Below is part 7 of a series of posts presenting excerpted videos and transcripts of an interview I conducted October 14, 2012 with my college best friend John Hazlet, whose struggles with doubt and depression were instrumental in my personal deconversion. (The full two part interview is here and here.) At the time of our interview John was a Benedictine monk, publicly discussing his homosexuality and struggles with mental illness. In June of 2013, John left the monastery. He is in a relationship with a man. He remains a Catholic. In the segment of our interview excerpted and transcribed below, John takes seriously a hypothesis that celibacy for priests is infantilizing and contributory to the molestation scandals plaguing the Church.
Dan Fincke: Now, do you… is there a lot of… I mean, I asked some of my facebook friends for questions for you. And one of them said that he worked with a monastery that was Episcopal, and they had a small number of monks, and he said, Nearly all of them were gay. And he wanted to ask, “What’s up with that?” [Both laugh] Like, is there a lot of open homosexuality in the monasteries? I mean, a lot of people think, the only reason you would be a priest is because… and, you know, and deal with the burden of celibacy, is because you were gay and you didn’t have an outlet for that. And related to this, a harsher kind of a charge: Andrew Sullivan very frequently will blame the, uh, the sexual abuse scandals on what he considers to be a sexual arrested development. That the Church has not… you know, that the vows of celibacy kind of freeze people sexually at this age in which they’re taking their vows, and so… or when they’re kind of beginning their sexuality, and they’re kind of suppressing it. And so he thinks that there’s… that that may be some… and it is, of course, armchair psychology. But this is… what he’s saying may contribute to their tendency towards their identifying with young people, and their sexuality, rather than adult sexuality.
Bede (John) Hazlet: Well, first, I can only speak about my own monastery. And I don’t think it’s true that most of us are gay, I think most of the monks of our community are straight. I know I’m not the only one, but certainly, gay monks are not in the majority. And I think that’s probably true for most monasteries, that we’re… maybe there are a bit more gay monks than there would be gay people in the population at large, but I don’t think we’re a majority. Maybe other specific monasteries could be an exception, like this Anglican one your friend mentioned. And I think it’s also important to recognize, being celibate is not part of the essence of vocation as a priest. It’s part of what has been the practice of the Roman Church for centuries, but it’s not essential. It’s not the practice of Eastern Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Churches; their priests can be married. So it’s a disciplinary norm, it’s not the essence of the thing. And that’s something that I think needs to be discussed. It is part of the essence of being a monk. As a monk, you commit yourself to a life of singleness in community, and you really need to have a specific sense of calling to that. And that’s something that I find fascinating. I mean, it’s certainly a struggle for me to live this way. And yet, my therapist, who is not Catholic, has no particular sympathy for monastic life, although she’s not opposed to it, thinks that I myself am just suited to a life of not being coupled, based on our fairly deep plumbing of my personality of a period of almost a year now.
Dan Fincke: Yeah, I’ve always thought that the idea of you living in a community with, you know, fellow theologically inclined people, philosophical people, you know, men, that always made perfect sense to me. When you said you were going to become a monk, I said, for a [garbled – John?], I can see that.
Bede (John) Hazlet: Yeah. That doesn’t mean I’m asexual. That doesn’t mean I don’t have the kinds of desires that would lead me to want to be in a relationship with someone in a sexual way…
Dan Fincke: Right.
Bede (John) Hazlet: … but I think she has a point. And I think that point, it would also be true of quite a lot of monks. That there are some people who without being asexual, have aspirations or priorities in their lives or a temperament that would make it… that would make it quite understandable that they would live in a celibate communal sort of way. So I don’t think there’s anything inherently diseased about this way of life, and I think, in fact, for those of us who are, to put it theologically, called to it, it really is a good and fruitful way of life.
Dan Fincke: Yeah.
Bede (John) Hazlet: So, there’s that. I think…
Dan Fincke: Monks have a reputation for happiness.
Bede (John) Hazlet: What?
Dan Fincke: Yeah, monks have a reputation for happiness, so.
