Thursday, May 26, 2011

Don't ask, Don't tell

[Originally posted January 6, 2008]

Blogger and friend Charles Gates (You have a friend) asked me how I felt about Jesuits having their sad histories as pedophiles show up in the news—and the courts.

Charles, my first response approaches profound embarrassment—that some men with whom I shared the ideals of Ignatius took advantage of their position as priests to prey on children; I can hardly believe that their pathology wasn't checked. Was a bishop or religious superior not being responsible? (The evidence seems to point in that direction.)

But the word “embarrassed” is not exactly right. “Profoundly disappointed” might be closer: I have experienced the power of the Spiritual Exercises, and felt the enthusiasm and vision of Ignatius who was a religious genius, again for want of a better word. I felt I shared that deep feeling with so many men I admired, Arrupe, Berrigan, Chardin, Colombiere, Dulles, Drinan, Faber, Nobili, Ricci, la Salle, to name just a few famous ones, but many others, ordinary men who lead prayerful, inspired lives for a few years or a lifetime, Charlie, Joe, Thom, Drew, Joep, Kaiser, TJC, Marshall, Morgan, Neal, Bob, Jan, Freddie, Ray and many more. These men were, and continue to be interested in dedicating their lives to help others. They are all my heroes.

My naiveté allowed me to think that I shared this spirit with every priest, every Jesuit, and I imagined that I had enough experience with human nature, as the old confessional examination goes, “with myself and others,” to recognize the shadowy demons that most every human has. So, Charles, my next reaction is unspeakable sorrow for those who placed their trust in a person they thought close to the teachings of Jesus, a conduit for God’s mercy and forgiveness, and were manipulated. This is not how the universe is supposed to work. This cannot be the world that Jesus has saved, or the Mystical Body that believers hold up as a beacon to the world.

There was still some piece of the puzzle missing.

I noticed that the institutional response in every diocese and religious order across the United States was always the same: stonewall all investigations and never admit guilt. There were of course plenty of apologies, especially from those whose behavior was the most egregious, Law and Mahony. As one commentator said, profound apologies are not an admission of wrongdoing. Airlines routinely issue profound apologies to families of those killed in a crash caused by mechanical failure or an "act of God," as the insurance companies’ liability claims quaintly phrase it. The game seemed to be protecting the assets and “good name” of the institution which precludes any admission of guilt—“Our lawyers will not allow us to comment any further. Thank you. Next question?”

Then I noticed that institutional response did not come close to addressing anyone’s real concerns. When asked why he did not tell parishioners the reason he removed a priest who was arrested having sex with teenage boys in the back of a car, one religious superior said: "Why should they [need to know]? This is an Internet cruising thing. This is anonymous sex. This doesn't involve people at the parish. It wasn't a priest thing. He wasn't dressed in a collar." (No, he actually was in drag with lipstick and blush.) Apparently the private life and professional conduct of a priest were now separate and distinct, something I had never learned in the 11 years that I trained to be a Jesuit. People under pressure say and do stupid things.

I never had any inappropriate contact with a minor, during the time I was a Jesuit or since. And I do not know any Jesuit, gay or straight, who did. It was simply unthinkable, even in a time when the freedoms felt after John XXIII’s aggornamento were leading to all kinds of experimentation. It was unthinkable and yet it happened. So my third response was to look again into the situation more deeply, and this time include an examination of my own responsibility as a gay man with a vow of celibacy, to see if I could find in myself something beyond embarrassment, disappointment, blame, or, yes, even relief.

I make no secret that my last years in the Jesuits were very difficult and painful for me. I wanted to be a Jesuit, but I found celibate life extremely difficult, and I intended to honor my solemn promises if I remained in the Society. I was in therapy dealing with my own self-sabotage, self-loathing, and unconscious homophobia—parts of myself that lagged behind my intellectual acceptance, but there was never any real doubt in my mind that being gay was totally OK, healthy and a perfectly acceptable way of living in the world.

It is an open secret that there are many, many gay men throughout the entire body of Roman Catholic clergy, members of religious orders, and even the hierarchy. It is also no secret that the official position of the magisterium is that homosexuality is “disordered.” (I doubt that this falls within the infallible teaching.) And the solution to this contradiction for most gay priests, even if they have never broken their vow of celibacy—Secrecy! You might talk about it with your partners, if you have any, perhaps your superiors, perhaps your confessor, but never go public. Or as I say in the header for this post: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. That is the first commandment.

Never having been circumspect about my own opinions or process, I was very open within the Jesuits community when I was coming out. I broke the first commandment.

Perhaps John McNeill had the same experience. If he had not come out openly "as a Jesuit priest, as a moral theologian, as a psychotherapist, as a person who is himself gay, and as a human being," he might still have a comfortable psychotherapy practice on the Upper West Side. I cannot answer that question for John, and I do not know if he would agree. But this I do know, if I had not come out fully as a gay man, I would have missed out on being able to know and express some of the deepest emotions that a human being can feel. For me there never really was any choice, but that non-choice, for some very difficult reasons, was the hardest choice of my life.

