Episcopal Pornography: Seminary Screening for Gay Candidate Priests

The procedures being used to screen seminary candidates for emotional and sexual maturity are, if the New York Times is to be believed, obscene. I mean that literally.

When I first read the article, I was simply revolted. My earlier understanding was that the appalling instruction of 2005 restricting the recruitment of gay seminarians had been largely softened in the later instruction issued in 2008, as carefully and clearly described by James Alison. To find that recruitment interviews remain obsessed with sex, and particularly with same sex attraction, was yet another indictment of the institutional Church’s lamentable inability to come to terms with a fundamental part of what it is to be human.  Then I recalled something I read last week in Mark Jordan’s “The Silence of Sodom: Homosexuality in Modern Catholicism“.

The context was Jordan’s analysis of the Vatican’s rhetorical style in its pronouncements on homosexuality, a style which Jordan says is characterised by repetition, flattening, threatening and certainty, rather than reasoning.  This is what he says about the extraordinary repetitions in Vatican discourse :

There certainly seems to be room for some contemporary satire, if only we had another Pascal. For example, the obsessive repetitions and flattenings of the official documents might seem to indicate that they are themselves a form of sexual gratification. They describe sexual acts and organs in ways that typify pornography made for men. One can even begin to imagine the pleasures derived from writing writing at length and in detail about acts one is prohibited from performing. One can even begin to imagine the pleasures derived from writing at length and in detail about the acts one is prohibited from performing. In Huysamen’s A Rebours, the protagonist moves from remembering the pleasures of sodomy to the pleasures of reading the casuists (i.e. the casuist theologians) on sodomy.

Does this explain the absurdities of the interviewing procedure? Are the interviewers simply substituting the candidates’ fantasies and descriptions for their own experience? After all, there surely cannot be any sane answers to some of those questions. What possible response to questions about masturbation that would demonstrate both awareness of medical evidence and compliance with Vatican orthodoxy? There cannot be any reason to expect a constructive answer. Could it be that a middle-aged  interviewer, for decades starved of any form of (licit) sexual life of his own, might find alternative value in looking at a young and possible delectable young man, and asking him about masturbation and his sexual fantasies?

The point is obvious, and I will not labour it. Instead, I want to go to a deeper point made by Jordan, that there are two forms of pornography at work here, and the obvious sexual titillation is the less serious of the two. More insidious, is the pornography of power.

Still I suspect that the real aphrodisiac in the casuistry of sex is not the pornographic depiction, but bureaucratic power. The enormous growth of moral regulation in the Counter-Reformation was accompanied not by a strengthening of moral rhetoric, but by its impoverishment.

Consider not just the content of the interview questions, but the interpersonal dynamic at work here. The invasive nature of the process, digging deep into what would in other circumstances be respected as deeply private matters, here serve to do more than simply extract information. In their totally one-sided nature, expecting the candidate to open up the deepest secrets of his sexual psyche, such questions establish and cement clear rules of power.

We ask these questions“, says the Church, “because we assert the right of total control. You have no choice but to answer in full, because you must submit“.

In applying these extraordinary tests, the Church is putting itself into an appalling Catch-22 situation. The procedure is nominally designed to ensure that only psychologically healthy men are accepted for training. But what sane and healthy man, I ask myself, would consent to such unwarranted humiliation?

No wonder that there are now so few candidates entering seminaries.

The Church’s obsession with puritanical sexual ethics, which have nothing whatsoever in common with the words or practice of Jesus Christ,  began in the years after  His departure, in the expectation of the parousia, or imminent second coming. Without any need to provide future generations, some Christians recommended total sexual abstinence, even within marriage, and especially for clergy. As the centuries passed, the clergy gradually came to be dominated by those who had forsworn sexual expression for themselves – and in turn sought to impose warped ideas of sexual “purity” on the rest of us as a means of asserting clerical control. Elaborate rules required regular confession of transgressions, which required priests to hear them.   The mountain of heavy penances imposed in turn then led to the widespread sale of indulgences and other abuses.

The Reformation and Counter-Reformation that followed swept away much of the nonsense: but we are still left with the absurdity of compulsory clerical celibacy, and a resultant sexual theology created by a celibate caste with minimal personal experience – and a culture of excessive power and control to enforce it.

It has been observed before, and I repeat: the simplest way to change unjust laws is to ignore them.


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