Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Finding Advent Hope: Critique of Clericalism, Paternalism, and Pastoral Abuse and the Path to Hope


I spend a lot of time complaining critiquing complaining.  Well, a bit of both here.  And my hope is that the complaining, the crying out, somehow reaches critique, as well, and is not just my own solipsistic reaching for therapeutic lamentation.

But, then, there’s the obligation to keep hoping, and Advent is a liturgical season that’s about rekindling hope.  And perhaps about reviewing the year, as days grow short and dark, and remembering that, amidst the encircling gloom, most years also carry glimmers of hope.


As I look back over this past year—a year of profound disappointment for me and many others, in the political sphere in the U.S., and continuing disappointment in the leaders of my Catholic church—I do see signs of hope, as well.  And I celebrate these, because we’re obliged to hope.

It’s hopeful to me, for instance, that one of the leading American Catholic journals of the center, National Catholic Reporter, has just given a weekly column to a young out lesbian Catholic journalist, Jamie Manson.  And so all that complaining and critiquing may not be for naught: the appeals of many of us calling for an opening at the center to the voices of gay and lesbian Catholics who refuse to scorn the natures and loves God has given us may be making a small dent in the walls that have historically shut us out.

I take hope, too, in the fact that a significant majority of U.S. citizens now recognize that what we’re doing when we bar people from military service simply because they are gay is an egregious violation of human rights.  It’s a hopeful sign that increasing numbers of Americans are beginning to understand that that there are human stories—real human stories, with real human lives and real human feelings—attached to abstract principles of human rights, and to the discrimination that results from denial of those principles.  

Real human beings hurt when walls are constructed to shut them out of participation in society and in faith communities, to isolate and single them out as less human than everyone else.  When leaders of religious groups that claim to be all about compassion and inclusion command the construction and maintenance of segregating walls, the pain of those walled in is redoubled.  

And I pledge myself to keep hoping, though it looks as if the walls of don’t ask, don’t tell aren’t about to fall anytime soon, because our political leaders lack the moral commitment to stop playing ugly games with gay lives, and because they believe that, in engaging in these games, they have the wide support of many people of faith and the leaders of faith communities.  I hope against hope, despite the choice of the leaders of my own faith community to stand for cruelty and unjust discrimination, at this point in the history of my church.

But hope does demand critique, since without critique, we don’t know where to aim our hope-inspired actions to build a more humane world.  Critique clears the path ahead of us, or, at the very least, points to areas of obstruction, of dense brush and huge boulders that must be removed to make the path straight and open for hope’s journey to the future.

And so I spend time here engaging manifestations of cultural trends that may often appear silly to engage—manifestations that may appear beneath notice, since surely no rational or well-motivated human being could give a second thought to many of these ideas, let alone seek to impose them on society at large.

Ideas like this: as Andrew Sullivan has just noted at his Daily Dish site, New Oxford Review reported back in 2006 that the vocations director and vice-chancellor of the Catholic diocese of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Fr. James Mason, wants to root “effeminate” men out of Catholic seminaries.  In an article in the highly regarded (!) Catholic journal Homiletic & Pastoral Review, Mason argues that many seminaries suffer the “vice” of effeminacy in seminary candidates, because not a few bishops, seminary faculty members, and priests have themselves succumbed to this vice.

Aquinas is right, Mason argues, to define effeminacy as a vice, noting that what is vicious about this presumably chosen form of behavior (since something can’t be our vice if we have no control over it) is that it conduces to “delicacy” and is opposed to perseverance.  Presumably, the vice of effeminacy makes the bull lament that he shatters the delicate china in the shop as he perseveres in his bullish behavior.  But good bulls don’t lament.  Not even when delicate china bites the dust.  They just persist in being what God has made them to be: bullish.  And damn the consequences.

And so our seminaries are full, Fr. Mason appears to believe,  of vice, since they are full of delicate seminarians who “sway” and flail their “limp wrists” as they act like the “drama queens” that they are, and as they “lisp” in preparation for the “Liberace-like” liturgical shows they plan to stage when ordained.

And what to do with this mess?  Or why even pay any attention to it?  It does deserve attention, I would argue, because this macho-homophobic reading of the malaise of the clerical system in the contemporary church exerts a far more powerful influence on the thinking of many Catholics, and, more significantly, on the decisions of top leaders of the church, than many of us realize.  After all, no less than Pope Benedict himself recently informed German journalist Peter Seewald that gay men shouldn’t be ordained, since they are estranged in their very natures from the “proper sense of paternity” that is intrinsic to the nature of priesthood—a claim that Terry Weldon subjects to damning scrutiny in the Open Tabernacle posting to which I’ve just linked.

It is this claim—priests need to act like proper fathers, not limp-wristed drama queens—that lies behind the ugly choice of the Vatican to bar gays from the seminaries.  It is this claim that lies behind the false homophobic premise on which the decision to bar gays from the seminaries rests: the premise that, if we root gays out of the priesthood, we’ll have resolved the abuse crisis.  

