Can a priest say “repent” in confession?

Chapel courtyard JPGWe seem to be nearing the end of the Vatican trial-balloon marathon about its document on the future of seminarians who disagree with the Catholic Church’s teachings on homosexuality.

Please notice that I did not say that this story is about the future of gay seminarians. Hold on to that thought for a minute because we have lots of ground to cover.

Yesterday’s stories were more trial balloons that did not look like trial balloons. It does seem that someone has leaked a copy of the Vatican document. Here is a typical posting on the World Wide Web. However, it is crucial to note that the official document is still not out, as far as the church is concerned. Also, there may be translation issues. Some Catholic bloggers are also raising some questions about authenticity.

Anyway, let’s say that this is the document. If so, I thought the Los Angeles Times had the most arresting first-day money quote, in the hard-news story — “Vatican Issues a Qualified Ban on Gays in Priesthood” — by Tracy Wilkinson and Maria De Cristofaro.

The document was quickly criticized by some gay rights sympathizers, who say the church does not understand homosexuality. A spokesman for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles said the instructions would have little, if any, effect on how seminaries in the Los Angeles area admit candidates.

In other words: Business as usual. No problems.

This is interesting, because this story comes not that long after a stunning Times report by Paul Pringle about life at St. John’s Catholic Seminary (pictured) in Camarillo, Calif. On one level, this story — “Trail of Abuse Leads to Seminary” — is about sex. Truth is, this is a story about seminary life and, thus, about doctrine.

The 66-year-old institution has trained hundreds of clerics for the archdiocese and smaller jurisdictions across Southern California and beyond. It is the alma mater of Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, Diocese of Orange Bishop Tod Brown and other prominent prelates. Former San Francisco Archbishop William Levada, now the Vatican’s chief enforcer of doctrine, taught at the school.

But St. John’s, the only seminary operated by the archdiocese, also has produced a disproportionate number of alleged sexual abusers as it prepared men for a life of ministry and celibacy, records show.

About 10% of St. John’s graduates reported to have been ordained in the Los Angeles Archdiocese since 1950 — 65 of roughly 625 — have been accused of molesting minors, according to a review of ordination announcements, lawsuits, published reports and the archdiocese’s 2004 list of alleged abusers. In two classes — 1966 and 1972 — a third of the graduates were later accused of molestation.

You can read the details. The key is that former seminary students insist that their professors had little interest in teaching or defending the Catholic faith’s doctrines on sexuality. Thus, they also had little interest in enforcing policies on sexuality. They did not see what they did not want to see.

Several former students recall a licentious atmosphere at St. John’s that might have accommodated a range of sexual behavior, especially in the years before the 1990s. They say that many classmates routinely broke their celibacy vows, that emotionally troubled students were allowed to drift though the seminary, and that administrators either were ignorant about sex on campus or turned a blind eye to it. Some told of seminarians having sex in St. John’s dormitories, bathrooms and orange groves.

There are many more details, but we need to move on. The key, as I noted in a column for Scripps Howard, is that this Vatican document on homosexuality is being released just as teams of Catholic examiners begin a wave of confidential “Apostolic Visitations” at the 229 U.S. seminaries. If you read the seminary document, you will see that this 12-page text has lots to say about the practice of celibacy and not much to say about homosexuality.

This brings us to today’s coverage of the “Vatican crackdown” on gay seminarians.

This is a day when the many liberal Catholics who work in the U.S. Catholic establishment wish that there were not so many liberal Catholic insiders and activists with telephone numbers locked in the speed-dials of so many reporters in the U.S. journalistic establishment. Progressive Catholics who wield power need quiet, right now, and they may not get it. Meanwhile, many conservative Catholics will stew in silence or take their critiques into the blogosphere.

You see, the question remains the same: Will anyone in Catholic seminaries teach, defend and enforce the church’s teachings on homosexuality (or, come to think of it, sexuality in general)? This question leads to even tougher questions, such as: “Will anyone openly discuss the fact that most cases of clergy sex abuse have been rooted in “ephebophilia” (sex with under-aged young people, almost always boys in this case) instead of “pedophilia” (sex with prepubescent children)?

MSM coverage continues to focus on the prevention of “pedophilia,” even though such cases are very rare and there is little or no evidence that gays are more likely to be pedophiles than are straights. Pedophilia is actually the safe subject, because most of the clergy scandals involve “ephebophilia.”

The Vatican documents seem to be stepping into a different minefield — gay sex and the moral defense of the same. This is where the going gets tough.

Here is the bottom line: The Vatican is trying to find men who will teach that sex outside of marriage is sin. cassromanfl 01

Note the word “sin.” Sin is supposed to lead to another word — “repentance.” This is, in Catholic tradition, supposedto be linked to another word — “confession.”

