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The Underlying Dysfunction of the Denver Archdiocese’s Recent Actions

I’m sure that by now most readers of this blog would have heard of how a child within the Archdiocese of Denver has had his or her enrollment in a Catholic school terminated due to having a lesbian couple as parents. According to a statement from the archdiocese, the “homosexual relationship [of the child’s parents] violates the school’s beliefs and policy.”

Reports 9News.com:

According to teachers at Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic School, a meeting was held Tuesday to discuss the issue. The staff was told a student would not be allowed to re-enroll because of his or her parents’ sexual orientation. The staff members were also told not to talk to the media.

. . . Because this student’s parents are homosexual, the Archdiocese says they were in clear violation of the school’s policy.

School staff members, who asked to remain anonymous, say they are disgusted by the Archdiocese’s decision. One employee said she could not believe a student will have to suffer because of his or her parents’ sexual orientation.

The Archdiocese also told 9NEWS, “Parents living in open discord with Catholic teaching in areas of faith and morals unfortunately choose by their actions to disqualify their children from enrollment.”

Staff members said they were not allowed to discuss the decision after it was made. Some of them said they were disheartened to work at a school that preaches peace and love, but also makes this decision.

As outrageous as the actions of the archdiocese are, I’m actually not that surprised. Why? Well, first the Archdiocese of Denver is headed by Charles Chaput, a notorious reactionary. Don’t think for a minute that there are not thousands of students with same-gender parents attending Catholic schools across the U.S. Yet, it takes an individual of Chaput’s rigidity to actually penalize these students. Thankfully, we haven’t seen a mass purging of children and young people from their school communities in any other part of the country. It could well happen, however, as the clerical leadership of the U.S. church is unhealthily and thus dangerously fixated on the gay issue. Sadly, the unhealthiest of these men are the ones being promoted. Also, such a dysfunctional fixation is encouraged and taught among the (albeit dwindling) ranks of seminarians, i.e., the future clerical leaders. Thus the dysfunction, the sin, will continue.

This “sin” isn’t homosexuality, despite what the clerical leadership would have us believe. No, as I’ve noted previously, it’s to do with the fact that many (perhaps even a majority) of bishops and priests are closeted (and psycho-sexually stunted) gay men who do not want healthy, well-adjusted gay people in their midst. Why? Because such well-adjusted people pose a highly uncomfortable challenge to all forms of unhealthy and dysfunctional expressions of sexuality. In a similar way, the vast majority of male clerics have a stunted and dysfunctional connection with women – so much so that they fear them gaining any kind of equality in ministry.

In short, most men in positions of power within Roman Catholicism fear relating with anyone who has grown beyond the dysfunction that, in large measure, justifies and sustains the entire clerical, celibate caste system within which men are prevented from growing, changing . . . and, yes, loving in a truly Christ-like way.

Author James Baldwin says it best:

I think the inability to love is the central problem, because the inability masks a certain terror, and that terror is the terror of being touched. And, if you can’t be touched, you can’t be changed. And if you can’t be changed, you can’t be alive. The great difficulty is to say YES to life. The difficult quest is to be oneself, to be true, to say YES with courage – to accept one’s sexuality, one’s race, one’s bittersweet contradictions.*

Think about the church’s prohibition against any type of sexual connecting outside of procreative sex within heterosexual marriage sanctioned by the church – a prohibition that even includes masturbation. At it’s most basic level, it’s a prohibition against touch – human touch that can potentially lead to greater self-awareness, personal development, and fullness of life.

I think centuries ago, church leaders recognized and began to fear the power of sexual touch. Such touch is transforming; it has the potential, yes, for harm, but also for liberation and empowerment. I wouldn’t be surprised if many of the strict sexual prohibitions within the Christian church came about during what Harvey Cox has termed the “Age of Belief,” that time when Christianity “curdled into a top-heavy edifice defined by obligatory beliefs enforced by a hierarchy.”

