Can we talk about homosexuality?

In my commentary on Peter Steinfels' article below, I was quick to dismiss the (mostly) conservative suggestion that the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church could be attributed, in part, to the ordination of homosexual men to the priesthood. While I still think it is problematic to let such a claim stand, the most recent installment of The Immanent Frame series on "Sex Abuse in the Catholic Church" raises some important questions concerning the place of homosexuality in a complete analysis of cases of Catholic sexual abuse.Kent Brintnall looks at the case of Paul Richard Shanley, who "is one of the most notorious abusive priests from the Boston archdiocese." Before this, however, Brintnall describes Shanley's success in the 60's and 70's at building ministries for homeless and gay youth in the city, and his popular advocacy of gay rights, which made him "celebrated as a charismatic, hardworking, radical priest." As Steinfels points out, the fact that an abuser would be a charismatic and productive member of his community is not necessarily surprising. For Brintnall, however, Shanley's concern for and identification with those who were struggling to understand their own sexuality in a culture that would have preferred them to remain silent, and the real pastoral relief that Shanley was able to provide, even in the context of clearly abusive relationships, makes his case particularly confounding.

Brintnall writes:

Accounts of Shanleys abuse include reports that he told young men that homosexuality was not a sin and that having sex with either men or women was okay. While these statements are usually presented as a sexual predators sinister machinations, some auditors surely experienced a sense of relief and hope hearing these pronouncements. [...] A July 2002 cover story on Shanley from The Advocatea glossy, mainstream gay magazine with a national circulationbears the headline Paul Shanleys compassion was just part of a scheme to abuse vulnerable boys and young men. The story tells of William McLean, who met Shanley in 1973, when he was a 20-year-old college junior, by responding to an ad in the Boston Phoenix that read, Gay? Bi? Confused? Need someone to talk to? Although McLean found Shanleys willingness to have sex confusing, given the priestly vow of celibacy, he found his time with Shanley incredibly helpful, and observed that Shanley was the first person to tell him it was okay to be gay.

There is much in Brintnall's piece and in his descriptions of Shanley's actions that will cause the average Catholic reader, even one who (like me) considers himself progressive on the issue of homosexuality, to feel uneasy. But I found the essay important for precisely this reason. My knee-jerk reaction to Steinfels suggestion that we ought to take seriously the role that homosexuality played in the sex abuse crisis was driven by my (not completely unfounded) assumption that any attempt to do so would tend in the direction of blaming the crisis on the admittance of "intrinsically disordered" individuals into the clergy, but this assumption of prejudice on my part is just as much a refusal to talk about the difficulties of working out one's sexual orientation as conservative scapegoating would be. Brintnall's essay helps us to bracket the question of whether homosexuality is "good" or "bad," and asks whether we are really willing to talk about (homo)sexuality and the complexities involved in growing into sexually mature adults.It is clear that a culture of silence surrounding this process only contributes to the perpetuation of potentially harmful relationships. In reading Brintnall's piece, I was reminded of a series of articles in the Notre Dame Observer last year discussing the experience of gay and lesbian students on campus. Because of the University's official non-recognition of homosexuality, which is presumably informed by official Church teaching, many of the students interviewed said that the dating life of gay and lesbian students has been pushed "underground" and is ruled by "secrecy," especially among male students. One student underscored the problems with this saying, "It makes relationships be the extreme. It's either a one night stand, maybe twice, or monogamy is going to start happening to where it is serious after a week. There is no room to date' because the underground culture just perpetuates easy access, convenience and no strings attached."Brintnall insists, and I would concur, that none of this is meant to exonerate Shanley or, in the case of the Notre Dame article, tacitly endorse a collegiate "hook-up" subculture, but unless we are able to suspend our judgment long enough to talk about the real challenges faced by those trying to form a mature sexual identity, whether it be heterosexual or homosexual, active or celibate, we are going to be ill-equipped to assess the causes, meanings, effects, and remedies when things go wrong. In the end, though, I wonder if the Church is ready to take up the task that Brintnall sets out in his conclusion:

I would like to find a way to speak about Shanley asboth a sexually abusive priest worthy of disdainand a pioneering voice for gay rights worthy of admiration. I would also like to develop a sufficiently broad understanding of social context and an adequately nuanced account of individual motivation to explain the Catholic sex abuse cases, their causes, their meaning, their effects, their remedy. Most importantly, however, I want a history of homosexuality and Christianity in America that can place Shanleyand the Catholic sex abuse cases generallysquarely in the center. Because, in the final analysis, to understand these casesor homosexuality, or Christianitywe must keep in mind the complex embroilment of Christianity, homosexuality, power, desire, and human frailty, as well as the on-going contest between radical queer voices and palatable gay visions.

Given the Church's teaching on homosexuality and the public stance of the hierarchy on gay rights, are we conceptually equipped to think of Shanley as anything other than, at best, a pitiable and confused sexual deviant, and at worst, a monster? In short, can we even talk about homosexuality?

Eric Bugyis teaches Religious Studies at the University of Washington Tacoma.

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