For anxious Catholic seminarians, teachers and priests, the disclosure that teams of Vatican inspectors will be visiting the more than 200 U.S. seminaries to "look for evidence of homosexuality" and investigate if seminaries have "a clear process for removing faculty members who dissent from the authoritative teaching of the church" set off a storm of speculation about a new witch hunt against gay men in the priesthood.
Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien, the Vatican's coordinator of the investigative visits, told the National Catholic Register that "anyone who has engaged in homosexual activity, or has strong homosexual inclinations, would be best not to apply to a seminary and not to be accepted into a seminary," and said that the Vatican would be coming out with a document clarifying its 1961 position on homosexual seminarians and clergy.
The seminary investigations, and their impact on the lives and vocations of faithful Catholics, will be profound -- as will their shattering of a long-closeted church culture. If the visits become a witch hunt, says church historian and Catholic theologian Rev. Richard McBrien, "there will be gay seminarians, faculty, and already-ordained priests who will feel obliged to 'out' closeted gays in positions of ecclesiastical leadership who are facilitating the campaign."
Rev. McBrien, who teaches at the University of Notre Dame, believes that an "ultra-conservative minority is driving the investigations, not knowing that some of their favorite icons in the clergy and hierarchy are themselves gay."
"The days of the gilded clerical closet are gone," agrees Mark Lodico, a former Catholic with a master's in theology who now works as a psychologist in San Francisco. "We have to realize that the days of officials publicly professing horror and shock at the very thought of gay seminarians and clergy, while privately winking and smiling, are over."
Still, the practical and existential demands of the investigation are slippery enough to frustrate the most convoluted theological mind. How will investigators ferret out those to be purged? Will the Vatican try to ban homosexual "activities," homosexual "inclinations" or homosexual "persons"? Is desire identity? What about a seminarian who had a crush on his best friend in sixth grade? Is behavior the point? What about a totally celibate flaming queen who's taught theology for 30 years? What, in God's name, is a homosexual -- and how many of them can dance on the head of a pin?
But, as in other culture wars where the idea of homosexuality serves to draw boundaries, this battle is not primarily about gay people or gay behavior. The real battle is about power, and the attempt by Pope Benedict XVI to reassert central authority in the face of multiple and growing challenges to Vatican control -- particularly from the United States, long the source of headaches for Rome.
On that increasingly unmanageable terrain, lifelong Catholics cheerfully disobey church teachings on birth control, priests overlook church rules about divorce, the faithful openly tell pollsters that their bishops are wrong, and Catholic women -- hell, even the pusillanimous John Kerry -- talk back, as if faith were a matter of conscience and not of doctrine. The old purity codes don't hold; the lines of the law are blurred, and no amount of cash from arch-conservative Catholics can keep the pews full. Openly gay seminarians, theologians and priests are only one part of a larger fear for the Vatican: that even as official doctrine is given lip service, actual practice will create a different church on the ground.
This won't be the first time Rome has sounded an alarm about American heretics. At the beginning of the 20th century, under Pius X, the Vatican led a campaign to purge American seminaries of critical scholarship, replacing Modernists and demanding intellectual obedience to papal control. In the United States, troublesome seminary faculty were fired, and well-read, critical priests were replaced by new immigrants from Ireland and Italy -- generally poorer and less educated men who were willing to be obedient and play by the rules.
"The anti-Modernist campaign set back Catholic scholarship and intellectual life some 50 years," says Rev. McBrien. "It wasn't until the pontificate of John XXIII (1958-63) and the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) that the atmosphere changed for the better." More recent Vatican campaigns against liberation theologians, pro-choice Catholics, those advocating the priestly ordination of women, feminist scholars and dissenting theologians revived fear among liberal American seminarians and faculty of a new setback in Catholic intellectual life.
Still, the current seminary investigations are being presented to the faithful not as anti-intellectual reaction, nor as a power play, but as a good-faith effort to address the sexual-abuse scandal. Gay men abuse little boys, the argument goes, so getting rid of gay priests means that kids will be safe. Such linking of homosexuality with predatory pedophilia is an old and inaccurate myth, but it certainly holds political utility for a hierarchy that did its best, for decades, to cover up abuse, blame victims and attack those who sought justice. Like other political campaigns that invoke the horrors of homosexuality to rally followers behind a conservative agenda, this one has less to do with facts than with public relations.
The real connection between the sex-abuse cases and the seminary investigations is that the scandals intensified the Vatican's existing unease about the American church -- and convinced the hierarchy it was time to clamp down. The spectacle of an angry laity withholding money from the church, spilling parish secrets, publicly rebuking prominent bishops, and refusing to accept direction was profoundly upsetting to an organization that runs on order.
"It's more than order," says Rev. John Golenski, a gay Episcopal priest and medical ethicist in San Francisco, who spent 23 years as a Jesuit. "It's about money. If you took away the revenue from Cologne, Munich, Amsterdam and the United States, the Vatican would close down in seven days. The whole show is funded by these places -- so if they lose control of the mechanism of authority there, they lose it all. They need the levers of control to be top-down again."
Rev. Golenski thinks the Vatican has concluded that "the clergy in the United States cannot be reformed, but must be replaced." Rome, he adds, "is ready to purge not just homosexuals, but all wrong thinkers. It's a risky strategy for them. But otherwise the hierarchy fears it will irrevocably lose control."
The gamble is a big one for Pope Benedict XVI. Even if the Vatican were able to "cleanse" the American seminaries this time around -- leaving only the stupid, the obedient, the terrorized, the very good liars -- the risks seem great. The number of American priests has already dropped so precipitously that laypeople and "guest-worker" immigrant priests from places like Vietnam and the Philippines fill many jobs. As more American seminarians are driven out, more replacement priests will be needed. Earlier in the century, Irish and Italian priests ran parishes that shared their language and culture -- but the new immigrant priests may not be able to keep middle-class, non-immigrant American churchgoers in line. And though the Vatican has, to put it mildly, a great deal of experience in suppressing dissent, the world has changed irreversibly in terms of the ability of ordinary Catholics to share information outside of official channels -- and to make up their own minds.
"A lot has shifted in the culture of American parishes," notes Rev. Golenski. "God knows, most people have figured out their clergy are gay."
The human cost of the investigations is real: The seminarians, priests and teachers caught up in a witch hunt have much to grieve for, as do their families and parishioners. The institutional cost to the church seems great too: Although some Catholics will stay, and some conservatives will form political bonds with fundamentalist Protestants who take their side in the culture wars, many moderates will leave. Some may cross over to mainline Protestant denominations, or bland, friendly megachurches; others may just join the growing number of "recovering Catholics" with no church affiliation.
But, as the gay psychologist Mark Lodico points out, there is no going back to the days when the pope held absolute authority and gay Catholics were silent and invisible. "The gift of this investigation is that, painful as it is, it opens up the possibility of telling the whole truth," he says. "We should thank God for that."