The National Catholic Review
Michael L. Papesh
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Welcome to the club! The bishop in a Midwestern diocese offered these words of greeting as he exchanged the sign of peace with each new priest during the ordination ceremony. The year was 1965. The story was told among a group of newly ordained priests, who struck me as both embarrassed and tickled by it. As a 14-year-old seminarian at the time, I was alerted, in the hearing, to the clerical culture. Back when seminaries and rectories were packed, the clerical culture was, for some of us, a factor in the enormous appeal of ordained ministry. It is time, I think, to bid farewell to the club.

The local rectory was the residence of the cathedral clergy. It boasted commodious living quarters, a cook and housekeeper, fine linen and silver on the dining room table (a footstool was stored underneath it for the bishop) and a consistently first-class menu. I saw French cuffs, dressing for dinner, a smoking jacket for the pastor and ceremonial trappings of silk and fine embroidery. Priests were welcomed freely into all manner of homes, favored with cut rates on meals and goods, offered trips and cars. To my young eyes these were striking signs of respect, security and achievement, far beyond what I could imagine in any other way of life.

The relational structures were even more attractive. Priests both young and old participated in a large web of apparently congenial and respectful relationships, living in groups of two and three in rectories, gathering for dinner parties after confirmations and Forty Hours devotions, touring within the diocese and traveling throughout other dioceses visiting, vacationing and playing tennis or golf together. They remained jocular even when they swapped occasional horror stories about this or that pastor or bishop. I could hear in the stories that the bishop, remote though he seemed, not only shared this life with his priests; he participated in more of the same nationally and internationally with other prelates.

I also met the underside of clerical culture in a college seminary. Living in a rectory on weekends, I watched helplessly as a good priest drank too much on Saturday nights. I listened to bawdy stories, was once shown pornography (he said he had confiscated it) and saw him become erratic in carrying out his duties. Fellow seminarians who also witnessed these things with me winked at the behavior. I winked, too. After all, he was a good priest. But our winking took us in deeper. We heard stories about other priests; we winked. When a friend was propositioned by a priest one evening, my friend winked and we winked. Even when, after being plied with alcohol, I was sexually assaulted, I winked. My seminarian friends winked. The priests with whom I shared the story, though they were aghast and urged me to approach the bishop, still, essentially, winked. Before I was 19, I learned that when it came to sexual matters, the clerical culture winked.

Why did we wink? Our affective bonds, the connecting tissue of the clerical culture, affirmed by what we understood to be the Gospel call, were the primary reason. We lived, worked, prayed and played together. We enjoyed the same privileges and friends; with all our talents, faults and foibles, we knew and accepted one another. Wishing to be loyal and compassionate to friends, understanding only too well the human condition, seeking to protect people, their reputations and their good work, we winked. At some level, I suppose, we sought, too, to protect the institution we loved and served, but that was not the heart of our behavior.

Because of all the anguish we are experiencing in these dayswith priests and bishops accused of irresponsible sexual and administrative behaviorwe seek a cause, a culprit. Though the media may suggest so, and people may think so, neither celibacy nor the all-male priesthood is in itself to blame. The culprit is, rather, the clerical culture that has developed as a primary professional context for at least Latin rite diocesan priests and bishops here in the United States. And we priests and bishops are powerless to change it.

Males in our American culture have a notoriously difficult time discerning their emotions, understanding them, sharing them and appropriately directing them. This dull truism is most especially on the mark with respect to sexual feelings. I have spent nearly 19 years as a priest ministering in parish and seminary settings, doing chancery volunteer work directed toward priests, sharing serious and reflective conversation with fellow priests on a wide array of matters and being blessed by a wonderfully intimate experience with a few of my brother priests in a support group. But I find that todayno less than in the pastthe all-male clerical culture still winks. And of course it winks. Many of us do not have the self-awareness, understanding, articulation and sometimes the courage to face straightforwardly the complex questions that surround male sexuality, adult human growth and development, or even the spiritual disciplines required for deepening growth in chastity. As one anxious friend said comically, Please share on the level at which you think I would be comfortable.

