Roving thoughts and provocations

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The Vatican’s Ask and Tell Problem

The ecclesiastical fashion show from Fellini’s Roma

In Arizona we have racial profiling. Now, around the world, wherever the Catholic church holds sway, we have sexual profiling. In The New York Times, Paul Vitello reports on the new screening tests the church is implementing to weed out would-be seminarians who are gay or who are considered prone to pedophilia. In Arizona, police are meant to demand papers from anyone they sense could be an illegal alien. In the church Rev. David Toups, director of the secretariat of clergy for the United States Conference of Bishops, says of his own gaydar: “It’s more like one of those things where it’s hard to define, but I know it when I see it.”

Some may think it a matter of progress if the church is aware of danger coming from pedophiles in the ranks. And if tests become elaborate, to go beyond Father Toups’s educated hunches, so much the better. But read what applicants to the seminaries are going to be asked, and apply the same tests to a would-be medical student, or law student, or science professional, and it will be clear what absurdity the church has backed itself into. Just consider the questions Vitello has found being proposed for the would-be priest, and imagine them being asked of an applicant for other jobs:

When was the last time you had sex?

What kind of sexual experiences have you had?

Do you take cold showers?

Vitello goes on:

Most candidates are likely to be asked not only about past sexual activities, but also about masturbation fantasies, consumption of alcohol, relationships with parents, and the causes of romantic breakups. All must take HIV tests and complete written exams like the 567-question Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, which screens for, among other things, depression, paranoia, and gender confusion. In another test, candidates must submit sketches of anatomically correct human figures.

Defenders of this program might say that it differs from the professional reviews required of doctors or lawyers because priests deal with intimate human needs. Doesn’t a doctor? Don’t lawyers, when they deal with sticky divorces or child custody issues? In the modern world, many people feel closer to their doctors or lawyers (or accountants) than to their priests.

No, the new screenings are proposed because the church has trapped priests inside three doctrinal positions — that homosexuality is “objectively disordered,” that women cannot be priests, and that celibacy is mandatory for all priests. All three positions are eminently challengeable in themselves. But put together they make for a poisonous mix. You can be a good doctor or lawyer and be gay. You can be a good lawyer or doctor and be a woman. You can be a good lawyer or doctor and be married. But all such possibilities are ruled out for priests.

Besides, there is nothing in being a lawyer or doctor (or scientists or engineer) that makes those callings especially attractive to single men or gay men. But the church has been a magnet for gays, as one sees in Ellis Hanson’s Decadence and Catholicism and Douglass Shand-Tucci’s Boston Bohemia. The exotic rituals and vestments, the incense and candles, the authors note, were very attractive to men like Aubrey Beardsley, Joris-Karl Huysmans, and Oscar Wilde. Federico Fellini made light of this when he filmed his camp Vatican fashion show in Fellini’s Roma – the cope and morse, the gloves and slippers, the silks and jewels. As over-the-top as Fellini’s “nunway” seems, it hardly goes beyond the glittery and sequined cope and tasseled mitre on Pope Benedict in the cover picture of the June 7 Time magazine.

It is not surprising, then, that a number of priests are gay – Vitello quotes “some Catholic scholars” putting the number between 24 and 40 percent of the priests, though “other experts” think the number is smaller. Besides, Mark D. Jordan, the R. R. Niebuhr professor at Harvard’s Divinity School, says that the odds are that the new screening rules will be enforced, ridiculously, by men who are themselves gay.

What does it take to make the hierarchy see that its mandatory celibacy rule is self-destructive for the church? Vitello notes that “half of the nation’s seminaries have one or two new arrivals a year, and one-quarter get none.” That number is bound to be reduced even further by this new obstacle course. No self-respecting person aspiring to be a doctor or lawyer would put up with such absurdly intrusive questioning. Neither should anyone who thinks there is some remaining dignity to the priesthood.

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