Objections and Additions to “A Closeted Subculture”

Objections and Additions to “A Closeted Subculture” August 24, 2018

I’m still thinking about the point I tried to make on Monday, about how talk of an abusive “homosexual subculture” in the Church usually ignores the fact that these subcultures are, specifically, closeted subcultures. That post invites three pretty obvious objections.

The first objection is that the closet is a peripheral issue, or even a distraction, when the real problem in the Catholic Church is the same problem as everywhere else: power. After all, the closet is not an especially relevant factor in Hollywood or the ’70s rock industry or elite gymnastics or opera and classical music or or or… etc. The central experience, the central problem, of abuse in the Church is not closeted homosexuality but, “If I tell people what this man has done, he will make sure that terrible things happen to me.” And that’s something people think every day in schools, hotels, theaters, police cars; and in their homes.

This objection seems basically right to me. There are ways that being closeted oneself can make someone especially vulnerable to threats and manipulation, but everybody is vulnerable in some way. The central story of abuse in the Church is that priests abused people sexually and then their superiors covered it up (if they weren’t participating themselves). That’s the story whether priests were abusing girls, boys, men, or women; and whether they were choosing victims based solely on opportunity, or on preference.

But cultures–and subcultures–do shape how power is abused and how victims are silenced. I don’t think it’s completely inappropriate to ask about specific subcultures in the Church, including “homosexual subcultures,” as long as we don’t pretend that these subcultures are the only sources or seedbeds of abuse. Chris Damian does a much better job than I did at sorting through the “three crises” rather than conflating them.

The second objection is that I really know nothing about the dynamics of sexual abuse in the Church, and what I know about the closet is not applicable here. I’ve spoken with maybe four clergy and religious who told me they were gay or same-sex attracted. As far as I know, none of them have had sex with anybody, under any circumstances, at least since they entered religious life. The thought process of a man trying to serve faithfully in that situation is just totally different from the thought process of somebody who is not even attempting chastity and basically treats (for example) seminary as a sexual smorgasbord. (Similarly, one might say that when priests and hierarchs protect abusers because they’re afraid that their own secrets will be revealed, those secrets often involve not simply being gay but being sexually-active.)

There’s some truth to this. I hope nobody takes my perspective on this stuff more seriously than it deserves, since my knowledge and understanding is so limited. And I definitely do not want generalizations about the way the closet can warp people to become condemnations of every closeted priest. So many of them make a wholehearted surrender to Christ.

But I’m not convinced it is that easy to distinguish the sheep from the goats. There are sheep who will be sheep no matter what. But many of us are, at best, sheep when sheephood is supported by those around us, and if you damage us enough, we start lookin’ real goatlike around the eyes. I don’t think there’s a fixed percentage of men who will abuse their power–or, if there is, it’s a percentage much smaller than the percentage who actually have abused their power in the Church. Some of them are doing it because they have been deeply damaged by the Church’s culture; and that includes, for those who are gay or same-sex attracted, the culture of the closet.

The third objection is that these guys just were not closeted. “How can you say that the problem is the closet or shame when what stands out most about some of the stories from the seminaries, especially, is just how breathtakingly shameless they were?”, basically. Some of the men who used their power to harass, abuse, slander, and silence others come across as acting out of a sense of total impunity. And there are those who have used claims of Sensitivity and Understanding toward gay people as a cover for unchastity and impiety. That kind of disingenuousness can obviously create an environment where secrecy, and therefore abuse and cover-up, flourishes.

Here is a story about a corrupt seminary, a kind of nightmare carnival of blasphemy and harassment. I don’t know the author and can’t vouch for his account, other than to say that many elements of it are familiar from other accounts.

The author is gay himself, which may explain why he so clearly evokes the way this seminary was shaped by the closet. It may seem like he’s describing a place of shamelessness; it’s also a place of intense shame. In virtually every paragraph there is some mention of the closet’s effects: in his own desire to escape his orientation by becoming a priest, in the traditionalism as mechanism of denial, in the mistrust and “acting” and needling and projection; in the role of alcohol.

Opening closet doors won’t end abuse. (What ever has?) But it would, at least, mean the end of experiences like what this ex-seminarian went through.

In my initial post I suggested that there was no reason that a Church in which priests felt free to come out would actually be a Church with more gay priests. There might even be fewer gay priests in such a church. Gabe Giella’s story (here it is again) suggests the reason: Gay people who see no future for themselves in the Church often seek out religious life as a way to have some kind of vocation, some hope of membership in the Body of Christ–and some escape from self-confrontation, some way to avoid coming out. Where acknowledging that you’re gay no longer means losing your hope of love, losing your future as a Catholic, it will be so much less terrifying. I may be going beyond what I can know when I say that Giella’s fellow seminarians sound like men in the grip of rage and despair, hating God and themselves and other people. And a church where gay people are free from that septic Catholicism will be, I think, a more holy and more servantlike church–and a safer one.

Again, please offer any objections and corrections; I’m sorry if I’ve gone beyond what I’ve been given to say on this subject.

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