Sex talks, behind closed Vatican doors

vatican7It seems that the Rt. Rev. Douglas LeBlanc and young Daniel Pulliam are both traveling this long weekend and I am all alone with the hurricanes, the U.S. Supreme Court and who knows what all. So I am, in my own way, going to punt. This means I am going to keep mining my deep, deep file of major stories on which I wanted to blog last week and did not have the time.

The mainstream media knows that sex makes headlines. But journalists are much less sure what to do with issues that in which morality and theology mix and there is no clear outcome. Everyone would know what to do if the Vatican called a press conference and a choir belted out, “We’re banning gay priests!”

But how do you cover the debate? How do you report the themes and variations that lead up to this announcement or, more likely, the quiet compromise?

The specialty publications lead the way, of course. Thus, several weeks ago,we saw this news in a totally logical place. The omnipresent John L. Allen Jr. at the National Catholic Reporter wrote that the long-awaited Vatican document on the ordination of gay priests — celibate or noncelibate — was now in the hands of the pope. He spoke to several American bishops who had just been to Rome:

Privately, some hope Benedict will decide to put the document in a desk drawer for the time being, on the grounds that it will generate controversy and negative press without changing anything in terms of existing discipline.

As one bishop put it to me, the policy against ordaining homosexuals is already clear — the only interesting question is, what do you mean by a “homosexual”? At one end of the continuum, it could refer to anyone who once had a fleeting same-sex attraction; at another, it could be restricted to someone who is sexually active and openly part of a “gay pride” movement. Most people would exclude those extremes, but where is the line drawn in between?

This story drew little attention. Then the action moved to Great Britain, where the Observer moved the story a bit closer to the headlines. This time, the focus is on the rumors about the content.

Can you say “trial balloon” in Latin? I knew you could.

The document expresses the church’s belief that gay men should no longer be allowed to enter seminaries to study for the priesthood. Currently, as all priests take a vow of celibacy, their sexual orientation has not been considered a pressing concern. . . .

The instruction tries to dampen down the controversy by eschewing a moral line, arguing instead that the presence of homosexuals in seminaries is ‘unfair’ to both gay and heterosexual priests by subjecting the former to temptation.

The key to all of this is the long-awaited — some would say “delayed” — effort by the Vatican to study the state of Catholic faith and doctrine on 220 campuses, which vary from strict Catholic conservatism to the far fringes of virtual secularism. The bishops and investigators doing the review could ask lots of questions about lots of issues. I, personally, would ask about belief in the Resurrection and the singular nature of the life and ministry of Jesus. But everyone knows that sexuality is where the hammer will fall. The issue lurking in the background is this: If gays make up a high percentage of seminarians and the Vatican bans gays, what will this do to the shrinking pool of priests in North America?

Now the Associated Press is turning up the heat, with your basic ticking-clock story that says the Vatican document is “drawing keen attention” behind closed doors. This story adds another statistic that is sure to infuriate the Catholic left.

Vatican congregations have been studying the issue of gay priests — believed to account for a quarter to more than half of American priests — for years, but the scandal brought a renewed focus. About 80 percent of the nearly 11,000 cases entailed abuse of adolescent boys.

Actually, 80 percent is a very conservative estimate on the number of cases that involved “ephebophilia” — recurrent, intense sexual interest in post-pubescent young people — instead of “pedophilia.”

So what happens next?

I think Allen is on to something. The American bishops are going to do everything they can to get a document that offers vague terms and wiggle room. But is that possible, when the left and the right are paying extra close attention? Does anyone think that it is possible to ask modern and postmodern Catholic educators direct questions and get direct answers?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Chris

    I once asked a major Texan seminary vocations director (of a Catholic diocese) what he thought about homosexuals entering seminary. He responded by saying that flamboyantly homosexual priests can be somewhat confusing to some congregations and that their seminary disallowed ordination to those whom they deemed to not be able to live up to the celibate demands of ordination. He asked me my opinion and I agreed – this seemed to me to be the most reasonable approach. A man’s inner volitions (homo- or hetero-) seem to have little impact since either way those volitions are being sacrificed in service…

    That is, unless homosexuality is a mental illness (I know, I know – how morbidly un-PC of me! I’m just chasing an idea here, though), in which case a homosexual man, even should he be able and willing to live the celibate life dedicated to his flock, might be an inappropriate religious leader. But I digress – I realize GetReligion isn’t the forum to debate the mechanics of the problem.

    Of course the crux of the matter is that those so-called “virtually secular” seminaries will continue to do as they please, despite what the released document says, if/when it is released, if/when the media crazes over it, and the ultra-orthodox will continue to do what it is that they have been doing also, since in all likelihood the document will be more in line with the latter’s existing methodologies.

    The Church would then appear to be ready to gain nothing and merely loose public support after releasing this document.

    I hypothesize, though, that B16 will release it all the same (signed by a Congregation Cardinal, or signed by himself, the media splash may very well be the same either way), since he has said previously that he would much rather see a small, more orthodox and tightly-knit communion in the Faith than the cafeteria-Catholicity that is dominant.

    In essence, he has no need to flinch from the horrified reaction of the media and populace, since those who are truly Catholic will understand, and those who only call themselves Catholic will receive a shaken faith (assuming the media goes crazy over it), to which they can respond by bailing from the faith or not. What’s there for Rome to be afraid of?

    What can the media really do except catalyze what Benedict has asked for?

  • Phil Blackburn

    Interesting article, although I wonder if there’s a stray ‘not’ in the final paragraph?

    Is it possible that a perception in the West that RC seminaries are mostly gay could itself be partly responsible for the falling numbers applying? Could a very public stronger line actually increase numbers in the medium term? To have the best effect, of course, such a stronger line would need to provoke widespread reaction in the MSM.

  • Sean Gallagher

    Has any media coverage of this story included the upcoming Vatican-sponsored visitation of all U.S. seminaries, which will take place over the next three years? The visitation, by the way, came about in response to the sexual abuse crisis.

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