Thus, Laurie Goodstein has nailed the heart of this story (terrible headline, by the way) in the New York Times. It seems that the Vatican is suggesting that spiritual directors at it seminaries might want — in the context of confession — to suggest that gay seminarians, well, repent of any sinful acts or convictions and, well, consider leaving the seminary.

This makes total sense, if you believe the Catholic Church’s teachings are the truth. It makes no sense at all if you do not. There’s the rub. Many Catholics oppose the teachings of their church, including many in clerical collars and some in bishop’s vestments. They think it is time for doctrine to progress.

Some priests who talked to the New York Times said this policy would:

… (Turn) the confessional and spiritual counseling sessions, which seminarians previously regarded as private and supportive meetings, into a tool for weeding gay men out of seminaries.

“The relationship between a seminarian and his confessor or his spiritual director should not be about enforcing church documents, but to serve as spiritual guides,” said the Rev. Michael Herman, a priest in the Archdiocese of Chicago who has recently publicly identified himself as gay in order to speak out against the Vatican’s action. …

His reaction to the document was echoed by other priests and Roman Catholic organizations, who said that the church’s decree was discriminatory and hurtful to faithful chaste gay priests and would only exacerbate an already dire shortage of Catholic clergymen. But that was only one reaction to a Vatican directive that church experts say is intentionally sprinkled with undefined terms and left open to interpretation.

However, insiders are already saying that there is nothing in this document that will actually change what is happening at Catholic seminaries, unless the leaders of those seminaries want to make changes. Do these Catholic leaders — some, or even many, of them gay — want to make changes? Can the Vatican force them to make changes?

That’s the story, here. As the always candid Catholic progressive Father Donald Cozzens told the Washington Post:

“The first thought that comes to my mind is that this document is going to cause a good deal of human suffering,” said the Rev. Donald Cozzens, a former seminary rector and a professor at John Carroll University in Cleveland.

“Gay, committed, celibate priests and seminarians, and bishops, too, that happen to be gay, are going to find this instruction a source of spiritual pain,” Cozzens said.

Yes they will and many will want to fight back. Quietly. Silently. Without speaking to reporters. There is the heart of the story.

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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.

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  • Joe Perez

    “many will want to fight back.” One can only hope.

    P.S.: I held my thoughts about your inaccurate lead, tmatt, but didn’t see where you came back to the subject. Surely if the Vatican had wanted to issue a ruling on doctrine, it would have done so.

    P.P.S.: It really, really doesn’t work to claim as tmatt does that Catholic sexual doctrine is about not having sex outside of marriage. “The Vatican is trying to find men who will teach that sex outside of marriage is sin.” That’s not exactly right. Most married couples today engage frequently in sexual practices that are forbidden by Catholic doctrine (e.g., oral sex, touching to orgasm, non-procreative sex, use of artificial contraception, etc.) Sex outside of marriage may be a sin in the eyes of the Vatican, but it’s worth remembering that sex inside marriage is frequently just as sinful.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    As a father of 4 and grandfather of 7 I am sick and tired of so many bishops and theologians of my Church groveling at the feet of homosexual activists- some even willing to thumb their noses at the successor to St. Peter. Virtually all the priest abuse cases were cases of homosexual assaults. It is time for some righteous indignation. Where are those Christians who agree with Christ that some sins are so evil they cry out for their perpetrators to be punished so severely they would be better off thrown in the sea with a millstone around their necks? Three cheers for the people of Asia, Latin America, and Africa for recognizing what a morally sick nation America has become and is now infecting the Christian religion with its moral plague.

  • ccv

    I think it’s important to make the point that the word “celibacy” is often misused by reporters and even priests themselves (Cozzens, in this case).

    Celibacy means “not married,” it doesn’t mean, by definition, “abstinence.” The very word celibacy is rooted in Catholic teachings about sex, that is, that intercourse belongs within marriage between a man and a woman. If you are unmarried you are celibate (and therefore shouldn’t be having sex).

    The word people often should use (but don’t) instead of celibacy is “chastity.”

  • Joe Perez

    Deacon Bresnahan – Tell me what is this church of yours where gays such as myself can be met with bishops who grovel at our feet? I want to make a pilgrimage there!

    Congratulations on being a grandfather of many. As men of your advanced years die off, there will be many, many fewer people whose ideal of a moral sensibility is rounding up the homos and queers and throwing them into the sea to drown. You and your ilk are dying off and a younger, more inclusive, tolerant, loving, and compassionate world is rising up… good riddens.

  • http://getreligion Luna Ramphaga

    One question, how do will the church know the person is a homosexual before training them. will they have to confess that they are gay or will their appearance be used as the drawline. i am curious to know, how do u know this person is gay and should not join the priesthood, since most of them keep their sexuality secret. Thank u very much.

  • Patty Sarver

    “Truth is, this is a story about seminary life and, thus, about doctrine. ”
    How do you figure?