Unlike some Catholics of a certain age, who moan that the sex abuse scandal that burst onto the front pages almost four years ago shattered their faith in the presumed purity of priests, I didn’t grow up with the notion of priests as saints. Those in my acquaintance ate too much, smoked like stacks, bet on horses, and earned our allegiance, or didn’t, by the quality of their hearts. Saints, in any case, were dead, and I was vaguely aware of my own childish hubris in aspiring to be one. It was much later that I realized many of the saints weren’t even saints, in the colloquial sense of the word. As if to underscore that fact, in the midst of the scandal, in 2002 Pope John Paul II canonized a man who not only wrestled with devils, flagellated himself to bleeding, fasted to the point of collapse, and bore the stigmata but was also accused of having had sexual dalliances with women and of pomading his hair, perfuming his body, and wearing makeup. The Vatican once forbade Padre Pio, or Saint Pio da Pietrelcina as he is now called, from teaching teenage boys and hearing the confessions of women. The ladies had taken to fighting each other for the chance to repent their sins before this voluptuary of suffering. He took money in the confessional, and Rome was so unsettled by the extravagance of his mysticism and his cult that twice it put him under investigation. His own order, the Capuchins, bugged his cell after accusations arose that he brought women there. He died, in 1968, addicted to Valium and downers.
As Michael Bronski noted in a fascinating Boston Phoenix column unearthing this at the time of the canonization, saints are made as object lessons, and by elevating Pio, a doctrinal conservative, in a period of internal upheaval, the pope surely reinforced the ancient Catholicism of miracle, mystery, and authority. And yet, there is something oddly modern about it all, too, this example of colossal frailty, of ambiguity at the edge of hysteria and holiness. Not long before, the Vatican had insisted on modifications in the American bishops’ “zero-tolerance” policy toward accused priests, saying its stipulation to remove permanently from ministry anyone with a single accusation of sex with a minor, whatever the circumstances and however long ago, did not adequately allow for due process and forgiveness. Perhaps unwittingly, the pope expressed something as significant by offering the pancaked visage of Saint Pio for contemplation in a period of puffed-up righteousness, reminding Cath- olics, among them the legion of bishops looking to fix blame everywhere but in their own offices, that our embarrassment, our shame, is us.
Three years on, the Vatican has piled embarrassment on embarrassment, settling the debate initiated then between liberal reformers and reactionary prelates, as it was bound to, in favor of the reactionaries. Reformers had called for democracy, accountability, transparency. Some challenged celibacy, some suggesting that if only priests and bishops had been married with children, the abuse, or at least the silence around it, would not have occurred. That last argument, nonsense given the prevalence of family violence, gave backhanded assent to the reactionaries’ simpler verdict on the scandal: the homosexuals did it. JPII encouraged that line of reasoning, if such it can be called, by ordering seminaries to reject candidates with “obvious signs of deviations,” a stipulation that would have disqualified Pio the moment he first raised the whip against himself. Pope Benedict XVI has now systematized it. Church investigators are scrutinizing America’s 229 seminaries for “evidence of homosexuality,” “signs of particular friendships,” and all-around adherence to the Vatican’s official teaching of homophobia. When the investigation was revealed in August, its overseer, Edwin O’Brien, who is also archbishop for the U.S. military, said the seminary is no place for queers, however virginal or scrupulously chaste. The shoe waiting to drop is a purge of gay priests, men whose sexuality Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia once declared “a moral evil.” It’s all part of what Benedict, with Teutonic economy, described as “purifying” the church. Put another way, by a gay priest in New York who asked to be nameless, “Everyone fears the knock at the door in the middle of the night.”
Reformers and the press are appalled by the church’s gay panic. They point out, rightly, that there is no statistical correlation between homosexuality and pedophilia, that gay priests are no more likely to flout celibacy than straight ones, and that, while numbers are mushy, many therapists concur that in the universe of priestly victims the vast majority are girls and women. Half the membership of SNAP, or Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, for example, are women. The group’s president, David Clohessy, was astounded that the New York Times, in breaking news of the seminary investigation, reported without qualification the American bishops’ calculation that “about 80 percent of the young people victimized by priests were boys.” Clohessy distrusts everything about the bishops’ numbers and attributes the 80 percent figure to a combination of homophobia and sexism: the greater perceived affront of male-on-male groping which influenced who made noise, who was taken seriously, whose record got kept, who threatened to call a lawyer. But if the numbers are inflated, maybe they appear so believable and are reported so unthinkingly because of all those salacious stories of priests and “boys” (ages 6, 16, 21, the word became elastic) that, particularly in Boston, consumed newspapers, nabbed journalistic prizes, and passed off one-sided accounts—even preposterous “memories”—as ultimate truths, and made the careers of so many good liberal Catholic journalists and prosecutors who were remarkably uncurious about hetero offenses but probably couldn’t imagine themselves accessories to an antigay witch-hunt.