Sexuality is an integral concern for every human person and a conflict-filled concern for all people in Western cultures. And in a celibate clerical culture, sexuality is an especially hot-button issue. The clerical culture’s way of handling sexuality is to intellectualize and evade. It is a matter for classroom teaching, homily and retreat conference exhortation and private spiritual direction. Open discussion about sexual curiosity, orientation, experience, joy, fear and anxiety is rare, and certainly a gamble. If a priest speaks about these things in public, he has to be prepared to face the consequences for his relationships with peers and superiors. With relatively rare exceptions, the natural male temptation to posture is typical of priests in groups small and large.

The all-male, celibate clerical culture attends in a particularly careful way to the formation of its members. Seminary celibacy formation, ongoing priestly formation and retreat exhortations, therefore, are the points at which the distortions about sexuality within clerical culture are most tellingly and tragically evident. Wherever one might place himself along the sexual spectrum, the clerical cultureeven with the best of intentionstends to repress the exploration of male sexuality and stunt adult growth and development.

Our formation processes, for instance, have long presumed a heterosexual orientation among priests. While the majority of us certainly are heterosexual, this assumption functions as an institutionally and personally insulating safe haven. The heterosexuals among us feel free to speak about some of their struggles in a reserved, socially acceptable and superficial way. They tend to remain silent about deeper, more complicated sexual struggles, however, because, though it is affirmed, even heterosexuality is discussed superficially. Though heterosexual priests have to tolerate some discussion about homosexuality, they are uncomfortable with it, because they generally share American cultural biases, fail to understand it and feel ill at ease with the picture of priesthood that such discussions paint. The bias toward heterosexuality is so great that I have heard priests remark of a sexual offender, Well, at least he’s straight.

The nod that priestly formation and exhortation gives to priests with a homosexual orientation is even more distancing and evasive. The homosexuals among us are told by the institution that their orientation is intrinsically disordered. Also, some fellow priests accept American society’s bias that admission of homosexuality means that a person is sexually active. The identification of homosexuality with pedophilia and ephebophilia is common. Some dare publicly to admit to a homosexual orientation, but all know that this is the kiss of death to any possibility of a miter or other significant leadership. The most courageous bishops say privately to an individual man, As long as you are under good spiritual direction and make no public statements, your orientation is fine with me.

But many bishops fail to manage even that; some are hostile. Consequently, most homosexual priests feel the need to closet their orientation. They fear public admission may not only short-circuit leadership possibilities, but also serve to ostracize them from other priests and compromise the effectiveness of their ministry among Catholics, who may remain squeamish about a homosexual priest.

Bishops, fellow priests and American culture all fail to understand, much less articulate, the particularly grave difficulties many among us face because of homosexual orientation. The homosexual priest spends enormous energy maintaining balance and integrity under massive institutional and societal pressures, not to mention the personal sense of shame and the feeling of being misunderstood with which many struggle.

As if all this were not enough, some among us have chosen a thoroughgoing sexual repression. Some priests, those in formation for many years and, these days, some of our younger men, think celibacy requires that sexuality itself be ignored or denied. Some priests are nervous about sexual thoughts or feelings or seem to have so repressed them that they probably have none they are truly aware of. Some hole up in their rooms in the name of the spiritual life or promulgate pieties and rigidities about how others ought to live their sexual lives, when the real issue is that they themselves seem to be neither self-aware nor self-understanding nor whole.

Others focus their ministry on lovely young girls or associate with handsome young men, evidently oblivious to what these behavior patterns reveal about them. As one shrewd observer quipped, Love may be blind, but not the neighbors. A very few among those who repress their sexuality are positively dangerous to themselves, others and the church because of what they see in others but do not and will not face in themselves.

Many healthy priests exercise their ministry nobly and faithfully. Yet the terrible reluctance of the clerical culture as a whole to engage matters of sexuality forthrightly and constructively is a grave impediment to ministry. It is intensified by Catholic moral teaching, fear and anxiety, undergirded by concerns for institutional preservation and self-protection. Consequently, realistic, wholesome and candid discussions of sexuality are silenced. Healthy, balanced formation of ordained ministers is hobbled. Sexuality, for many priests, becomes privatized, solemnized and darkened. Public and private accountability is thwarted. Many live in confusion and anguish about sexuality. And we wink.

once part of clerical culture, is probably a good thing. The passing of priestly fraternity for many presbyteries across the country is more painful. However grounded one might be in the spiritual life and centered in intimate personal relationships, rambling alone around a 13-room house in the middle of an alfalfa or asphalt field invites an eccentric existence. The risk of falling into melancholy and dejection is ever-present for many presbyters and bishops, especially in smaller parishes and rural dioceses. The passing of many elements of clerical culture, coupled with a lack of forthright, discerning and free discussion about male sexuality, adult development and the relationship between spirituality and sexuality, has been and remains a danger for the church. Yet clerical culture allows for nothing else.

