The John Jay College of Criminal Justice released its report on the underlying causes of the sex-abuse crisis in the Catholic Church this past week. The study was commissioned (and in great part paid for) by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. It was a good idea to look for the roots of the problem and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice is an unimpeachable judge to the issue. Nevertheless something went peculiarly wrong.
The report found guilty the permissive atmosphere of the ‘6o’s and ’70’s. Innocent of causing the immense harm done to thousands are mandatory celibacy, an all male priesthood, and homosexuality,
A study is only as good as how its purpose and limitations are defined and this study was skewed in that such controversial issues of Catholic doctrine and discipline (celibacy and all male priesthood) would not be called into question.
I am the first to agree that the issue is not celibacy. Nor is it an all male priesthood. I suspect that it is not even homosexuality—per se. That is the root of the problem is not celibacy per se nor an all male priesthood, per se; nor homosexuality, per se. But in fact it may only be homosexuality—per se—that isn’t part of the foundational problem.
Celibacy, when freely chosen by a psycho-sexually mature individual, is a noble adornment to the Church. The man or woman who is capable of healthy intimacy but who renounces the rewards and compensations (and trials and heartache) of marriage and family to devote his or herself to the work of the Gospel is a witness to the compelling nature of the call to preach the Kingdom of God.
The problem is that mandatory celibacy has proven to be a refuge for countless men (and some women) whose psycho-sexual maturity is at best questionable. Individuals who are uncertain of their sexual identity or who are not comfortable with sexual identity or sexual appetites and feelings can be drawn to priesthood or religious life as an escape from having to confront the uncomfortable and challenging aspects of their own personalities. Let me give some examples.
In my workshops and teaching I have a fair amount of contact with enclosed (cloistered) nuns and been surprised how (proportionately) many have been victims of sexual abuse—primarily by family members or close friends of their families. Withdrawal into the cloister has represented to them safety. Now, when I say “how many,” compared to the numbers of women in society who have been victims of sexual abuse (some estimates are as high as 1 in 5) it is nowhere near that high. That “high” represents a cross-section of total mid and late -20th century American society. The picture changes when you look at the section of society from which these nuns come—that is to say European descent, white or blue collar, middle and upper-middle class, Catholic families and with high-school or college diploma. Sexual abuse, especially abuse by a family member, knows no social, educational, racial, or economic boundaries, yet neither is it distributed equally throughout society. I have no scientific evidence or even formal research on this issue, it is only an impression, but an impression built up over thirty years and stronger with each encounter.
Let me also say that for many women who have been exploited in their youth, contemplative life within a sympathetic community of women, some of whom have shared the burden of having been abused, has been very therapeutic and many women have come to a health and maturity in their self-identity. It is an example of where grace builds on nature.
I wish I could say the same for men. Here I think we need to break them into sub-groups which have certain features in common with one another and distinct to each group. I would speak first of the monastic and semi-monastic communities, secondly of the apostolic communities, and thirdly of diocesan priests and societies of secular priests.
With women, or at least enclosed women, the issue that drew those with psycho-sexual issues has usually been instance of abuse in their pre-convent years, generally adolescent and post-adolescent. With men, celibacy seems to draw to religious life or priesthood those whose issue is avoiding dealing with sexual identity, most notably those who are confused about their being heterosexual or homosexual or those who sense themselves to be homosexual and are trying to avoid the implications of that awareness or to render it neutralized by adopting a celibate lifestyle. This is not to say that same-sex attraction is not an issue among religious women, sisters (as distinct from enclosed nuns) in particular, but it doesn’t seem to be as strong an issues as it is among priests and religious men.
In regard to those who are confused about whether they are (predominately) heterosexual or homosexual, a life of public celibacy permits them to avoid the issue. They (think that they) don’t need to know the answer to the question that troubles them within. Instead of being one or the other, they will choose a lifestyle that permits them—indeed seems to mandate them—to be neither. This is probably why the numbers of gay priests is so hard to pin down. In addition to men who have come to terms with their same-sex attraction, and to those who are genuinely heterosexual, you have a considerable number of homosexual priests who are either trying desperately to convince themselves and others that they are “straight,” or in denial of any sexual identity at all. Any estimates on the percentage of priests who are gay versus those who are “straight” must be based on criterion other than how the priests themselves identify themselves.
