Comment on the Comments
Comment on the Comments

Comment on the Comments

William Oddie FAITH Magazine January-February 2009 


The Vatican, as Anna Arco reported in The Catholic Herald in November

"has approved the psychological screening of seminarians in the wake of damaging clerical abuse scandals. In a long-awaited document the Congregation for Catholic Education said seminary candidates should undergo psychological evaluations whenever there is a suspicion of personality disturbances or serious doubts about their ability to live a celibate life. The document, entitled Guidelines for the Use of Psychology in the Admission and Formation of Candidates for the Priesthood, also controversially endorsed tests to root out men with 'deep-seated homosexual tendencies' from seminaries." [My emphasis]

But why "controversially"? Of course it sounds controversial if you first say it is then use an expression like "root out" to imply some kind of witchhunt. But what was announced seems pretty mild to me: for a start, the psychological investigation has to be with the consent of the individual investigated. According to the CNS, the document simply says that "the use of psychological consultation and testing was appropriate in 'exceptional cases that present particular difficulties' in seminary admission and formation"; it also makes clear that "psychological evaluation could never be imposed on seminarians or seminary candidates. But it emphasised that church authorities have the right to turn away candidates if they are not convinced of their suitability."

The Herald's leader on the document was uncharacteristically flaky, criticising Cardinal Grocholewski (who launched the document) for implying at the press conference that

"'strong heterosexual tendencies' were less of a barrier to priesthood than equivalent homosexual tendencies, because the latter opened up a special type of 'wound in the exercise of priesthood in forming relations with others'."

"What", the Herald asked, "is the source

of this theory? It sounds as if Cardinal Grocholewski was improvising - and in so doing reawakening ideas against gay men based on antiquated prejudice." But the Cardinal was doing nothing of the sort. What on earth is going on here? "Antiquated prejudice" forsooth! The Cardinal's response was based on Catholic teaching - which according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (para 2357) is that

"homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered [so, therefore are homosexual inclinations]. They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved"

- and on the Vatican's 2005 instruction that the Church cannot ordain men who are active homosexuals or who have "deep-seated" homosexual tendencies. For the Herald to talk about "equivalent homosexual tendencies" is in any Catholic context a simple contradiction in terms: whilst heterosexual tendencies can certainly also be wounded homosexuality, as "proceedpng] from affective" and "intrinsic" wounds, cannot be in any sense an "equivalent" to heterosexuality.

In passing, it is probably germane to ask what that expression "deep-seated" is intended to convey. Damian Thompson, in his Telegraph blog probably had it about right. His

"first reaction [was] that this is not a simple witchhunt against gays, but that the main point of the document is to identify potential clerical sex abusers (most of whom have in the past been gay men). The vagueness of the term "deep-seated" allows seminary rectors room for manoeuvre. I think it's shorthand for "too risky to ordain"'.

He suggests an interesting and disturbing unintended possible consequence of the document's encouragement to use psychological screening: it is unclear, he says "whether the document will make

it more or less easy for liberal seminaries to screen out conservative seminarians, a widespread practice in Europe and America." Indeed it is, and this is something that ought to have been anticipated: "psychological examination" can be used (and has been used) to sniff out "unhealthy" and "immature" tendencies towards undue obedience to magisterial authority, lack of proper inclination towards irreverence and so on.

Thompson's speculation that the main point of the document is the identification of clerical sex abusers is, of course, precisely correct. So is his suggestion that most of these abusers are gay men. This has been in the past, unfortunately, seen as a politically incorrect diagnosis: and because of this, the Church has been laid open to a degree of obloquy it should never have allowed itself to endure. It is one thing to accept that there has been too much clerical sex abuse. The fact is, however that "paedophilia", the abuse of pre-pubescent children, is infinitely more terrible than the abuse of adolescent males, possibly as old as 17 or 18 (and therefore much more able to defend themselves), bad as that is. We should never have accepted that the real problem was too many "paedophile"priests: in fact the proportion of genuinely paedophile clergy is minuscule. But the number of homosexual clergy with "deep-seated" tendencies is not. Even here, however.the problem, though still serious, has shown signs of improvement over recent decades.

According to a survey entitled The Nature and Scope of the Problem of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests and Deacons in the United States carried out in 2004 for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which carried out a survey of 90\% of the priests and deacons reported to have had allegations of child sexual abuse, from the seventies to the nineties, "if the yearly ordination totals for diocesan priests accused are compared to the overall number of diocesan priests ordained in that year, the percentages of accused priests range from a maximum of almost 10\% in 1970, decreasing to 8\% in 1980 and to fewer than 4\% in 1990." 4\%, however, is still a lot of priests, far too many. The John Jay report's most importantfinding, however had to do not with the number but with the nature of the sexual abuses alleged: The report states that 80\% to 90\% of priests who sexually abused children over the past 52 years had been involved with adolescent boys -ephebophilia - not prepubescent children - paedophilia.

