Seminarians' sex lives

An editor recently asked me to write about some issues related to the Roman Catholic sex abuse problem. I had a wonderful time interviewing over one dozen experts. They spoke from a variety of perspectives -- people extremely upset with particular church policies and doctrines and people who thought the problems arose out of failure to adhere to church doctrine. But what surprised me was that a good number of these people brought up homosexuality in the course of their interviews. Again, they didn't have the same beliefs on the topic, but they discussed their concern over the manner in which church and media discussed the role it played in the larger clerical culture. Writing about homosexuality is a landmine. Ideally, reporters should avoid both hurtful derogatory claims and a political correctness that sanitizes any negative discussion. Usually critical stories (and by critical, I don't mean negative but, rather, judicial) don't even make it to the assignment desk.

This story, from New York Times reporter Paul Vitello, involves sex and religion and it's a great read. I'm actually surprised it didn't generate more interest, although that's probably due to it coming out on Memorial Day weekend. Here's how it begins:

Every job interview has its awkward moments, but in recent years, the standard interview for men seeking a life in the Roman Catholic priesthood has made the awkward moment a requirement.

"When was the last time you had sex?" all candidates for the seminary are asked. (The preferred answer: not for three years or more.)

"What kind of sexual experiences have you had?" is another common question. "Do you like pornography?"

Depending on the replies, and the results of standardized psychological tests, the interview may proceed into deeper waters: "Do you like children?" and "Do you like children more than you like people your own age?"

It is part of a soul-baring obstacle course prospective seminarians are forced to run in the aftermath of a sexual abuse crisis that church leaders have decided to confront, in part, by scrubbing their academies of potential molesters, according to church officials and psychologists who screen candidates in New York and the rest of the country.

But many of the questions are also aimed at another, equally sensitive mission: deciding whether gay applicants should be denied admission under complex recent guidelines from the Vatican that do not explicitly bar all gay candidates but would exclude most of them, even some who are celibate.

I assume that "the" preferred answer about the last time a candidate had sex is actually "never." But one gets the point. The story maneuvers from this engaging opening into more substantive discussion of both the psychological screening that candidates receive and the deeper theological questions raised by those screenings.

The story characterizes the screenings as beginning fairly recently but I know that some dioceses were using psychological screenings decades ago. Here's another snippet about potential, unintended consequences:

"A criterion like this may not ensure that you are getting the best candidates," said Mark D. Jordan, the R. R. Niebuhr professor at Harvard Divinity School, who has studied homosexuality in the Catholic priesthood. "Though it might get you people who lie or who are so confused they do not really know who they are."

"And not the least irony here," he added, "is that these new regulations are being enforced in many cases by seminary directors who are themselves gay."

One of the challenges of covering a complicated story about Vatican directives is that different sources will provide competing accounts of the meaning and significance of their tasks. Vitello worked that to his advantage, showing readers how directives play out in the real world and how there are inconsistencies across dioceses.

I do wish that there would have been more discussion in support of the Vatican's directives. Part of it is that the story was subtly critical of the Vatican directives, and that made me wonder more about what church leaders were thinking. But also, when I was interviewing psychologists and moral theologians in recent weeks, I didn't have too much problem getting folks to talk about why they were concerned about homosexuality in the priesthood. In fact, they raised these concerns themselves. And they weren't just Vatican loyalists -- one of my sources who talked about a conspiracy among gay bishops doesn't even believe that the church should concern itself with sexual mores. Another sounded like Luther right after his first trip to Rome.

Part of the problem, I suspect, is that we have language limitations. Reporters generally do a good job, as Vitello did, of noting that "Scientific studies have found no link between sexual orientation and abuse." But should reporters also note that 80% of the sexual abuse victims in American dioceses were male and that three-quarters of victims were adolescents? What do those numbers mean? Why are so many of the victims adolescent boys? I have absolutely no idea and I'm not sure we have any good studies that seek to explain that phenomenon. In the general population, most child abuse victims are female (and I'm also not sure why that is).

Anyway, discussing sex and religion is difficult enough -- homosexuality is altogether more challenging. Vitello's story casts a bit of light on how the church approaches some of these topics. I wish he'd looked at how it plays out in other dioceses across the country but the fact is that he packed a lot of information into his piece.

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