The recent instruction from the Congregation for Catholic Education regarding the ordination of homosexuals suggests to me that seminaries are hardly the best place to help gay men mature, learn from their experiences, and seek the support of similarly oriented men in keeping their promise of celibacy. The congregation’s controversial cautions about ordaining gay men may be more prudent than critics realize.
In recent years, many seminaries enrolled gay men if the candidates were thought to show the the potential to live celibately and were willing not to publicly identify themselves as homosexuals. Yet a large literature on the social psychology of stigma suggests that admission to Catholic seminaries might be a disservice to these men. Indeed, given the church’s teaching that homosexuals are “objectively disordered,” barring homosexuals from ordination may be more charitable than subjecting them to the contradictory demands and rigors of an institution that morally chastises them.
In the classic Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, Erving Goffman defined a stigma as a social marker that separates an individual from the group and can ultimately lead to the discrediting of the whole person as tainted or discounted. Stigma calls into question the full humanity of the person. In the eyes of others, he or she is seen as flawed or contaminated. While church teaching does not deny the full humanity of gay people, it can have the effect of stigmatizing them as “unnatural,” adding to the heavy burden gay Catholics already bear as an often suspect minority. Those who derive much of their identity from institutional ties, ties to a church to which they devote their lives, are especially vulnerable.
Ironically, admitting gay men to seminaries while requiring them to conceal their sexual orientation only heightens their awareness of their difference and isolation. The pressure to conceal in turn rivets attention on precisely what is forbidden. Psychologists Laura Smart and Daniel M. Wegner, in their research on the psychic cost of such “hidden” stigmas, note a number of invidious effects that concealing an important aspect of one’s identity can have on an individual. The internalization of shame frequently results in a preoccupation with what is condemned. Sexual attributes that have been stigmatized are likely to shape thoughts and behavior even when the person is not consciously thinking about them. Gay seminarians and priests are pressured to carefully manage or obscure their orientation, lest their secret be found out. This can lead to a greater sense of alienation and thus to less satisfying interpersonal relationships. In fact, Smart and Wegner called their research on people who belong to groups or institutions that compel them to hide characteristics such as homosexuality “private hell” studies.
Social support is crucial for living celibately and, if one is gay, for coping with the church’s stern attitudes toward homosexuality. Not feeling free to express sexual thoughts and feelings, gay people might naturally find their sense of well-being and self-esteem diminished. In contrast, living outside the closet frequently increases a sense of integrity and moral worth. By consigning gay priests and seminarians to the closet, the church further limits the resources available for sustaining celibacy, while making it more likely that sexual orientation will become a troubling preoccupation for many.
In 2000, as part of a doctoral dissertation, I began studying how nine U.S. diocesan seminaries train men for celibacy. I spent an entire semester observing one Midwestern diocesan seminary and doing interviews for a case study. I had complete access to liturgies, meals, and classes, and I conducted in-depth interviews with faculty members and students. I found that seminaries are significantly constrained in helping men, whether gay or straight, to become healthy, chaste priests. More important, however, a double standard existed, in that heterosexual candidates felt much freer to discuss dating, sexual activity, and relationships than did gay seminarians. Gay students were considerably more reticent about their orientation or sexual history. Discussion of homosexual experiences appeared to be confined to the sacrament of reconciliation and to spiritual direction. A moral theology professor expressed his frustration in helping students deal honestly with their sexual development, saying seminarians learn “the only safe place to talk about who I am really as a sexual being is in a forum where it cannot be revealed publicly. Doesn’t that very dynamic set up the conditions for shame or guilt?” The recent Vatican directive will only add to this problem, since the stakes for a gay seminarian are even more risky now that confessors and advisers must in conscience seek to persuade the gay seminarian to quit. Since I studied only diocesan seminaries, it is difficult for me to compare their environments with those of religious houses of formation. I’m told, though, that some religious orders have dealt more openly with sexual issues. My sense is that gay seminarians would benefit from such candor.
In my research, I found that the time and resources devoted to formation for celibacy have greatly expanded since the 1980s. More comprehensive and systematic attention to the subject included conferences and workshops given by experienced priests and psychologists. Still, although learning how to be celibate was given increased prominence, the approach frequently remained discursive and theoretical. Those charged with the formation of seminarians appeared particularly silent about issues related to sexual identity. Some students too easily assumed they had wrestled sufficiently with relational and sexual matters by merely attending a few workshops. At the same time, they knew that being too honest about sexual activity was likely to lead to swift dismissal from the seminary. As a result, the atmosphere allowed little room for failure or open discussion. Most seminaries, I’m afraid, remain ill-equipped to help homosexuals (and perhaps heterosexuals) in their sexual maturation.
I have met many priests for whom being gay is a significant factor in their desire to be a priest. Especially in the past, a traditional religious upbringing led them to reject an active homosexual lifestyle. Having internalized intense feelings of shame regarding their orientation, these candidates zealously set out to be “good” gays. Paradoxically, they seek to “redeem” themselves and other homosexuals by ordination to the priesthood in an institution that withholds its approval of them, since they remain “objectively disordered” even if they are chaste and celibate. In this sense, gay priests frequently set themselves up for frustration by seeking the approval of a commanding parent whose undivided acceptance they can never have. Many gay priests live with a profound sense of dissonance, dedicating themselves to an institution that says they are inherently disordered and unable to relate to others. In addition, while concealing their own orientation, they are expected to uphold the very teaching that says they are flawed at their core—a teaching personal experience has sometimes led them to question.
Sadly, discouraging gay men from seminary may only increase the appeal of priesthood to repressed or latent homosexuals. Such men may be desperate to “straighten” themselves out. For such men, entering the seminary becomes a powerful way to solidify their putatively heterosexual credentials and ward off deeply buried desires. Researchers Smart and Wegner also point out that the unconscious desire to keep the stigmatized aspect of one’s identity secret can result in projecting reproach on others one perceives as deviant. Thus it is not surprising to find priests who are latently homosexual vigorously defending the church’s teaching against same-sex attraction.
More clarity from the Vatican regarding the role of spiritual directors and confessors would have been helpful. The congregation is right in stating that spiritual directors and confessors should discourage sexually active candidates (gay or straight) from seeking ordination. According to the instruction, spiritual directors and confessors should also dissuade those with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies.” To whom this term applies needs to be spelled out. Psychologically, it is important that candidates have a clear understanding of their sexual identity, orientation, urges, and relational life. Spiritual directors must help seminarians assess whether they have adequate understanding of their sexual selves and then assist the candidates in understanding whether they are capable of a life of celibacy.
Allowing gay men to be ordained and to minister (as many surely do quite well) does grant them a measure of dignity and satisfaction. Still, it comes at great cost to many. For several years, I have been very cautious about encouraging young gay men to enter the seminary. Spiritual directors ought to help gay seminarians realize the implications for their own sense of integrity of spending their lives ministering in an institution that officially shuns them. Consequently, the Vatican’s hesitancy to admit homosexuals to seminaries, even if for the wrong reasons, strikes me as prudent. This policy may deprive the church of some capable priests, but it will also spare many men great anguish at the hands of a church that clearly does not yet know how to welcome their devotion.