Cox maintains that, in contrast, early Christians allowed for multiple understandings and expressions of the faith, so much so, I’d add, that even the “gay saints” Sergius and Bacchus were acknowledged and accepted. Yet once Christianity moved from being “a loose network of local congregations, with varied forms of leadership” into a “rigid class structure with a privileged clerical caste at the top ruling over an increasingly disenfranchised laity on the bottom,” all kinds of changes began to take place. And women, along with those whom we now understand as gay, where no doubt the first to be “pushed to the underside and the edges.”

We’ve inherited quite a problem, haven’t we?

Still, our God is a God of transformation. People – and institutions – can and do change. Life remains a precious gift – full, it’s true, of “bittersweet contradictions,” of joy and suffering, pleasure and pain. It’s both “tree of life” and “cross of death.” So when a gay person is unlucky in love, when he/she experiences, for instance, heartache over a failed relationship, it’s wrong to blame his/her sexual orientation. It’s erroneous to imply that the homosexual orientation guarantees such unhappiness and failure; that a homosexual orientation is the mark of a broken sexuality. Yet these types of things are exactly what the clerical leadership of the Church says. It says that as gay people we can never be fulfilled and happy; we can never experience God’s sanctifying love in our sexual relationships, we can never be good parents. These are all lies. If you take nothing else, dear reader, from this commentary, take this: Those types of statements, that type of thinking . . . lies, all lies.

And the average Catholic in the pew knows it – as do the vast majority of folks within the wider society. Accordingly, the response to the decision of the Denver Archdiocese to deny re-enrollment to this particular child has been overwhelmingly critical and therefore, from my perspective, encouraging. First, it’s ensured some hard-hitting yet legitimate statements from everyday folks like the comment below, left on the website of 9News.com

I think that those fierce defenders of the Catholic School’s action are missing the point. If they agree that the 5-year-old should be excluded because his/her parents are living in “dissonance” with Catholic dogma, then it stands to reason that children of ALL couples living in “dissonance” with Catholic dogma (e.g. divorced parents, single parents, parents living out of wedlock, parents who practice birth control, etc, etc, etc) should be excluded from attending the school. To not do this is rank hypocrisy on the part of the church and school. The fact that only an innocent child from a same-sex home is discriminated against in this way shows quite clearly the bigotry and hatred of the Catholic Church. However, my question is why would ANY parent want to put their child in the care of the biggest organized pedophile ring in the history of the world, thus making them fair game for sexual molestation?

I must also admit a certain satisfaction in viewing the results of the poll conducted by the Denver Post. “Do you agree with the Archdiocese of Denver’s policy that bars children who have lesbian parents from enrolling in Catholic schools?”, the newspaper asked. At the time of writing this post, over 1500 people had responded. Sixty-five percent of these have answered “No” they do not agree with the policy of the Denver Archdiocese. An additional 15% percent have answered “No, and I’m Catholic.” Ten percent have answered “Yes” they do agree. And another 10%, “Yes, and I’m Catholic.” Such responses correlate with the findings of a Pew survey of October 2009 which clearly show that the clerical leadership of the church does not represent the views of ordinary Catholics, many of whom do not see homosexuality per se as a moral issue, and who subsequently support either civil unions or full marriage rights for gay people – something the official church vigorously opposes (yes, that fixation again!).

These figures are quite telling, and represent for many Catholics the work of God’s spirit of compassion and justice – the sensus fidelium – within and throughout the people of God. May this spirit continue to “blow where it will,” regardless of how uncomfortable, fearful, and reactionary such a holy activity may make some members of the Roman Catholic clerical leadership.

* James Baldwin, from an interview first published in The Advocate and excerpted in the Utne Reader, July/August 2002, p. 100.

9 Responses

  1. Outstanding post! Thanks so much. The Church, indeed, is in trouble in the US and elsewhere from it’s dysfunctional authoritarian system and exposes of this nature are desperately needed. Brilliant riposte from the commentator at 9News.com.

    • I second Jayden’s statement of praise, Michael.

