TV & Radio
September 24, 2005
Ban on Same-Sex Attraction and Sexual Activity Could Be a Crucial Issue for Catholics' Attitudes
By PETER STEINFELS - New York Times
News reports surrounding the review of Roman Catholic seminaries in the United States that the Vatican has organized have focused on the possibility that Rome plans to bar gay men from ordination to the priesthood, regardless of their readiness to remain faithful to their pledge of celibacy.
Such a ban would have serious consequences, of course. It would reverberate far beyond the gay candidates for ordination whom it might directly affect and even beyond the celibate gay priests who would inevitably take it as a judgment on their own calling and years of service.
In fact, the Catholic Church's moral stance on same-sex attraction and sexual activity may well prove to be a touchstone issue for the next generation of Catholics' attitudes toward church authority, just as the renewed papal condemnation of contraception proved to be for Catholics in the 1970's and 80's.
But important as that question may be, it is not the only matter at stake in the official scrutiny now beginning of Catholic seminary education. The Vatican instruction outlining the project contains 96 questions "as a guide" for the teams of visitors who will interview students and faculty members at approximately 200 seminaries and submit their findings to Rome.
The thrust of these questions is to assure that future priests are fully prepared to live celibate lives, as well as morally disciplined and prayerful ones, and that they are thoroughly committed to church teachings, especially as laid out in recent official documents from the pope and Vatican offices.
There are no explicit questions about the seminarians' capacities for initiative, creativity or imaginative and consultative leadership, although some of these qualities are undoubtedly taken up in the various church documents found in the footnotes.
There is no explicit question about concern for social justice, unless that could be assumed under a single reference to "apostolic zeal." By comparison, there are numerous questions specifically asking about recitation of the rosary, visits to the Blessed Sacrament, devotion to Mary and the saints and many other "exercises of piety."
A single question asks whether seminarians are being taught "a proper understanding of the role of women in ecclesial life" and "the proper models of clergy-lay cooperation." The next question makes clear that what is "proper" is to be found in statements by Pope John Paul II and his Vatican officials.
Of the 96 questions, just these two address the intellectual potential of future priests:
"Do the seminarians show an aptitude for and dedication to intellectual work?"
And "Are the seminarians capable of dialoguing, on the intellectual level, with contemporary society?"
This minimal attention to intellectual capacity is noteworthy in view of the opinions of faculty teams from 20 Catholic seminaries who met yearly from 1995 to 2001. They were searching for new ways to educate today's Catholic seminarians, who are typically older than their predecessors, less grounded in church teachings and much more diverse in ethnicity and in the religious journeys that have led them to the seminary.
Because solid statistics are not available - interesting in itself - these faculty teams could only pool their opinions on how qualified current seminarians were intellectually. Those estimates were reported in a book published this year, "Educating Leaders for Ministry" by Victor J. Klimoski, Kevin J. O'Neil and Katarina M. Schuth (Liturgical Press).
Only 10 percent of seminarians, it was estimated, were highly qualified for their educational work. Somewhat more than 50 percent were adequately qualified. One-third to 40 percent suffered from poor educational backgrounds, learning disabilities, lack of facility in English or unfamiliarity with American culture (among the growing number of seminarians from overseas) or atrophied study skills (among some older seminarians). Those deficiencies, it was reported, created "special challenges for faculty."
The determination of these faculty members to meet those challenges, to explore ways of teaching the students they had rather than whining about not having better ones, was admirable. This writer said as much in a brief comment, included with others at the end of the volume. But it was also impossible to overlook those ballpark figures on intellectual aptitude.
Certainly the 33 percent to 40 percent of seminarians with significant intellectual deficiencies include some whose handicaps might be easily remedied, like those for whom English is not a native language.
Canceling out that good news, however, is another finding. Even among the academically gifted, as well as among the academically deficient, the faculty teams reported seminarians who "regardless of native abilities and educational experiences" resist "the learning enterprise" because it threatens their "preconceived ideas about theology."
Shouldn't such impressions, which are in fact more widely shared among Catholic seminary educators than anything having to do with homosexuality, loom large in a review of the seminaries?
What if it were reported that only 10 percent of those studying for medical degrees were academically or intellectually "highly qualified"? Or that 40 percent of those accepted for law school or for graduate engineering degrees labored under one or more learning difficulties such as to create "special challenges for faculty"? Or that, whether or not they were well equipped for their studies, some significant percentage of students aspiring to positions in medicine, law, engineering, social work, education or, for that matter, the military, displayed an "unwillingness ...to engage in the learning enterprise" that they were undergoing?
Given Pope John Paul II's repeated pleas for the "evangelization of culture," it is surprising that only one question out of 96 explores whether seminarians are "capable of dialoguing, on the intellectual level, with contemporary society." Why not a few further questions like: "Do the seminarians follow current events? Do they read serious fiction and show an appreciation for the arts? Do they display an interest in contemporary science?"
In fact, that single question about dialoguing with contemporary society is followed by, "Do their studies help them to respond to contemporary subjectivism and, in particular, to moral relativism? (This question must be answered.)"
Contemporary subjectivism and moral relativism are not challenges to be dismissed. But what does this defensive tone, the dominant tone of the Vatican guidelines for examining American seminaries, promise by way of a dialogue with contemporary society? What does this defensive tone, which is, of course, the product of conservative and liberal agitation over the sexual abuse scandal in the church, promise for future generations of Catholic priests?