A book about gay catholic priests and the clergy sexual abuse scandal seems a timely and important contribution to contemporary discussions about the Catholic Church and its future. The John Jay College of Criminal Justice data showed a large number of the clergy allegations involved young male victims. But this volume, part of the Gay and Lesbian Studies series of Harrington Park Press, fails to fulfill its promise. Even the title is somewhat misleading in several ways. Among the sixteen contributors there are former priests and seminarians who were and are gay, but no present priests. Five gay women also contribute.
Most disappointing is that the main referent point is not the scandal but the book The Silence of Sodom: Homosexuality in Modern Catholicism by Mark Jordan, published in 2000 by the University of Chicago Press. Several of the essays derived from the November 2000 panel organized by the Gay Men’s Issues in Religion group of the American Academy of Religion to mark the importance of Jordan’s book. In his chapter here, Jordan describes his book as an effort to articulate a “freer Catholic queerness” by including voices “excluded by the parochialism of official teaching” in order “to construct a counter-canon of shockingly Catholic texts.” Jordan describes his adolescent conversion from Unitarianism to Catholicism in terms of the attractions offered by its sublimated erotic liturgy (robes, incense, near naked icons, etc.) that culminates in the shared erotic ingestion of the consecrated body of Christ. The priest sexual scandal is peripheral to his autobiographically based analysis and the commenting essayists do not explicitly attempt to integrate the Jordan book and the crisis. They comment on the book and then on the crisis. All but one of the contributors (more on her later) are mostly celebratory towards the Silence of Sodom and they analyze the issue of gay priests entirely in terms of official hypocrisy and the psychological and spiritual costs of enforced silence. They anticipate a forthcoming Vatican inspired scapegoating and inquisition of gay priests rather than a confrontation with the real problem which, as summarized by the editors, “(I)s with a church structure and hierarchy that fosters evasion, dishonesty, silencing, scapegoating, misogyny, internalized homophobia, and hypocricy” (5). The essays lean more toward the biographical and less toward the social scientific. The tone is entirely victims blaming the structure.
Almost all of the analyses consist of a Foucault-like deconstruction of Catholic texts (literary and lived) as masks for hierarchical power and the colonization of priests and laity. There are several explicit calls for a Catholic Stonewall. The common theme is that the Catholic Church is simultaneously in culture homoerotic and in practice fiercely homophobic. But this paradox is lamented rather than analyzed, much less explained. The contributors assume that the scapegoating of gay priests will escalate but none of the contributors turn their attention to the analysis offered by the National Review Board for the Protection and Children and Young People’s February 2004 “A Report on the Crisis in the Catholic Church in the United States.” The NRB, authorized by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, attempted a careful and nuanced consideration of the question of clergy sexual orientation and the sexual abuse of children. “(A)lthough neither the presence of homosexually oriented priests nor the discipline of celibacy caused the crisis, an understanding of the crisis is not possible without reference to these issues. There are no doubt, many outstanding priests of a homosexual orientation who live chaste, celibate lives, but any evaluation of the causes and contexts of the current crisis must be cognizant of the fact that more than eighty percent of the abuse at issue was of a homosexual nature. Likewise, celibacy does not cause sexual abuse; but the Church did an inadequate job both of screening… and of forming others..”
The NRB added a suggestion with regard to homosexuals and seminary training. Given the fact that the seminary is a male dominated site and the permanence of an external gay subculture, the NRB considered whether homosexual candidates might require some specialized or additional formation to help them with the challenges of achieving a chaste celibacy. Should this consideration be considered rash, prudent, prejudicial, homophobic? Is the question valid? In his comments for the volume, Jordan writes (p. 267): “If our only business (as gay Catholics) is to criticize official pronouncements or oppressions, to narrate our griefs or recite our martyrologies, then we are not very good theologians.” If we apply Jordan’s criteria to the volume, only one of the essays makes for good theological reading, for only one moves beyond assured declaration to tough self-questioning. In her contribution “Lessons From Our Neighbors: An Appreciation and a Query to Mark Jordan,” Karen Lebacqz, an ethician at the Pacific School of Religion, reflects on the broader study of sex offenders and religion produced by the Protestant Churches to ask some telling questions that none of the Catholic contributors raises. “How is one,” she straightforwardly asks, “to be gay and celibate at the same time” (p. 201). More theoretically, she asks if being gay is not simply something to be discovered and then enacted but is, as Jordan and the other contributors suggest, “a sexual being under construction at all times, the dilemma is how, then, would we know what is ‘true’ gay or lesbian identity? How would we set any limits to acceptable sexual behavior? … If sexuality is fluid and there are no models to adopt, can one with consistency claim that any behaviors are ultimately wrong? … In short, by recognizing that all expression of sexuality has been distorted, and that we must not simply liberate but construct sexual identity, does Jordan open the door to a kind of ethical relativism that fails to set any limits?” (204-5).
Perhaps it’s too early for reflexive questions. Reflexive equilibrium is difficult to achieve in the midst of a cultural storm. Still, many questions abound and not all of them from ill-will. The rest of the contributors seem content simply, and reductively, to make honesty the supreme value and to dismiss with a deconstructionist hand as masked and hypocritical power-needs any hesitations in the tradition or from authority about active same sex sexuality, in and out of clerical life. Jordan himself offers a second criteria for appraising the liberating work he and others attempt. “Queer Catholic theologians – or, rather, aspirants to that beautiful title – ought to try to write how Jesus transfigures their lives too” (267). I found little detail about any spiritual transfiguration. In their Introduction the editors inform the reader that the contributing authors write with “a great deal of pride and a tinge of justifiable divine righteousness.” The editors are right about the contributors’ tone but they fail to recognize that, for many readers, while it adds to the sociological interest this tone subtracts from the literary, and religious, value of the book.