      And to put even more wind into your sails as critics try to take the wind away: I’ve just finished reading Karen Armstrong’s 1982 memoir of her years as a nun, Through the Narrow Gate.

      It’s impossible to read that book and not be horrified at elements of our tradition still being defended–shockingly–by those who resist accepting well-grounded findings of the social sciences in Catholic thinking about sexuality (and pastoral roles, insofar as they depend on understandings of human sexuality).

      The brutal systematic removal of feeling and suppression of intellect she describes from her novitiate and scholasticate, coupled with the total ignorance about even the most basic matters of human sexuality, wedded to the suppressed, distorted expression of natural sexual urges that inevitably arises in such situations: it’s a grim picture.

      And, unfortunately, one with whose consequences we’re still living in the Catholic church. And even more unfortunately, one that a strong group within our church would like to rehabilitate, even in the face of rapidly accumulating evidence of how destructive those consequences are to the church.

  2. “many (perhaps even a majority) of bishops and priests are closeted (and psycho-sexually stunted) gay men who do not want healthy, well-adjusted gay people in their midst.”

    I am often curious how statements like this, which form the basis of articles like this, are known. You not only know that they are gay, but what they want? I wish I could borrow you for an afternoon to x-ray my kids’ minds……

    • Rick, Michael may have overstated his case a little, but the observation is fundamentally sound. This is not something that he has seen with x-ray vision, but that has been widely reported by professional observers on the basis of clinical, therapeutic work with gay priests, and in formal research.

      These have repeatedly found that something of the order of 50 % (and rising) of priests are gay, and that a significant proportion are to some extent sexually active – as are heterosexual preists, to just about the same degree. These men are in contravention of their vows, as also of the Church’s stated teaching on homosexual relationships, and so are necessarily closeted..

      It is also a simple observable fact that men who may have entered minor seminary at the age of twelve or thirteen, and undergone a dozen years of training completely sheltered from any discussion of sex, let alone formal education in sexual psychology or development, should emerge, in the words of more than one person who experienced it, with the sexual maturity of a twelve year old – but aged twenty five at ordination. The subsequent living conditions also are not conducive to sound learning of sexual matters..

      For more on these themes, try reading, for instance, Bishop Geoffrey Robinson,who led the Australian bishops investigation into clerical abuse, or Archbishop Rembert Weakland, on his own seminary training , or Fr Geoffrey Cozzens, writing on the changing face of the priesthood, or Fr Richard Sipe, ex-priest and now a psychotherapist specialising in work with clergy, or Fr Tom McMahon, another ex-priest who became a psychotherapist, and has written extensively on the psychology of the priesthood, or…..

      You get the picture.

      • I only can speak from my own experience, but most priests I’ve known seem fairly un-screwed-up, pretty down-to-earth and at least not any more visibly sexually tormented than myself. I do, in fact, lack any formal education in sexual psychology and development (other than the standard College Psych I), so I hope our experts don’t start speculating about my own sexual maturity.

        I was also interested in the following assertion from the article:

        “the clerical leadership of the church does not represent the views of ordinary Catholics, many of whom do not see homosexuality per se as a moral issue, and who subsequently support either civil unions or full marriage rights for gay people – something the official church vigorously opposes (yes, that fixation again!).”

        Whether fixation or no (again, perhaps those experts need to get to work), the “clerical leadership” should arguably focus on the teaching of the Church. At the risk of continuing a one-note-Johnny, it seems to me that the implementation of the norms of the Second Vatican Council should have some effect on the work of our clergy, and it does in fact have something to say about this issue, in Gaudium et Spes:

        “The intimate partnership of married life and love has been established by the Creator and qualified by His laws, and is rooted in the conjugal covenant of irrevocable personal consent….For, God Himself is the author of matrimony, endowed as it is with various benefits and purposes. All of these have a very decisive bearing on the continuation of the human race, on the personal development and eternal destiny of the individual members of a family, and on the dignity, stability, peace and prosperity of the family itself and of human society as a whole. By their very nature, the institution of matrimony itself and conjugal love are ordained for the procreation and education of children, and find in them their ultimate crown. Thus a man and a woman, who by their compact of conjugal love “are no longer two, but one flesh” (Matt. 19:ff), render mutual help and service to each other through an intimate union of their persons and of their actions….All those, therefore, who exercise influence over communities and social groups should work efficiently for the welfare of marriage and the family. Public authority should regard it as a sacred duty to recognize, protect and promote their authentic nature….”

