outside authorities is a necessary response to past sexual abuse by priests. But the Church must do more. It must guard against future abuse. It must scour its own training grounds to separate those who deserve sanctuary to follow a true calling from those merely craving the comfort of seminary walls. Then it must put forth a call to those currently denied the opportunity for priestly vocations – woman, openly gay men, and married people.
Diocesan priests are not monks and men whose vocation is to escape the world rather than to serve it have no business being diocesan priests. To ordain them diminishes the vow of priesthood, and increases the risk of further abuse to come.