Our current crisis is fundamentally a spiritual one. Yes, we need to grow in the virtue of chastity. We also need to improve recruitment and admissions procedures; to restructure seminary and ongoing formation, retreats and professional support; to include more women and men in church governance; to rethink where and how priests live, their compensation and retirement; to fashion dioceses and deaneries to provide priests with vibrant contexts for growth in relationships with ordained and nonordained. We need our leadership to administer our ecclesial life with crystal-clear transparency, reshape it with rock-solid purpose of amendment and pledge us ironclad assurance that the innocent among us are always and everywhere secure. All of these things deserve focused, applied energy. But there is one thing more.

It is time to consider the possibility that the residue of a repressive clerical culture is near the heart of our problems. Moreover, because we ordained are powerless to do anything about it, the most constructive, fruitful way for our clerical culture to begin the thoroughgoing transformation it needs, and that our age and circumstances demand, is for the church to ponder deeply our theology of ministry, as well as make a radical critique of the cultural elements of the many disciplinary notes that surround it and, in our time, hinder its effectiveness. As weak as it may seem in some respects, clerical culture is bigger than us priests and bishops. It still has hegemony. It still winks. It causes the whole church scandal and pain. The time has come to bid farewell to the club.

The Rev. Michael L. Papesh, pastor of Holy Spirit Parish in St. Paul, Minn., has served as director of spiritual formation at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity and as chair of the committee on priestly life and ministry of the S

Comments

Susan O’Connell | 1/26/2007 - 4:38pm
Having just spent the past several months teaching “Romeo and Juliet” and trying to convince eighth graders that Shakespeare’s language still speaks to us in our lives today, I thought of the Rev. Michael L. Papesh’s prescient reflection, “Farewell to the Club: On the Demise of Clerical Culture” (5/13), while wrapping up Act V with my students:

And I for winking at your discords too Have lost a brace of kinsmen. All are punish’d. How many bishops and pastors must be echoing these sentiments during our own times of tragedy in the church today? Indeed a story of more woe, than that of Juliet and her Romeo!

William F. Cain, S.J. | 1/26/2007 - 4:25pm
I am very disappointed in your May 13, 2002 issue.

As a priest of approximately the same vintage as the Rev. Michael L. Papesh I have a difficult time reconciling my own experience of issues of celibacy and sexuality with his account. Yes, I read the papers, and I have painful personal knowledge of injury done to families who are close to me. I have also heard the rumors and gossip about brother priests as well as bishops. But his claim that “winking” is the ordinary response to what seems to be, by his account, almost constant, universal misbehavior does not fit with my experience as priest. That includes life in a diocesan rectory and shared life with non-Jesuit priests.

As a professor of chemistry I know little of sociological methods of study. I wonder how Professor D. Paul Sullins came to the conclusion that Catholics don’t go to Mass anymore. As a presiding celebrant, that is hardly my experience; as a member of a “supplying” religious community I hear more and more pleas for help from neighboring Catholic pastors and communities. I also see more of them unanswered as my brother Jesuits diminish in number and vigor. I believe the sociological data show not only a decline in numbers, but a rapidly increasing age profile for those remaining.

Finally, I find the cover and inside illustration of the Papesh article in poor taste.

Not a good week.

Dante Fuligni | 5/21/2002 - 2:39pm
Father Papesh proposes that "neither celibacy nor the all-male priesthood is in itself to blame" ("Farewell 'to the Club,'" 5/13), but that "the culprit is, rather, the clerical culture." It may well be that the clerical culture of which he speaks is an appropriately broad term to assign to that collection of shared, institutionalized, behavioral characteristics that has in some respects contributed to the present shame of our church.

