Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Falling in Love and the Creepiness of Institutional Seminaries

I found this post from Whispers in the Loggia from 2005.

The point is interesting enough, and hits on a lot of the same points about sanity and maturity and well-adjustedness that concern Renegade Trads. Especially commendable is the scorn for the rose-colored glasses that so many conservatives wear and the romanticization of a "dont ask, dont tell" 1950's repression of problems in the clergy in favor of a facade. And Renegade Trads would likewise agree with the critique of the un-nuanced position of the ideologues who blame "the liberals" or "the gays" as a scapegoat for all the intra-institutional sociological problems in the clergy, whereas the post does a good job at making the important point that distinguishing who is healthy isnt so simplistically categorized; there are conservative homosexuals just as there are well-adjusted liberals, and piety and orthodoxy are no guarantee of sanity or psychosexual maturity, nor do they "make up for" a lack of it. Though disturbingly many trads and conservatives will ignore personal weirdness or strange vibes as long as the priest is conservative, and (I can testify) will get defensive towards anyone who points them out, "How dare you! He's a faithful servant of God! Everyone has quirks, who cares? As long as he's orthodox, it doesnt matter!" etc. But it
does matter, in fact it goes to the heart of the "vocations crisis" and the general malaise in the clergy.

In the comment section, however, it gets even better. The poster Ephraem seems to be a man after my own heart, and his description of "creepy" seminarians is just perfect:
"The biggest problem is what your Protestant Great-Aunts, if you have any, would call "seminary manners". Oleagenous displays of religion, especially of the lace and Madonna kind, are usually a sign of psychosis. Anyone who likes the "Sound of Music" or any Bing Crosby film involving priests should be dismissed immediately from any seminary or indeed parish ministry [he's exaggerating here, I'm sure, but it's closer to the truth than you might think].

So too, Homophobia -
I've never met an out-there homophobe who didn't have something to hide. Strange they're the last ones to find out usually. One minute they're denouncing the Sin that Cries to Heaven for Vengeance, the next you see pictures of them dressed as Marilyn Munroe in the Mardi Gras. I have encountered this dynamic heaps of times in seminarians (and indeed, in earnest evangelical protestant youth ministers - marriage is no cure).

Being "all things to all men" 24/7 breeds a nest of deeply destabilised chameleons, not a presbyterate. And as we all know, but often omit to say, the personal sexual corruption of the clergy was only the tip of the abuse iceberg. It was compulsive liars in the Episcopate that drew down Heaven's Vengeance. Where did they learn that, I wonder?

Solution? Apart from a miracle of Divine Grace,
get rid of seminaries altogether [I might not go so far, but it depends what he means. Certainly priests, especially of the full-time paid variety, should be trained and educated. But in a live-in "boarding school" type environment? It's that aspect where the creepiness usually starts. If seminaries were like college or, better yet, took place as simply a specific program/degree/major within a larger Catholic University context, that would be fine]. They were never a good idea unless the alumni were off to face immediate martyrdom. They certainly aren't a good idea now except in mission territories. The more they are reformed the worse they get. Why do we think we can "form" or "train" people? It's a form of hubris as much the responsibility of the people as the clergy (personailty cults take at least two people). [His next characterization is great, and a spot-on description of how trads seem to want seminarians to be and, sadly, how many seminarians actually are:] Everyone wants to see rows of clean cut asexual kids, learning their Greek verbs and saying the rosary during Holy Hour, then coming to have cups of tea with Nanna and playing games with the kiddies (though not too enthusiastically). This is a recipe for a clergy with no self-knowledge and little of anything else.

Rocco is right about the issue not being Progressive/Conservative. There are characteristic manifestations of disease in both camps. The Taste Test is their grasp of the "Ars Celebrandi" - if they do not disappear into the Mystery they celebrate, I do not mean by displays of conspicuous piety of left (low rent earnestness about dolphins and plastic shopping bags, oh yes, and feeling, lots of emotions) or of right (the
jarring vocabulary of long dead devotionalism) [A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, anyone? It's this sort of Catholicism that traumatized James Joyce] , but by the people not remembering or caring who the priest is after Mass [rotating priests simplex, for whom dispensing the sacraments is a volunteer service, not a career, are one way to ensure this], then they are charlatans and false prophets, who celebrate themselves not Christ.

Another issue is the Theology of "Vocation" [I discuss this more below]. Isn't in the Creed, I don't believe it, except in the general sense of Divine Providence. I get goosebumps on my neck and start walking backwards out of a room when I hear priests talking of "my priesthood" or seminarians of "my vocation". Sorry chaps, just isn't yours! You are no closer to the Resurrection up the front of the Church than down the back.