The reactionary churchmen aren’t responding simply, or even mainly, to the press, though, or to the scandal. This isn’t just a pedestrian matter of blame-shifting, as critics contend; it is the gasp of an institution caught in an operatic contradiction. For despite its attempts to organize patriarchy and enforce sexual, particularly same-sexual, shame, the Catholic Church has had, in the form of its priesthood, what today would be called a gay culture for about 1,000 years. Although estimates suggest 20 to 50 percent of American priests are gay (a figure that was probably higher before the Stonewall Riot of 1969 and the birth of the modern gay movement), whether individuals are homo or hetero is secondary. Here is an institution for centuries removed from the everyday construction of straight masculinity: a community of men, living together, freed from admonitions to marry and multiply, engaged in ritual and performance, praising gentleness, wearing dresses, and bound together in worship of a naked man on a cross. Body and blood, a heady mixture of rapture and camp, at once repressive and sensual, dependent, like the army, on structures of submission and domination, only here dedicated to a spiritual doctrine of love—that culture is now exposed and under attack.
For a long time, heterosexuals didn’t think about this much, because no one in the straight world had a clue about the way gay people hid. Even the most flamboyant priest was beyond sexuality. It was all part of the old world, and the church ladies loved the gay priests, the way they loved Liberace, because they were at an angle to the gender universe. No one who grew up in the church pre-Stonewall could miss the way the priest who organized the talent shows and liturgical pageants, decorated the church, drank martinis, and dressed just so dazzled the women, and if in private he rued the deception of it, we wouldn’t have guessed. It wasn’t all deception, of course, but a complex bargain in which renegades from straight sex roles got a measure of authenticity, safety, certainly prestige, though not without sacrificing their most intimate selves in loyalty to policies that declared them deviant, dangerous, sick. With gay liberation came not just an uncloseting of sex but of identity, and eventually the straight world started to recognize all the little markers. For straight men, especially in institutions like the church, the homosocial rituals were suddenly, by association, a little threatening: Might I be queer, too?
The reactionaries’ latest “solution” to this crisis, this embarrassment, has no more chance of success now than it did a generation ago, when John Paul II cracked down on rebellious theologians, and some cardinals tried to clear the seminaries of queers. The problem for the reactionaries is that they love the church culture of the marvelous but hate the identity that has largely sustained it. Purge that identity, and all that’s left are rules, authority, an army. Abandon the regimen of authority and shame, and it’s hardly a church at all, at least in the traditional sense. It’s a fine mess.
Still, even in disdain, the reactionaries’ appreciation of the challenge presented by gay liberation is far more acute than that of reformers, who seem mostly concerned that homophobia is vaguely unhip. Though it has been somewhat obscured by gay-cliché diversions like Queer Eye and debates over gay marriage, that liberationist challenge, at its core, asserts that sexuality is central to human life, not some “don’t tell the children” shameful thing, not something dependent on marriage and a social need to reproduce the workforce or boost the corps of believers. It asserts that sexuality is born with us and is no one’s property but the original owner’s; that desire, pleasure, love, may be complicated, almost certainly will be, but people really do have the right to the pursuit of such happiness; that they also have the right to pursue celibacy, chastity, abnegation, but, like the rest, those are sexual choices; and, among believers, that all of it is God’s creation and nothing God made can be bad, even if it often goes bad. Utopians had always believed such things, along with mavericks, hippies, and some feminists. But with Stonewall “the genie was out of the bottle,” as writer Andrew Kopkind liked to say. For more than 30 years, the ethos of sexual freedom has been working its way through mainstream culture, moving forward, then thrown back, diverted by commerce or expedience from its essentially moral root, surviving but not without a lot of dislocation. Revolution of the body is a lot easier than revolution of the mind, and for all the claims to liberation—and the relentless advertising of sex—we are still groping in the dark, still in a period of transition set off in the 1960s and ’70s.
It’s totally logical, by their lights, that the guardians of an old, punishing morality should fall back on punishment. The harder question is, Where is a reborn morality that doesn’t need retribution, that courts embarrassment and risks freedom with only a radical love to win?