Since that crisis is all about, the bishops and Vatican want us to believe, the gays.  Not about the behavior of the bishops and the Vatican.

The dishonorable and dishonest cultural suspicion that the cure to some of the most significant ills from which the church suffers at this point in its history lies in weeding swaying, lisping, limp-wristed drama queens out from seminaries runs powerfully through Catholicism at this point in its history—particularly through the segment of American Catholicism that Fr. Mason represents.  If you doubt it (and if you can stomach this pedagogical exercise), I suggest that you spend several days watching reruns of every program you can find on the influential EWTN network for the past, say, ten years.

And if you do that, I suggest that you’ll come away from your viewing convinced that, in some sectors of American Catholicism, there’s a curious, all-determinative obsession at this point in Catholic history with the challenge of recovering the manly priests we believe we had in the past, when things were right with the church.  Not a few Catholics right now appear to imagine that everything—literally everything—hinges on the recovery of clerical masculinity, and the reassertion of a threatened masculinity in the culture at large.  The very future of the church depends on removing Liberace from the altar and putting John Wayne back in his place—on bringing the bull back to the clerical china shop.

I wonder about the rational application of these ideas.  I wonder, that is to say, whether those promoting them as the cure par excellence for what ails us have given even a whisper of rational thought to what they’re proposing.  Have they thought, for instance, about how culturally determined ideas about masculinity and femininity are?  Would they automatically exclude from the priesthood all candidates from Middle Eastern cultures in which men hold hands in the streets without embarrassment, because European and North and South American men regard male hand-holding as a sign of feminine weakness?

And where would they find the psychological screening tests to sort the delicate limp-wristed seminarian from the bullish one?  Are there any professionally recommended psychological tests around anymore that purport to screen for femininity in men?  Do any reputable professionals in the field of psychoanalysis think any longer that there are inbuilt, hard and fast, “natural” standards of behavior that separate male from female in the realm of psychology?

And what to do with the bullish seminarians who sail through the screening for limp-wristed, swaying, lisping men, but who exhibit serious pathological tendencies that seem to have everything to do precisely with their machismo?  It’s reported by many credible sources that Minnesota priest Ryan Erickson, who had a history of abuse of minors, and whose macho clerical career turned into a nightmare, was a quintessential man’s man.

As a high school student, he was active in wrestling, football, track, and cross-country.  He enjoyed filling gopher holes with water and then smashing the heads of the gophers as they emerged from the ground.  He was infatuated with guns and hunting, and was a first-rate shot.  He enjoyed tossing cats in the air and useing them as objects for his target practice.  He loved to smoke cigars, and burned his dogs’ ears with them for sport.

As a priest, he could not have been more macho-paternalistic, in the traditional sense of that word: a fellow priest found him “traditionalist, conservative, head strong, and very rigid.”  He was known to be “very faithful” to Catholic rubrics—no lisping, swaying, or Liberace showmanship for this manly priest!—as he presided at the altar with his semi-automatic pistol strapped around his waist under his vestments.  He brought boys of his parish to the woods and rivers and taught them to shoot, showing them how to line fish on the riverbank and “explode them” with gunshots.  He showed the young men in his pastoral charge violent macho movies.  He himself bubbled over with typical masculine traits like rage, belligerence, and authoritarian reaction to those who challenged him.

At the same time, he instructed his adolescent charges that all lapses in sexual morality, including masturbation, were strictly forbidden and unmanly.  He prided himself on being “strong and forceful” when he preached, and wrote passionate screeds about the church’s need to remove from its midst the cancer of dissent.  Military obedience is, Fr. Erickson evidently believed, the path to salvation—for himself personally, for the church as a whole.

And then, when the obvious, painful chasms running all through his personality finally opened too wide, he went on to murder two men and take his own life.

And the point of that story is this: Ryan Erickson would fly through any test Fr. Mason set up to screen good seminary candidates from bad.  Ryan Erickson was Benedict’s man with “a proper sense of paternity” in spades.  He absolutely fulfilled the masculine ideal that many Catholics for whom this ideal is the end all and be all of religion imagine to be at the center of proper paternal behavior.

He was the perfect bull to bring into the china shop of the priesthood.  Like any bull brought into any china shop, he smashed dishes right and left.  And quite a few human lives in the process.

The analysis of the cure to the problems that ail the Catholic church being promoted by Fr. James Mason of Sioux Falls does not make rational sense.  This is an irrational proposal to solve a problem that has not been sufficiently analyzed at a rational level, since the intent of those promoting such irrational solutions to the problems from which the church suffers now is precisely to screen the real problems—the real problems of clericalism, paternalism, and abuse of pastoral power—from rational analysis.

And, as always happens when real problems go unattended to while people run after imaginary hares down rabbit holes of irrational analysis, the real problems only grow deeper every day.  Those problems are, as I say, clericalism, paternalism, and abuse of pastoral power.

Hope for the future of the Catholic church lies in addressing those problems.  And the longer these problems go unattended to while we beat up on swaying, limp-wristed, and lisping men, the longer real hope will continue to evade us.

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