There is a pact of complete silence that gay priests are forced to obey. I was shocked by what I discovered, and if it is true, which feels very likely to me, it shows that the cult of secrecy starts right at the top.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

An Open Letter to Hans Küng

This post is a response to Fr. Küng's open letter to the Bishops of the Roman Church published in the Irish Times [reposted in full on Orate Fratres]. The cover of Time was on June 7th, 2010 issue. It took me more than a few hundred words to say half the message of this graphic.

Dear Father Küng:

I want to say tell you how much I appreciate your stand against the thousand-year-old tradition of priestly celibacy in the Latin rite. I admire both its eloquence and urgency.

However, I would be uncomfortable if you were to take the lead in the effort to reverse this policy of mandatory celibacy.

It is not that I don’t find your arguments cogent. They are.

It is not that I disagree with your overall assessment that the insistence on papal infallibility is a huge blunder. It is. I also admire your conduct after you were disciplined for arguing against the declaration of Vatican I and refusing the back down.

It is not that I disagree with your analysis that the insulation of the priestly class has resulted in a massively dysfunctional organization that relies on secrecy, manipulation, and force to preserve its power. The current crisis has demonstrated that beyond any shadow of a doubt.

It is not, as some may argue, that you might appear to have an ax to grind with the current leadership, Benedict and his Curia. You have never denied that you do, but have always maintained an admirable level of civility. There have been too many revolutionary leaders who've stepped out of prison and sounded the call to arms when the political winds change.

It is not that you might appear to be fanning the winds of scandal for political change. The world is dong it; the press is doing it; religious leaders of other churches are doing it; rank and file members of the Latin rite are doing it; the elite leadership in Rome themselves are doing it through their defensive, strident, and often just plain stupid pronouncements.

If the Latin rite's leadership in Rome refuse to take responsibility, no one can force them to. No one can force them to do anything. They have insulated themselves against any outside moral force. Even if we could tell them how to resolve the untenable situation they have created—if those who have been gravely injured and those who are rising up in indignation could agree on a remedy—that would still only satisfy those groups. It might be a good first step, but it does not address the root problem.

It is the failed leadership itself that has to decide what they must do to take responsibility for the crisis. As far as I can see, the only solution is for them to make themselves accountable to the Teaching of Jesus. We can only say that what they’ve done so far, in our view, has not measured up. They will use their authority to claim that it does. Their professional class, priests and lay people in their employ, will claim that it does, but so far, public reaction indicates that few people believe them. I don't believe them. As the poet says, “The lady doth protest too much.” Please keep pointing to the failure of their argument.

In 1517 when Luther nailed 95 good reasons why the papal Ponzi scheme devised to finance the grandiose rebuilding of the mother church of the Latin rite was not in accord with the Teaching of the Gospel, the revolt that ensued was not just about money. Rather Luther unleashed a complete reexamination of the Christian life: how to live a good life, your “works," and what constitutes sin and failure when faith counts on the Gift of God’s grace and forgiveness.

So far, the public debate, the accusations and recriminations, the posturing have all have been about the role of the church’s leadership in a cover-up. The fact that the crimes themselves touch human sexuality at its core is only spoken of very carefully and obliquely. No one yet dares examine the perversion of Church teaching on sexuality. Luther began a revolution in the way humans were able to view their relationship with the transcendent. I hope to see a powerful movement that will free us from the tyranny of onerous teachings on sexuality that are steeped in denial and negativity.

Hans Küng by David Levine

And that is why I hope that you, Father Küng, do not assume the leadership in ending the 1000-year-old celibate stranglehold on Latin rite.

I hope that a whole new generation of powerful, thoughtful, skillful, faithful Christian leaders emerge. I hope that they begin to analyze the structures of our economic and political systems and find ways to make every voice heard, especially the ones that Jesus loved, the poor and disenfranchised. I hope that men and women assume equal leadership roles in the church so that every person who asks for grace, blessing and forgiveness is welcomed. I hope that they envision a new spirituality of sex so that every man and woman can enjoy its mystery, grace, and wonder in love and freedom. And that might be only a small beginning of the list of their accomplishments. Our God is generosity and love.

There are some who think that the role of religion in our 21st century lives is far less powerful than 500 years ago, and this crisis will fade away. I don’t think it will. I hope it doesn’t. If it does, we will lose an opportunity to find God once again in our lives.

The early followers of Jesus were very clear about one teaching: the Kingdom of God is at hand. And when it didn’t appear in any recognizable way, they transformed their hope, looked for the Kingdom with fresh eyes, and took action. They realized that this process itself was as endless and as the boundless as the love they saw in Christ Jesus. They began to see the Kingdom wherever and whenever it appeared, and they made it appear when only they could envision It. That place is always right here. That moment is always right now.

With gratitude and love,

Ken Ireland

For another recent article by Fr. Küng, go to