The Tao of Politics

Home The Editorial Page Politics Contributors Democracy Cell Project Contributors Recommended Links About HPLeft Contact Us

The Benedictine Purge Begins

This column originally appeared as part of the Way of Politics series for the Democracy Cell Project, an IRS-approved 501(c)(3) created by former members of Kerry-Edwards 2004 blog team. The Way of Politics attempted to explore the intersection of religion, spirituality, and politics from a contemporary Deistic or secular and spiritual perspective.

Americans witnessed a startling juxtaposition this week. On Wednesday, a vote at the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention made it more likely that gay marriage will become a permanent institution in that state. On Thursday, The New York Times revealed that Pope Benedict XVI has begun a purge of homosexuals, and faculty that disagree with official Vatican teaching, in American seminaries. As Laurie Goodstein reports in her September 15th story, “Vatican to Check U.S. Seminaries on Gay Presence”:

"Investigators appointed by the Vatican have been instructed to review each of the 229 Roman Catholic seminaries in the United States for "evidence of homosexuality" and for faculty members who dissent from church teaching, according to a document prepared to guide the process.

"The Vatican document, given to The New York Times yesterday by a priest, surfaces as Catholics await a Vatican ruling on whether homosexuals should be barred from the priesthood.

"In a possible indication of the ruling's contents, the American archbishop who is supervising the seminary review said last week that "anyone who has engaged in homosexual activity or has strong homosexual inclinations," should not be admitted to a seminary.

"Edwin O'Brien, archbishop for the United States military, told The National Catholic Register that the restriction should apply even to those who have not been sexually active for a decade or more."

Goodstein next describes the backdrop against which Benedict's purge is taking place:

"American seminaries are under Vatican review as a result of the sexual abuse scandal that swept the priesthood in 2002. Church officials in the United States and Rome agreed that they wanted to take a closer look at how seminary candidates were screened for admission, and whether they were being prepared for lives of chastity and celibacy. The issue of gay seminarians and priests has been in the spotlight because a study commissioned by the church found last year that about 80 percent of the young people victimized by priests were boys.

"Experts in human sexuality have cautioned that homosexuality and attraction to children are different, and that a disproportionate percentage of boys may have been abused because priests were more likely to have access to male targets - like altar boys or junior seminarians - than to girls.

"But some church officials in the United States and in Rome, including some bishops and many conservatives, attributed the abuse to gay priests and called for an overhaul of the seminaries. Expectation for such a move rose this year with the election of Pope Benedict XVI, who has spoken of the need to 'purify' the church."

Past Is Prologue
It's not unusual for flawed humans and institutions to seek a scapegoat when assigning responsibility for horror that seems too awful to even contemplate. That the Vatican is now attempting to make homosexuals the scapegoat of its sexual abuse scandal – a scandal that also included instances of male clergy molesting women, and outside of the United States, priests molesting nuns – is then predictable, if inexcusable for an allegedly "spirit-based" organization. Try looking in the mirror, your Holiness.

When the young Joseph Ratzinger was shaken by the social turbulence of the late 1960s, he retreated into the cocoon of Catholic orthodoxy. Today, when challenged to come to grips with what many regard as a necessary evolutionary shift in the church's attitudes towards sexuality, including a reappraisal of ancient prejudices about homosexuality, and the merits of priestly celibacy, we mustn't be surprised when Pope Benedict again retreats into the closeted past. It's his modus operandi, and that MO was likely a key reason that John Paul II's carefully packed College of Cardinals elected him as the late Pontiff's successor.

A Pope has the authority to impose whatever policies he sees fit on the Church. With the mitre comes a mighty hammer. But if this Pontiff isn't careful, that hammer might well wreck the foundation of his church, and cause a schism in the years ahead. A policy of institutional discrimination on the basis of mere sexual orientation will likely be an impossible pill for liberal American and European Catholics to swallow. Reformations have happened before, and can happen again. That said, if Ratzinger's real aim is to consolidate his influence over a dramatically smaller, but more docile and obedient congregation, then this strategy might well bring him closer to achieving that goal.

Revulsion at institutional discrimination aside, my interest in Church activities is principally focused on the growing potential for a foreign national to inappropriately interject himself in the political process of the United States. This potential became all too apparent during the last Presidential election, when several Catholic bishops - apparently emboldened by the rhetoric of Vatican hard-liners like Ratzinger - loudly announced that they would deny communion to John Kerry, in response to his support for a woman's right to choose.

This abhorrence of interference by clergy controlled by a foreign ecclesiastical authority is one that many in the Founding Generation shared. For instance, in a letter dated May 19, 1821, John Adams addressed this rhetorical question to Thomas Jefferson:

Can a free government possibly exist with the Roman Catholic religion?

As Benedict XVI continues his ideological purge of the American church, it is inevitable that the remaining clergy will mirror his idiosyncratic prejudices with regard to issues like homosexuality. As Ms. Goodstein notes in her story, the catechism that Joseph Ratzinger helped create proscribes that:

…people with "deep-seated" homosexual tendencies must live in chastity because "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered."

That American psychologists and psychiatrists increasingly see homosexuality in a much more positive light will have little impact on the rhetoric that parishioners hear from Benedict's clergy. This rhetoric will have an inevitable, and in light of its foreign origin, completely inappropriate impact on how issues like gay marriage are even debated.

Now, some Church apologists will defend Benedict's elevation of subjective creed over science by citing the doctrine of Papal infallibility in matters of faith and morals. I note, however, that this doctrine only came into existence in 1870, at the First Vatican Council, after centuries of documented Papal sexual and financial misconduct, and decidedly un-Christ-like power-brokering and war-mongering. One can only speculate about the miraculous events that must have taken place during this Council. Truly, only a miracle of extraordinary proportions could make it possible for leaders who had proven themselves throughout history every bit as fallible as any member of the laity, to hereafter be draped by a cloak of infallibility of any kind.

Was John Adams Right?
As I wrote in a previous column, Papal Authoritarianism and American Democracy, when discussing the implications of John Paul II's purge of the American Catholic hierarchy:

As much as I vehemently disagree with Pat Robertson's or Jerry Falwell's theological and political views, I can see no fundamental problem with their involvement in American politics. For every ten Robertsons and Falwells, I wish we had but one Martin Luther King. And all three of these men rose to influential positions in their respective communities through an organically American process. But is this also true of the American Bishops and Cardinals of John Paul II's Catholic Church? I think not, and there lies the problem.

The threat of a foreign national inappropriately impacting our political process will only snowball as Benedict XVI's purge continues.

If conservatives truly have a problem with Justice Kennedy citing international law (a view expressed by John Roberts this week, during his Senate hearings), I trust that they will share my outrage when the Vatican next attempts to entangle itself in American politics.

Was John Adams right? Is the authoritarian model that has shaped the Church for nearly two thousand years even vaguely compatible with the principle of Separation of Church and State, and the dynamics of a vibrant and enlightened democracy? My current thought is this: unless Benedict's new ideological legions do a much better job of keeping their noses out of politics, and respecting American parishioners' absolute right to freedom of conscience, history's verdict is likely to be a resounding, deafening "NO".

Matthew Carnicelli, © 2005. All rights reserved.
Originally published on September 18, 2005, as part of The Way of Politics series.