Male Homosexuality and Priestly Formation

There is no homosexuality. Of course, there are homosexuals, but there is no one thing, no one condition or syndrome that is homosexuality. If we are to address the “homosexual problem” in the Church, then we must first understand what we are talking about, and whatever that is, it is not a thing called homosexuality.

We know that many homosexuals come from dysfunctional families marked by a dominant mother and weak or absent father. Others have experienced some sort of sexual trauma while growing up. And there are others who are simply attracted to men and not to women. Beyond this, there is little or no evidence of some kind of “gay gene” or genetic cause for homosexuality. God made each one of us, but he did not make anyone to be gay—or lesbian or trans, for that matter. There is more, however, to the issue of homosexuality, much more. Two instances are especially important to our story.

The first is situational homosexuality. In some exclusively male settings—we may think of English boarding schools in another era (so it is said) and certainly of contemporary prisons—a man’s only sexual outlet is another man. Characteristically this involves the older or the more powerful preying sexually upon the weaker or younger. The second instance, less notorious perhaps but also more important, is cultural homosexuality, the most noteworthy instance of which is ancient Athens. Read Plato’s Charmides, Republic, or Symposium. In the homosexualized culture, sexual encounters between men are not only common but normal. In ancient Greece, the status of women was so degraded as to constitute an inducement for educated men to seek intimacy with bright, attractive boys. In such a culture the pattern of stronger-over-weaker also appears. Neither of these forms of homosexuality is about individual men having certain sexual desires or inclinations. Once out of prison, a man will go back to his wife or girlfriend. Contemporary Athenian men are no more inclined than others to adopt a homosexual lifestyle.

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Let us now turn to consider the situation in the Church in the United States and the rest of the West. We know the statistics that although about two-thirds of abuse minors are female, four-fifths of victims of priests are male. Clearly, homosexuality is at work here in a way that it is not in families, schools, youth organizations, or even other churches. And from this there arises the debate. Some say or imply that gays ought to be barred from the priesthood, while others worry about a “witch hunt” for gays. The argument at work on both sides is whether some contingent of homosexual men have entered or are trying to enter the Catholic clergy. This is probably—almost certainly—not happening. The principal task at hand is not to detect these gay infiltrators and keep them out. In fact, we are looking at the issue in the wrong way.

We need to look at seminaries and the academic culture within the Church. Despite protests to the contrary, we know well that in many seminaries there has (or had) been a culture of homosexuality. There are stories about “lavender mafias” and Theodore McCarrick’s notorious beach house. Like a prison, the seminary populace is entirely male. On the other hand, the seminarians are preparing for a life of celibacy, serving God’s people in love. The problem is not only environmental but cultural. We hear reports that, in many seminaries, students were taught that “celibacy” means “not getting married” and that celibacy does not necessarily entail a renunciation of sex. Since marriage and children are not involved, homosexual sex may be acceptable to the priest. When classes are over and liturgical obligations met, then students can “play.”

Just as significant, if not even more so, are the errors in teaching. Even as many bishops and seminary rectors have worked hard to clean up the “lavender mafia” influence in seminaries, seriously flawed moral theology continues. For instance, when Pope St. John Paul II released his Reconciliatio et Paenitentia in 1984, prominent moral theologians objected to his account of mortal sin, arguing that it is almost impossible for most people to sin mortally. A sin may be serious but seldom mortal, especially where sins “below the belt” are concerned. John Paul II’s encyclical on moral theology, Veritatis Splendor, rebutted this position, arguing clearly and cogently that some acts are intrinsically evil and endanger one’s eternal salvation.

The response to this encyclical was even more negative, as moral theologians rejected the pope’s conclusions and even his right to teach them. In short, even if significant steps were undertaken to change the moral tone of seminaries, the mindset of moral theologians teaching in many Catholic institutions was hostile to the Church’s teaching of morality. The problem is widespread. For the past 35 years, despite the papacy of John Paul II and his strong teaching on the requirements of Catholic moral life, many young men have been ordained to the priesthood with an inadequate grasp of the foundations of moral realities. Many voices we hear today ignore his theology of the body; indeed, many seem to wish it to disappear, calling instead for a new “theology of love.”

The young man entering the seminary is at the peak of his powers, not only physically but also sexually. In a way, his body demands a wife. Precisely within this context a young man can be challenged to embrace Christ’s call to a total gift of himself in celibacy to Christ and his bride, the Church. To respond to this call requires sexual maturity. Just as a prospective bride is wise to reject a suitor who is obsessed with sex and the pleasures of a woman’s body, so, too, must the Church reject any prospective seminarian who is similarly obsessed with his own sexual needs, whether he sees them as satisfied with a woman or a man. The Church does not so much need to weed out gay prospects as to weed out the sexually immature. The priest or prospective priest is to be mature enough that he is not even concerned with his sexuality. And the Church needs to supply those she accepts with institutions that foster virtue and proper intellectual preparation. In a way, homosexuality—whatever that is—must be irrelevant to anyone who hopes to serve Christ in holiness and purity.

(Photo credit: Daniel Ibanez/CNA)


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