In monastic or semi-monastic life this illusion of being-asexual gives way faster than it usually does in the apostolic communities or among diocesan or secular priests. By monastic communities I mean those communities of men that are enclosed religious such as the Cistercians or some Benedictine groups. By semi-monastic I mean monks from abbeys with apostolic ministries—parishes, schools, colleges. Also semi-monastic should include those medieval mendicant communities with a more highly developed spirituality and intentional community life. A deep interior life requires the individual to search every nook and cranny of the soul (psyche), shining the light of the Gospel (mental prayer) into every recess and coming to know oneself with as close an approximation to the Divine Knowledge of oneself as grace and honest prayer allow. Moreover, a mature and secure community environment allows the individual the safety to raise the troubling questions and usually provides the fraternal support to face whatever truths emerge.
It is often somewhat different in apostolic communities. Some apostolic communities have as rich a spiritual tradition and practice as the most contemplative of monks. I think particularly of the Society of Jesus. Many however have more a sustaining piety than a genuine spirituality; or they have a spirituality but it is one that is meant to channel the energy outward into service of others without the rigorous solitude, the sort of pseudo-desert as it were, that will allow no stone to remain unturned in the search of self-knowledge. In these communities it is possible for those who wish, and most of us wish to avoid hard work and to flee the unpleasant questions, to avoid dealing with the issues of psycho-sexual identity that drew us to lives of celibacy in the first place. And then if “community” is not so much a network of relationships but more a catering and laundry service that frees more time for ministry, the individual often will not have developed the trust skills to let him allow others to accompany and share the burdens of self-knowledge.
And then we have the secular priests, whether those who belong to some sort of society of non-vowed priests (Opus Dei, Oratorians, various missionary societies) or who are priests of an individual diocese. I have been very distressed to see how few secular and diocesan priests have a genuine spirituality. They usually have a corporate piety—a set of exterior practices which regulate their relationship to God—but not a genuine spirituality that brings them into a profound and humbling encounter with God. Their prayer is primarily that set of external practices: mass, the office, the rosary, “visits” to the Blessed Sacrament—all of which is done with devotion—but which doesn’t rise from within and bring to the surface with it all the spiritual angst of truthful self-assessment.
Two key words in differentiating spirituality from piety are “interior” and “humbling.” Genuine spirituality—and again I am a historian and am speaking from the writings of the mystics—shifts the balance of prayer from external practice to interior silence, indeed almost to the point of inactivity. “Almost” is important as we don’t want to mistake quietism for orthodox spirituality. The liturgy and even some measure of devotional prayer persist but the individual finds his or her truest prayer to be in silent attention to the Divine Mystery unfolding within his or her heart. Genuine spirituality not only moves the individual from the Mystery without to the Mystery within, but brings the individual into a frank self-awareness where in the Divine Image as it unfolds in his or her soul one sees one’s own self reflected for both who one is and who one is called to be. Genuine spirituality leaves no choice but an interior journey of self-discovery and self-knowledge. The issues of one’s sexual identity must be dealt with—there is not only no escaping the question, there is no escape from the answers.
Too often I have dealt with priests and religious who are in profound denial of their sexual identity. They tell gay-bashing jokes and use vulgar terms that deride gay people, or they are legalistic, harsh and unsympathetic in the confessional while they themselves are running from their own same-sex attraction. The most dangerous sexual-predators come from these ranks. With no one they trust enough to confide in, with no one with whom they are sufficiently intimate to share their journey of self-exploration, they are lone wolves and when they see vulnerable prey—they jump at the bait. Incapable of sufficient trust for adult-adult relationships, they turn to the only relationships in which they are secure: relationships with the younger, the less mature and/or the vulnerable. In the case of priests or male religious who are gay this leads to inappropriate relationships with young men or post pubescent boys; with those who are “straight,” with underage and/or vulnerable women. Of course, in the case of genuine pedophiles—those attracted to pre-pubescent children—we are dealing with a different phenomenon entirely, a genuinely psychiatric disorder. This seems to be a very small number of clergy, no higher than that of the larger American population.
So to say that celibacy is not an issue is, I believe, very misleading. Mandatory celibacy not only rules out those who choose adult-adult heterosexual life-commitments but provides an attraction and a cover for the psychosexually immature. Some of these mature in the process of spiritual growth and healthy fraternity. Others, unfortunately do not. Spiritual maturity and healthy community will not change a person’s basic sexual orientation, but it will empower him (or her) to live as spiritually (and therefore psychologically) healthy adults.
Perhaps on a future blog we can look at how an all-male leadership model complicates this picture, but for now what might bear thinking about is what seminaries and religious formation programs, as well as clergy on-going education and formation, need to do to foster psycho-sexual maturation. This probably won’t happen until psycho-sexual maturity becomes an identified criterion for hierarchical leadership.