Special Report

Fighting Tendencies

American critics of Pope Benedict XVI are very afraid.

By 11.30.05

Send to Kindle

Andrew Sullivan is apoplectic. "If the guiding mantra of the last Pope was 'Be Not Afraid!', the lodestar of the current one is, arguably, the opposite," Sullivan asserts. Not one to content himself with smirking when lying presents another opportunity for righteous indignation, Sullivan also accuses Benedict XVI of passing malicious sentence on the life and work of heroic priests like New York's Fr. Mychal Judge, who was killed by falling debris while comforting others in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on 9/11/01.

What's giving Sullivan the vapors is the November 29 release by the Vatican's Congregation for Catholic Education of an "Instruction Concerning the Criteria for the Discernment of Vocations Regarding Persons with Homosexual Tendencies." In plain English, the document says that if the question is "Can gay men be good priests?" the answer is, "Sometimes not."

To fathom Sullivan's indignation, you have to understand his role as a self-appointed arbiter of gay culture. It also helps to know that on the heels of the aforementioned Instruction, a French psychologist and Jesuit priest writing in the Vatican's daily newspaper had the temerity to claim that homosexuality "does not represent a social value" or a moral virtue.

Context alone cannot explain Sullivan's spleen, which is also fueled by fear and illogic. To react the way he's doing, you have to reduce personhood in all its glorious complexity to nothing more than sexual orientation. You also have to libel both the dead and the living by suggesting that any number of Catholic priests were and are dedicated solely to homosexual activism. Pretend, if you can, that Fr. Judge was killed at a gay rights rally on the steps of Saint Patrick's Cathedral. Forget his heroism and his much-loved ministry as a fire department chaplain. Forget that Pope John Paul II accepted the posthumous gift of Fr. Judge's fire helmet at a ceremony in the Vatican. And forget that Christian refusal to endorse homosexual activity goes back at least as far as Saint Paul's first-century letters to the young church, which themselves echo parts of Leviticus and Genesis.

You'll need professional help, but if you can swim past the Shrieking Eels and scale the Cliffs of Insanity, you may begin to approach the operatic (inconceivable?) heights from which Sullivan and like-minded columnists heap fire and rain on the head of a well-known German Shepherd. If you then suppose, as Sullivan does, that you're swordsman enough to "do him left-handed," then my advice to you is what Dread Pirate Roberts told Inigo Montoya: Get used to disappointment.

William Saletan of Slate supplements Sullivan's hot indignation with his own cold fury in a clever but seriously flawed essay titled "Gland Inquisitor." Advising homosexual candidates for the Catholic priesthood that "the church won't settle for your self-restraint, even with God's help," Saletan dismisses any defense of Vatican policy based on the idea that sexual abuse and cover-up scandals in the church prove same-sex attraction is "too dangerous to tolerate." Were that the argument actually being made, Saletan would be correct. But it's a straw man.

Of the pope, Saletan writes, "even if you buy the argument that the abuse stemmed from homosexuality rather than pedophilia and sexual segregation -- I don't -- it doesn't explain why [then-Cardinal Ratzinger] targeted gay inclinations in 1986, long before the scandal exploded."

Interesting verb choice, that "targeted." It implies that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has been trying to remake human nature since the current pope had his desk there 19 years ago. But part of the 1986 letter that Saletan did not quote reads, "the phenomenon of homosexuality, complex as it is, and with its many consequences for society and ecclesial life, is a proper focus for the Church's pastoral care."

While noting that a homosexual inclination "must be seen as an objective disorder," the letter also takes pains to note that "the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin."

Those critics inclined to dismiss such moral pronouncements as the suspect mutterings of celibate men do not often realize that John Paul II developed an entire theology of the body, and wrote more wisely of orgasm and its significance than technicians like Dr. Ruth and actress/author Kim Catrall ever will.

As well-known Catholic blogger Amy Welborn dryly observes, "The problem is not, in simple terms, the homosexual priest. The problem is priests who don't believe what the Catholic Church teaches on sexuality, who don't preach it, who don't witness to it in the confessional, and who don't live it in their private lives." Moreover, she continues, "What is missing from Saletan's piece, of course, and what makes it a waste of time, is the lack of attention to Catholic teaching on sexuality, and what that means."

Religion reporter Terry Mattingly seconds her point, while adding that as pedophilia continues to grab headlines, "the hard questions are linked to male priests and teen-aged boys."

Evidence for Mattingly's claim was documented in a first-of-its-kind national study commissioned by U.S. Catholic Bishops and released in February of 2004.

To the extent that there is a continuing crisis in the church, then, it's not the one that occupies charter members of that chattering class whom Mark Shea pithily describes as the "Pelvic Left." Moreover, and for the record, the pope is trying to fix the problem.

Benedict XVI always keeps a weather eye on the liturgical calendar. By authorizing the recent Instruction on the memorial of Charles Borromeo, "patron of seminaries," and releasing it early in Advent -- the start of the church year -- Benedict telegraphed both the character of the document and its primary audience. The Instruction is a new year's resolution.

Benedict also appears to have taken a page from the playbook of Ignatius Loyola and other soldier-saints: he is, in effect, sending in the marines.

As the John Paul generation of pious young priests comes to the fore, the pope means to remind them that "always faithful" was a Catholic saying long before it was appropriated by the Leathernecks. Were more priests to remember that, the world would be a better place. That's good advice for Excitable Andy and the Pelvic Left, too, because the longstanding, indeed evergreen, descriptor of choice for any Catholic priest isn't "gay" or "straight," it's "Christian."

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

Patrick O'Hannigan is a writer in North Carolina.