        Whatever one thinks of how well or poorly this work has been done, it seems to me that there is indisputably a Vatican II imperative to promote, in the public sphere, what the Church teaches to be the “authentic nature” of marriage, wholly apart from any psychopathology that may, for some, account for it.

        • Rick, I agree that most priests on the ground are pretty approachable and understanding: this is called pastoral care. But (especially for older priests, who were trained years ago) on sexual matters this likely to be in spite of their training, not because of it. Consider also that appearances can be deceiving. Many of the hordes of priests now known to have been serial abusers of children for years precisely because on the surface at least, there was no reason to suspect sexual dysfunction.

          As for Vatican II, yes you are right we need to remember its teachings on the family. But we must also remember its teaching on the sensus fidelium: if a teaching is not accepted by the faithful as a whole, it lacks validity. Where does that leave, say, Humanae Vitae?

  3. Punishing the innocent seems to be in vogue. Archbishops Wuerl, after all, decided to take benefits away from married spouses rather than open up the check box to any health benficiary one wanted in the Archdiocese of Washington. Since Wuerl and Chaput share the same mental boat, I didn’t find the decision in Denver to be that shocking, although it is on an entirely different level.

    I don’t really think the majority of priests are afraid of sex and touch. I think they are afraid of speaking up for fear of being “Fr. Farrowed”.

    Rick, for generations of Catholics self hate was how you dealt and deal with being gay. Once one has invested enough years in self hate and self denial it becomes almost paramount to justify that sacrifice on the backs of others who chose a different path.

    What irritates me are the sexually active clergy who spew gay hatred. That’s way too much like having your cake and eating it too.

  4. Thanks, Michael, for an excellent analysis. This is a subject that touches me as a parent very deeply.

    With the statement
    “Parents living in open discord with Catholic teaching in areas of faith and morals unfortunately choose by their actions to disqualify their children from enrollment.”,
    the “Archdiocede” itself deviates from aauthentic church teaching. As many spokesmen have been repeating recently, there exists an important right of religious freedom: not only for the church, but also within the church. The doctrine of the primacy of conscience teaches that where we dissent in conscience, we have not only the right, but the obligation to follow conscience before teaching (a doctrine that B16 himself actively promoted in his younger days).

    The church also has a strong teaching on social justice. As Jesuit theologian James L’Empereur has noted, the question of teaching on homosexuality can be approached from two different directions . One approach, commonly presented for popular consumption, starts with sexual ethics. The other approach, usually brushed aside as inconvenient, is to begin with teaching on justice, which leads to a completely different conclusion..

  5. Very interesting information here. I do take issue with the comment, “Many (perhaps even a majority) of bishops and priests are closeted gay men who do not want healthy, well-adjusted gay people in their midst.” I think many probably are gay but don’t think they have issues with well-adjusted gay people as much as they are worried about their own necks. It is surely in their own self-interest to not make an issue of their sexual orientation. Because of this many are probably afraid to speak out against discrimination and hatred directed at gay people. They may be afraid of speaking up because then the hatred will also be directed at them. As long as they keep their mouths shut they don’t have to worry. I wonder how many of the sexually active gay priests feel that as long as they are discreet in their activites and support the party line in regard to homosexuality (even when they don’t believe it) that they are safe. In all honesty, I don’t feel that a gay priest who is sexually active with many partners belongs in the priesthood. I have great respect for the gay priests who are faithful to their vows of celibacy. To me those faithful priests are heroes.

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