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.