Magazine article Commonweal

Gay Seminarians: Is the Vatican Bigoted or Prudent?

Magazine article Commonweal

Gay Seminarians: Is the Vatican Bigoted or Prudent?

Article excerpt

The recent instruction from the Congregation for Catholic Education regarding the ordination of homosexuals suggests to me that seminaries are hardly the best place to help gay men mature, learn from their experiences, and seek the support of similarly oriented men in keeping their promise of celibacy. The congregation's controversial cautions about ordaining gay men may be more prudent than critics realize.

In recent years, many seminaries enrolled gay men if the candidates were thought to show the the potential to live celibately and were willing not to publicly identify themselves as homosexuals. Yet a large literature on the social psychology of stigma suggests that admission to Catholic seminaries might be a disservice to these men. Indeed, given the church's teaching that homosexuals are "objectively disordered," barring homosexuals from ordination may be more charitable than subjecting them to the contradictory demands and rigors of an institution that morally chastises them.

In the classic Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, Erving Goffman defined a stigma as a social marker that separates an individual from the group and can ultimately lead to the discrediting of the whole person as tainted or discounted. Stigma calls into question the full humanity of the person. In the eyes of others, he or she is seen as flawed or contaminated. While church teaching does not deny the full humanity of gay people, it can have the effect of stigmatizing them as "unnatural," adding to the heavy burden gay Catholics already bear as an often suspect minority. Those who derive much of their identity from institutional ties, ties to a church to which they devote their lives, are especially vulnerable.

Ironically, admitting gay men to seminaries while requiring them to conceal their sexual orientation only heightens their awareness of their difference and isolation. The pressure to conceal in turn rivets attention on precisely what is forbidden. Psychologists Laura Smart and Daniel M. Wegner, in their research on the psychic cost of such "hidden" stigmas, note a number of invidious effects that concealing an important aspect of one's identity can have on an individual. The internalization of shame frequently results in a preoccupation with what is condemned. Sexual attributes that have been stigmatized are likely to shape thoughts and behavior even when the person is not consciously thinking about them. Gay seminarians and priests are pressured to carefully manage or obscure their orientation, lest their secret be found out. This can lead to a greater sense of alienation and thus to less satisfying interpersonal relationships. In fact, Smart and Wegner called their research on people who belong to groups or institutions that compel them to hide characteristics such as homosexuality "private hell" studies.

Social support is crucial for living celibately and, if one is gay, for coping with the church's stern attitudes toward homosexuality. Not feeling free to express sexual thoughts and feelings, gay people might naturally find their sense of well-being and self-esteem diminished. In contrast, living outside the closet frequently increases a sense of integrity and moral worth. By consigning gay priests and seminarians to the closet, the church further limits the resources available for sustaining celibacy, while making it more likely that sexual orientation will become a troubling preoccupation for many.

In 2000, as part of a doctoral dissertation, I began studying how nine U.S. diocesan seminaries train men for celibacy. I spent an entire semester observing one Midwestern diocesan seminary and doing interviews for a case study. I had complete access to liturgies, meals, and classes, and I conducted in-depth interviews with faculty members and students. I found that seminaries are significantly constrained in helping men, whether gay or straight, to become healthy, chaste priests. …

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