But Father then proceeds to extensively describe that clerical culture, apparently not realizing that almost its every negative aspect can be attributed - indeed, he does attribute them by his own words - to the mandatory celibacy and maleness of the priesthood! Also, the distorted and unnatural view of sexuality that pervades official Catholic teaching and administration for lay and clergy alike exacerbates the difficulties - again, by his own admission.

I suggest that Father Papesh reread his words, words from which one can only conclude that the clerical culture he faults is to a considerable degree founded on and permeated by the very factors he initially proposes to exonerate and ignore: mandatory celibacy and all-maleness.

Mark J. Makowski | 5/6/2002 - 1:07pm
Here, Here to Fr. Papesh! His insights and truthful reflections speak volumes of what belonging to the Club costs priests and lay people. May there continue to be more such prophetic voices!

John E. Dister, S.J. | 5/14/2002 - 6:48am
Mike Papesh’s article on clerical culture is excellent and could not be more germane to the real problem behind the priestly sexual abuse scandal. I suggest, however, that “clerical culture” is but one important facet of a much deeper ecclesiological problem that affects leadership in the Church more generally than just the lifestyle and sexual mores of the diocesan clergy on which Papesh understandably focuses. Theologians have discussed this for some decades (Rahner, Congar, Schillebeeckx, O’Meara, et al.) but clearly, this scholarship has not yet influenced many bishops. I refer to the whole distinction between clergy and laity, particularly the caste character of the clergy as a privileged group set apart that developed in the Church only after the third century and in any event is without grounding in the New Testament. Leadership and diversity of function, yes, but the whole character of clericalism and clerical culture seems to many to be contradicted by essential aspects of the Gospel. Intimately related to this is the application long after the apostolic era of the notion of the cultic priesthood, as distinguished from the presbyteral or leadership notion of the priesthood, to the clergy. The former, emphasizing the mediating character of the priesthood as a group set apart from the people, was found in the Jewish and pagan priesthood. However, as some of the theologians have shown us, the New Testament applies this only to the people of God as a whole and to Jesus, according to Hebrews, after his resurrection. Is it possible that the current crisis in the Church (and some suggest that it is just beginning) will force our bishops to look seriously at issues that our best theologians have been raising for some time?

Timothy A. Griffy | 5/13/2002 - 11:07pm
Michael L. Papesh's "Farewell to 'the Club'" (5/13) offers some interesting insights into the clerical culture that gave rise to the current scandal. However, his assertion it is the culture, rather than celibacy or an all-maile priesthood, that is responsible for the scandal begs the question.

A culture that by its very nature ignores, represses, and denies sexuality does not spring unbidden from nothing. In blaming the culture, we need also look at the factors that fuel the culture. This naturally leads back to celibacy and the all-maile priesthood. One simply finds it too hard to believe the culture Papesh describes could exist without these driving factors.

Charles Orloski, Jr. | 5/11/2002 - 8:14pm
Bravo! Doors are being opened, but I was a bit confused by Reverend Michael Papesh's article, "Farewell to the Club." Surely he is not calling for a return to a pre-Council of Trent "clerical proletariat," and the dis-establishment of seminaries?

I find myself nostalgic for the saloon keeping pre-Trent clergy who might, for the sake of objectivity, have lead unintelligent "double-lifes." Perhaps they share something in common with modern ministers who moonlight as plumbers or policemen. Sometimes a visit among the proletariat becomes a means of acquiring knowledge and subsequent reform.

Kathleen B. Ray | 5/11/2002 - 2:07pm
Michael Papesh has hit the crux of our Church's present problem. It is this "clerical culture" with all of it's ramifications that has led to the acceptance of unacceptable behavior in otherwise very respectable persons. This is why the public is so disillusioned with the priesthood. We also have elevated its stature and not recognized the humanness of our priests. There psychologically is a major need for human sexuality to be recognized, discussed and dealt with, especially for those who guide and direct youth, no matter that they themselves are celibate. And no adult can be truly considered mature, if he or she has not come to terms with his or her own sexuality. May God help us all.

Dante Fuligni | 5/21/2002 - 2:39pm
Father Papesh proposes that "neither celibacy nor the all-male priesthood is in itself to blame" ("Farewell 'to the Club,'" 5/13), but that "the culprit is, rather, the clerical culture." It may well be that the clerical culture of which he speaks is an appropriately broad term to assign to that collection of shared, institutionalized, behavioral characteristics that has in some respects contributed to the present shame of our church.