Bede (John) Hazlet: Yeah, and you know, as someone who has struggled with depression since puberty, I think I am more content now than I’ve been since puberty, in a more consistent way. So… that doesn’t mean I don’t struggle with things. But in human life, one is going to struggle with things, that’s just how it is. But, I think Andrew Sullivan, whom I’ve not read, does have a point there. This is something that I’ve noticed and that I’ve talked about with other monks. That a life of celibacy in community can be maturing. When it goes well, when you try, at least, to live it with integrity, and the community supports you in that, it can, I think, over the years, make you very deeply, humanly mature. And I’ve seen that as a reality in the lives of some of my own confreres here. On the other hand, I think it can be approached in a way that’s basically infantilizing. You never enter into that, kind of, basic adult relationship of marriage; you never have the adult responsibility of children; you do work, but you don’t have to work for a living in the normal sense, you work for the welfare of the whole monastery, but your household is not dependent on your labor; you don’t have to worry about things like health insurance; and so forth. And although that might seem superficial, I think those are things that structurally help people to becom mature, by needing to deal with adult responsibilities.
Bede (John) Hazlet: Okay.
Dan Fincke: Besides the 40 Year Old Virgin.
Bede (John) Hazlet: Right. … And I think … I mean, monastic life is good. It’s been very good for me, I think it’s the best way of life for me, although I can’t pretend to be very mature. But it is risky, like any demanding way of life. It’s very potential for helping you to become more fully human, deeper and more mature, has another side if it’s appropriated in the wrong way that can have exactly the opposite effect, it can be infantilizing, it can lead to a sort of failure to mature as a human being. And I personally think that this probably does have something to do with this whole sexual abuse scandal. A lot of the priests implicated in it, come from a generation of priests who entered the seminary when they were teenagers, and whose whole life, including such development of the sexuality as happened, took place in the context of Church institutions. I know some priests who have emerged from that experience, and are quite healthy people.
But it’s an experience that has the potential to have a very different effect, a similarly if not more drastically infantilizing effect. If, from puberty on, you’re the son of these various institutions, the high school, the seminary, the minor seminary, the college seminary… or, the Theologate, and so forth, I think there is a lot of potential for not coming to terms with your sexuality, especially if the whole question of sexuality is handled in the way that it used to be handled, which was not very … helpful, it seems to me, based on experiences described to me by people who have gone through this system. You were basically encourage not really to think about it very much; more or less to suppress that dimension of yourself. And like most suppressed or repressed things, sexuality has a tendency to reemerge with a vengeance at some point.
That culture has been largely dismantled in our own time. There are very, very few high school seminaries. Most seminarians begin their studies in their late twenties, thirties, even forties or fifties. We don’t accept applicants to our monastery until they’re at least in their twenties, we kind of expect them to have a bachelor’s degree already, although that’s not hard and fast. Whereas there was a time when it wasn’t all that unusual to enter the monastery as a teenager. And there again, I know monks who entered in their teens, and for whom monastic life has been exactly what they needed to flourish as human beings, but that’s not always going to be the case. And, in fact, I think there’s a fairly high risk in our own cultural context that something very different will be the case. So, I think… is it Andrew Sullivan?
Dan Fincke: Yeah.
Bede (John) Hazlet: You know, I think he has a point that the Church needs to take to heart, and that I think the Church is little by little taking to heart. Sexuality is now discussed openly and explicitly, teenagers are generally not accepted into formation for priesthood or monastic life, and so forth.
The rest of the excerpted videos and transcripts from the interview:
How Catholic Moral Teaching On Sexuality Is Evolving
Does A Good God Guide The Catholic Church? A Debate
Is The Catholic Church’s Treatment of Gays Morally Defensible? A Debate
A Gay Monk Argues Against Reparative Therapy
On Treating Mental Illness, Rather Than Romantically Theologizing It
How the Catholic Church’s Views on Gays Might Evolve
The transcripts in this series were created this summer by Josiah “BibleName” Mannion. He donated his time to produce the more than 22,000 word transcript of the entire interview.