In the wake of the John Jay report, the Catholic Medical Association in America issued a document entitled Homosexuality and Hope. One of the contributors to the document, Dr Rick Fitzgibbon, gave an interview to the Zenit Catholic News Agency, containing a good deal of commonsense. He confirmed that "The John Jay report has revealed clearly that the crisis in the Church is not one of paedophilia, but of homosexuality," and that "the primary victims have not been children, but adolescent males." He went on to identify much of this clerical homosexual abusive behaviour as

"being due to identifiable personality defects and disorders (which by themselves one would have thought, should exclude a man from the priesthood).... The loneliness and lack of male confidence from the adolescent stage of life that lead to same-sex attractions to teen-age males can be resolved with no further homosexual acting-out behaviours in highly motivated persons."

As for the problem for the Church, says Dr Fitzgibbon,

"Prior to the release of the John Jay report the basic root cause of the problem had not been clearly identified. We can be thankful that this misunderstanding has been corrected. Hopefully, this clarification in regard to homosexuality as the basic problem that caused the crisis will result in a number of new steps being taken to protect the Church, the priesthood and teenagers and children."

The trouble is that "this misunderstanding" has not been corrected in the minds not only of most contributors to the secular media but even of many within the Church, including Catholic journalists. This has several consequences. Firstly, it means that we still seriously overestimate the problem of paedophilia: things are not as bad as we think. Secondly, it means that we vastly underestimate the problem of clerical homosexuality: this makes us vulnerable to politically correct rubbish about "homophobia", and encourages a desire to be thought enlightened about the problems of "gay men". Of course it is the case that there are many priests, whose orientation is homosexual rather than heterosexual, who live chaste and holy lives. Of course The Catholic Herald isright to say that "The purity of a priest's celibacy is not determined by the nature of the urges he is restraining in obedience to Christ's teaching". Of course that is true: kindly do not teach your grandmother to suck eggs. But it is not the point. The point is that it looks as though around four percent of clergy cannot be trusted around good-looking teenage boys. And if "psychological screening" can prevent their ordination in the future, the Church would be mad not to use it.

Whether it can, however, if it can only be used with the agreement of the prospective or actual seminarian may be doubted. More to the point, if he does agree, how reliable is such screening? It isn't, of course, just risky sexual proclivities that need to be identified, as the Congregation for Catholic Education's document makes clear. "In reviewing candidates for admission to seminaries", the CNS reported it as saying, "psychological experts should be called upon "whenever there is a suspicion that psychic disturbances may be present". Such problems may include "excessive affective dependency," disproportionate aggression, incapacity to be faithful to obligations, incapacity for openness and trust, inability to cooperate with authority and confused sexual identity...."

Of course all that is true; but wouldn't half an hour with a candidate over a pint tell most of us whether there is something about him that's a bit

peculiar? How are these things to be evaluated scientifically rather than by simple common sense? And by going along with the claims of the secular psychological industry, are we not missing the point, our unique Catholic point, which is that we have something to offer that modern psychology cannot begin to evaluate, let alone to replace?

As Fr Finigan puts it in his blog The Hermeneutic of Continuity,

"I would agree that some sort of psychological evaluation of candidates is a fairly obvious necessity but I'm nervous about the use of psychometric testing. Many years ago, I actually did a degree in psychology (joint with philosophy) at Oxford. From that time, I picked up a scepticism about the validity and methodology of psychometric testing. The book After Asceticism which I reviewed in the Jan-Feb 2008 Faith Magazine, criticised the use of a secular "therapeutic mentality" and referred favourably to the work of the Catholic psychologist, Dom Thomas Verner Moore in the first half of the 20th century. It seems to me that the "therapeutic mentality" still influences some of the use of psychology in the Church..."

In case you do not have your Jan-Feb 2008 issue of this magazine handy, Fr Finigan outlined After Asceticism's rejection of "the primacy of place that is given to the therapeutic mentality because it fails to appreciate the role that religious devotion and faith play in the moral life of the priest, and has no proper understanding of human nature, original sin and free will." [My emphasis]

Taking its foundation instead from

"the classical psychology of virtue, shame in doing what is wrong and a delight in doing what is right, it insists that hope is at the centre of the arduous task of chastity - and that chaste celibacy is a singular manifestation of hope for others."

Well, quite. But how strange it is that after two Millennia we should need to rediscover such things as if nobody had ever said them before. What curious creatures we humans are.

Faith Magazine

January - February 2009