Neither are the people closer because you are the celebrant.
We really ought to go back to the ad Orientem position, to put a dent in this. Also stop those hideous commentators announcing "Today's Celebrant is Fr Chuck O'Bubblegum" at the beginning of Mass. Who cares as long as he gets through it in good order. Waugh's, admittedly aristocratic, view of the clergy as plumbers is a wholesome one.

A priest ought to consider Holy Orders a spiritual burden that he would be better off without, like John Chrysostom hiding under his bed when they came to ordain him. This isn't an attitude just for saints. The image of the road to Hell paved with clerical skulls is one that ought to be on vocations pamphlets.
The soft focus PR collage of the youngest, handsomest priest liturgising, caring, and generally being a nice guy in twenty poses is sick-making (unless you are a sixty-five year old woman whose real son never visits)."
And this I thought was GREAT: "Yes, I'm in favour of the Church's teaching on sexuality, but my comments reflect Seneca: 'there is a difference between someone who doesn't know how to sin and one who chooses not to.' " THAT i think is the message, for example, of something like the movie Pleasantville. A film that, whatever your opinion on its artistic execution, has a message that trads generally hate but which Renegade Trads generally appreciate (namely, as the director, Gary Ross, said: "that personal repression gives rise to larger political oppression...That when we're afraid of certain things in ourselves or we're afraid of change, we project those fears on to other things, and a lot of very ugly social situations can develop").

If you think Ephraem's impression of seminaries and seminarians (and what "good little Catholics" and trads think they should be) is merely dissent, let me tell you from personal experience that this creepy atmosphere is definitely present in seminaries I've visited and seminarians I've met. And I've connected with other Renegade Trads online who have the same impressions.

Normal, healthy, independent adult individuals...do not want to live like they are 10th-grade boarding school students. They do not want to be told "lights-out," have a curfew, submit to room searches, nor live under the reign of an either explicit or implicit authoritarianism and fetishization of obedience-for-its-own-sake.

Some of the external regimentation has gradually faded from seminaries since Vatican II. In fact, as we know, sometimes there was outright dissolution when it comes to such externals. But that Institutionalizing spirit was always still there. The Old Boy's Club of eunuch bureaucrats remains entrenched. Very "Victorian" mentalities still persist when it comes to keeping up appearances.

As the post on "No Organizations" said, many such institutions have a real problem with internal self-critique. We see this whenever a scandal or problem faces the Church. Rather than having any sort of vigorous debate on what are, after all, merely administrative/disciplinary questions...you will usually see the clergy (and their neoconservative "teacher's pets" among the laity) close ranks and get defensive, presenting a united front and spouting the cookie-cutter Party Line.

Even under recent scrutiny, the priesthood remains a closed world of secrecy and expected conformism. This mindset is characteristic of Total Institutions, as described by a sociologist here: http://www.markfoster.net/neurelitism/totalinstitutions.pdf. Especially interesting is one of the adaptation strategies he mentions, "The inmate intentionally challenges the institution by flagrantly refusing to cooperate with staff in almost any way. The result is a constantly communicated intransigency and sometimes high rebel-morale. Most large mental hospitals, for example, seem to have wards where this spirit strongly prevails. Interestingly enough, there are many circumstances in which sustained rejection of a total institution requires sustained orientation to its formal organization and hence, paradoxically, a deep kind of commitment to the establishment."

I am convinced that it is because of the repression and institutionalization in the formation process in the 50's and earlier...that many priests in the 60's and 70's "rebelled". I fear a repeat of those mistakes today as we see a younger generation of zealous young men seeking "discipline" and regimentation in seminaries. And yet, might some of them not react to that suffocating environment by becoming subversive in various ways as even their counterparts trained in the 1950's and earlier did?

You will notice also how he describes that even people who react to institutionalization by being defiant and subversive...paradoxically come to sustain a deep kind of commitment to the establishment. Many of the "liberal" priests who trads blame for "destroying the Church"...are very much dependent on, in a deep-seated psychological way (not to mention practically), the authority structures of the Institution as such, even as they act mis-directedly defiant like an angsty teenager.

Such Institutionalism is more often associated with prisons or the military, environments designed to control people either to stop them from harming others (in the case of the former) or to facilitate them in harming others (in the case of the latter).

