September 25, 2005

De sacerdotibus homosexualis

Of course I had to write about this story; the people who wrote me requesting my take needn't have worried.

My very first reaction was, "Hey, um, good luck with that."

I put off responding further, partly because I wasn't much looking forward to it, but partly because I needed a block of time to sit down and really hash it out. This is an essay in the original sense: I am trying out ideas, and though I have some idea of how it will end, nuances will not come clear to me until I write them out.

When Cardinal Ratzinger was first elected, I officially reserved judgement. He had authored the letter On the pastoral care of homosexual persons, a nasty little piece of work and some cause for concern. But, as I said in an email at the time: "God will forgive, and we have yet to see the tenor of his papacy."

I think we've now seen quite enough of the tenor of his papacy to begin to judge it. He has already made a number of pronouncements that, while disappointing, were essentially continuing existing church policy. This pronouncement, however, is a significant departure from existing policy. It has no support from Scripture (as opposed to the "thin" or "arguable" support of some other policies), and not really any support from tradition, either---homosexuality was reviled in general, but there was never a specific policy regarding priests, and never a dual standard.

It is a pronouncement of immense hubris. The previous line---that homosexuality is not sinful, but homosexual acts are---is open to disagreement, but its import was to forbid certain actions. The new pronouncement is much more direct. It announces that when God created certain people, he screwed up. Oops! And the "defectives" are now not fit to do a job they've been doing just fine for the last couple of millennia.

For it's obvious that gay priests have existed for a long, long time. Why wouldn't they? We wouldn't even be able to tell, because of the discipline of celibacy the RCC has imposed for the last thousand years or so---if they're refraining from taking a partner and marrying them, it doesn't matter who that partner would have been. The identity of their forbidden fruit is irrelevant to the task of ministry and leadership that the church sets out for them.

The RCC has for some time referred to homosexuality as "objectively disordered", but even if we stipulate on that point, its use as a justification for the new policy falls apart on the briefest inspection. There are a lot of "objectively disordered" states listed in the DSM-IV and various medical journals---homosexuality not being one of them, incidentally---and with a bit of careful management, most do not prevent people from living normal lives. I expect there are a lot of priests out there who are epileptic, or clinically obsessive-compulsive, or diabetic, or alcoholic, or any number of other disorders which range from totally minor to major-but-manageable. So "objective disorder", even if true, would not be a sufficient justification for the new policy.

An even flimsier justification is given in some of the other articles covering the story. An unnamed church official is quoted as saying that "the difference is in the special atmosphere of the seminary; in the seminary, you are surrounded by males, not females." Of course, after seminary, unless you are in some sort of monastic order, you are surrounded by both males and females; heterosexuals are not exactly off the hook here. So, are homosexuals just judged to be worse at fending off temptation? That's very interesting, considering that the church's message to lay homosexuals is that they're all called to celibacy---whether that's what they're hearing from God or not---and that Paul's command to the unmarried that "if they cannot exercise self-control they should marry, for it is better to marry than to be on fire" (I Cor 7:9) doesn't apply to them. So if you're gay, the message is that God made you that way and you're meant to be celibate and He doesn't ever give you a task unless He knows you can handle it; but if you're gay and called to the priesthood, the message is that God messed up when He made you, messed up when He called you to the priesthood, and we don't think your kind can manage celibacy anyway. Hmmm.

This pronouncement is unusual for the Vatican. Most of the church's policies---whether one agrees with them or not---are very well-thought-out, grounded in long tradition as well as Scripture. The RCC is also normally very self-consistent; all the various aspects of their "culture of life" (a phrase co-opted to horrible effect by our Republican Party, echhh) knit together very tightly into a cohesive whole. It is not, I think the only self-consistent philosophy on these issues, but it is very difficult to use the church's own arguments in one culture-of-life issue against them in another. The edict regarding gay priests, on the other hand, bears at most a surface consistency with other church policies, and all the explanation that we've seen so far has the unmistakable air of---how you say, "making shit up"---to defend a policy rooted in thinly-veiled homophobia. Not the first bigoted word to come down from a guy wearing a funny white hat, but it's been a while, and such words are (despite what outsiders may think) relatively uncommon.

A Roman Catholic Pope is a monarch of sorts; he isn't God, and he isn't the church catholic. There have been a lot of men, Popes and Antipopes both, to sit on the throne of St Peter and say incorrect things, bad things, even evil things. Ratzinger wouldn't even be the first Antipope to take the name Benedict ("blessed", ironically). There's a reason not all past Popes have been canonised as saints....

Meanwhile, we have the actual Catholic Church. Here in America, and in many other countries around the world, the church is making progress on understanding homosexuality as it is, rather than being stuck on how it used to be viewed. Gay men will continue to go to the seminary; the same routine that worked when it was bad to be gay will again work now that it's just bad to be gay and called to the priesthood. The gay men who are already priests will sigh, roll their eyes, and continue ministering just like they always have. Catholics will continue to form their own consciences, not just according to what they are fed by the Church, but also according to their own thoughts and prayer. And eventually, that guy over in Rome will die, and we'll try it all again.

"Hold this fragile world in your hands. Don't drop it." --Yevgeniy Yevtushenko

Posted by blahedo at 4:36pm on 25 Sep 2005
I think it's going to be a "don't ask, don't tell" thing or, possibly, "if asked, lie your ass off in the service of the Lord." If a man feels both a strong calling to the priesthood and strong homosexual desires now, he is in a position where he must either deny what he believes to be his calling from God or defy the doctrine of the Church and also enter the priesthood under false pretenses. Of course, this has always applied to women who have felt a strong calling to the priesthood. Posted by Greg at 10:16am on 26 Sep 2005
Is it just me, or did the Pope's picture in the BBC article look TOTALLY Palpatinish? I mean, he's one lightning zap away from EEEEvil. Glad he's not my PHB, religion-wise. Posted by Kim K. at 12:36pm on 27 Sep 2005
Yeah, I had the same thought about that picture; I read it as the BBC giving their editorial opinion on the matter. Posted by blahedo at 12:50am on 28 Sep 2005
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