But Father then proceeds to extensively describe that clerical culture, apparently not realizing that almost its every negative aspect can be attributed - indeed, he does attribute them by his own words - to the mandatory celibacy and maleness of the priesthood! Also, the distorted and unnatural view of sexuality that pervades official Catholic teaching and administration for lay and clergy alike exacerbates the difficulties - again, by his own admission.

I suggest that Father Papesh reread his words, words from which one can only conclude that the clerical culture he faults is to a considerable degree founded on and permeated by the very factors he initially proposes to exonerate and ignore: mandatory celibacy and all-maleness.

Mark J. Makowski | 5/6/2002 - 1:07pm
Here, Here to Fr. Papesh! His insights and truthful reflections speak volumes of what belonging to the Club costs priests and lay people. May there continue to be more such prophetic voices!

John E. Dister, S.J. | 5/14/2002 - 6:48am
Mike Papesh’s article on clerical culture is excellent and could not be more germane to the real problem behind the priestly sexual abuse scandal. I suggest, however, that “clerical culture” is but one important facet of a much deeper ecclesiological problem that affects leadership in the Church more generally than just the lifestyle and sexual mores of the diocesan clergy on which Papesh understandably focuses. Theologians have discussed this for some decades (Rahner, Congar, Schillebeeckx, O’Meara, et al.) but clearly, this scholarship has not yet influenced many bishops. I refer to the whole distinction between clergy and laity, particularly the caste character of the clergy as a privileged group set apart that developed in the Church only after the third century and in any event is without grounding in the New Testament. Leadership and diversity of function, yes, but the whole character of clericalism and clerical culture seems to many to be contradicted by essential aspects of the Gospel. Intimately related to this is the application long after the apostolic era of the notion of the cultic priesthood, as distinguished from the presbyteral or leadership notion of the priesthood, to the clergy. The former, emphasizing the mediating character of the priesthood as a group set apart from the people, was found in the Jewish and pagan priesthood. However, as some of the theologians have shown us, the New Testament applies this only to the people of God as a whole and to Jesus, according to Hebrews, after his resurrection. Is it possible that the current crisis in the Church (and some suggest that it is just beginning) will force our bishops to look seriously at issues that our best theologians have been raising for some time?

Timothy A. Griffy | 5/13/2002 - 11:07pm
Michael L. Papesh's "Farewell to 'the Club'" (5/13) offers some interesting insights into the clerical culture that gave rise to the current scandal. However, his assertion it is the culture, rather than celibacy or an all-maile priesthood, that is responsible for the scandal begs the question.

A culture that by its very nature ignores, represses, and denies sexuality does not spring unbidden from nothing. In blaming the culture, we need also look at the factors that fuel the culture. This naturally leads back to celibacy and the all-maile priesthood. One simply finds it too hard to believe the culture Papesh describes could exist without these driving factors.

Charles Orloski, Jr. | 5/11/2002 - 8:14pm
Bravo! Doors are being opened, but I was a bit confused by Reverend Michael Papesh's article, "Farewell to the Club." Surely he is not calling for a return to a pre-Council of Trent "clerical proletariat," and the dis-establishment of seminaries?

I find myself nostalgic for the saloon keeping pre-Trent clergy who might, for the sake of objectivity, have lead unintelligent "double-lifes." Perhaps they share something in common with modern ministers who moonlight as plumbers or policemen. Sometimes a visit among the proletariat becomes a means of acquiring knowledge and subsequent reform.

Kathleen B. Ray | 5/11/2002 - 2:07pm
Michael Papesh has hit the crux of our Church's present problem. It is this "clerical culture" with all of it's ramifications that has led to the acceptance of unacceptable behavior in otherwise very respectable persons. This is why the public is so disillusioned with the priesthood. We also have elevated its stature and not recognized the humanness of our priests. There psychologically is a major need for human sexuality to be recognized, discussed and dealt with, especially for those who guide and direct youth, no matter that they themselves are celibate. And no adult can be truly considered mature, if he or she has not come to terms with his or her own sexuality. May God help us all.