Clericalism and the Emotionally insecure

I am not qualified to catalogue the psycho-sexual disorders of a Roman Catholic priest who finds it necessary to scream, while leaving the office of a professional woman, “Get back in your cage, woman,” and then announce to a clerical staff unsurprised by this latest display of inanity and psychological imbalance, “Where is my whip, get me my whip!” When confronted by the woman so regarded by him, the priest, I am told, became enraged, threw items off his desk, rose and appeared to threaten her with bodily harm. He defended his “back in your cage” and “get me my whip” remarks as intended for the street-wise Hispanic students who work part-time in his office.

Which set me to wondering about the current review of seminary education in the United States. While we often complain about the deleterious effects of clericalism, including its above-described seamier sides, we are ignorant of its causes except for the usual and glib understandings that weakness attracts weakness, and power is mecca to the incompetent, insecure and insincere. No doubt celibacy is attractive to those with a poor self-image, but somehow we always thought the Church was able to weed the psycho-sexual invalids out before ordination. With the present shortage of celibate male candidates for the priesthood and the past twenty years or so of declining numbers and loosening requirements, the Church is now saddled with priests totally incapable of working with laity, male or female, precisely at the point when they must learn to do so. There is little possibility of retrofitting the incomplete psyches loose about the Church, but there is both the possibility and outright need to examine what is happening with regard to the understanding of personality within the nearly empty seminaries in the United States, or the reactionary clericalism will increase, and soon there will be more than enough priests—for the congregations will have been driven out, shaking their recollective heads.

This goes beyond the already overwhelming “relevancy” which is muddling the minds of seminary students and clearly beyond or in addition to the lack of education, in many seminaries, of the meaning of the prayer of the Church and of personal prayer. It is the simple, underlying danger, recognizable in many ordained priests, of maintaining or encouraging a clericalism which is so fearful of women that it attracts only those who are absolutely terrified of them.

So, here’s to you, teams of seminary reviewers. Please, for the love of the Church, take a look at the psychological screening processes underway within seminaries. Take a look at the screeners. Tell them a joke which makes all women the butt and see if they react like “good old boys” or whether they find it distasteful and childish. See if there’s a woman teacher or two—not as part of a witch hunt, simply to see if the students have any inkling at all of the possibilities of a woman’s intellect or ever been taught to respect them as professionals. See if there is even one book written by a woman, other than a dead saint, on the curriculum—not renegade work, but good scholarship or even good fiction which will encourage these now and future celibates to view women as more than objects of temptation, scorn or ridicule. And find out if they’re still told that all single women, especially divorcees, are engaged in a nationwide conspiracy to seduce priests, all priests, as a recently ordained young man has told, me.

If the picture of women presented to these seminarians is only as viewed through the eyes of those who have not yet come to grips with their own humanity, let alone the humanity of women, the Church is in for a sad retrenching. Such a view, complimented by the public pornographic mindset of the secular world, solidifies the personalities of those who entered with poor views of themselves and even poorer views of women.

For the Church of the future is not made of professional women who can laugh off the comments of an outright jerk, or of well- or ill-intentioned seminarians, but rather of thousands of street-wise Spanish kids and their counterparts around the world who know better than any that a system which allows sickness will die off of its own internal ills.


  • Phyllis Zagano

    When Crisis was originally published in 1982, Phyllis Zagano was Assistant Professor in the Department of Communications at Fordham University.

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