To say the least, supporters of Civil Society and its non-force, non-market based relationships...find such a Resocializing environment suffocating and repugnant to individuality. And yet the priesthood remains perhaps the most feudal of all Total Institutions, which almost always exist for power or money. You can see it in the fact that bishops seem not too concerned when priests are teaching heresy in the abstract or ministering lazily or are alcoholics or drug addicts or are having a mistress or abusing children...but react with an iron fist when it is a question of control of the material Property (ala the St Stan's case in St Louis) or of acting outside the official channels of the power-structure, especially when it threatens their monopoly over the priesthood itself through ordination (ala the SSPX and Archbishop Milingo cases). In other words, dissent and disobedience are winked at or easily forgiven..so as long as it doesnt challenge their official institutional authority.

I can talk on this topic endlessly, and probably will, but before I end this post, I should comment on that comment in Ephraem's comment about not believing in a theology of "Vocation". I would have to say that I've come to agree with that sentiment after much research trying to pin-down exactly what such a theology really is. If one reads even just the Catholic Encyclopedia article on "Vocation" or any basic discussion of the question...you come to realization that the whole thing is very vague and fuzzy. And necessarily so, given practical reality. We know that many bad men become priests or religious, that people have been ordained illicitly, and we know that people have left the clergy to marry. We know that lots of young Catholics feel some vague attraction to those lives, but ultimately decide upon marriage, and we conclude "they didnt have a vocation". So speaking of "vocation" as some magic revelation of God's plan, as some sort of obligatory fate...becomes harder. And yet that is the language that vocation directors and superiors like to use in pressuring young people into that life. A pressure that I wouldnt hesitate to call "grooming" in the worst connotation of that word (more on that later).

But, anyway, from what I can tell "vocations" are simply a special case of Providence, arranging that someone receive a certain sacrament or take a certain vow. Some people become priests, some religious, some get married, some stay single. But, in the same vein, some people become dairy farmers, some people get on a train, some people fall off a cliff. Every event is part of Providence, working toward the maximization of salvation and Good in history, and I trust God will always supply His Church with enough men to supply the graces of the sacraments. But to treat one state of life as if it is the binding Will of God, practically Revealed...is disconcerting, as people change states of life. People are married, and then widowed, and then possibly called to the priesthood or religious life. Conversely, some priests are laicized and get married. And, we must assume, it's
all "meant to be". So speaking of "vocation" as if the decision is somehow different in nature than, say, deciding to go to law school or to move to Europe or to have a poptart for breakfast...strikes me as inaccurate. Certainly it's an especially big and grave decision, but ultimately, like any, it may or may not work out, and even if it does, may or may not make you happy, may or may not turn out right for you or the world, and may or may not be continued in.

You will also notice that they mainly use the term "vocation" to apply to the priesthood and religious life. Marriage is hardly addressed. Marriage prep is ridiculously lax, the requirements are much lower, and though it is recognized as a big choice, it usually isn't spoken of in the same mystical mumbo-jumbo that "vocations" to the priesthood and religious life are (ie, that "jarring vocabulary of long dead devotionalism"). People are going to be free and going to be happy. Commitment is one thing, and very noble. But to expect people to be miserable forever because at one point in their life they "committed" to something too hastily...is cruel and childishly simplistic. People change (another
Pleasantville lesson!) and when, for example, that guy from Life on the Rock was dispensed from his vows and laicized to marry the mother of his child...I said More Power To Him, even as he was getting all the tsk-tsking and "what a shame"s from trads and conservative Catholics, for whom leaving the priesthood is like a permanent stigma, the bizarre equivalent of a "fallen woman".

But the equivalency is implicitly there, as this is all psychologically tangled up with Sex in Catholics' minds. I dont like the word "discernment" for that very reason. "Discernment" is always about celibacy. There is not much talk of "discerning" marriage among Catholics, people just date. It always is used with regards to priesthood and religious life. But even among young men considering the priesthood, you will find that "discernment" almost always concerns whether they are willing to give up a wife and kids and sex. If a man is already in "discernment," then 9 times out of 10...he's a devout, zealous Catholic who would become a priest enthusiastically, no question...if it weren't for the celibacy thing. "Discernment" usually isnt about the priesthood in itself, which most "discerning" men are
already highly attracted to, it's merely the one accidental aspect that they angst over.

"Discernment" then becomes a sort of sexual grooming by the institutional organs in charge of recruiting "vocations"...though in this case a grooming to give
up sex instead of give it. But, let me tell you from personal experience with such recruiters, the tactics used are quite the same between this grooming and an abuser's, and though perhaps more subtle, to a sensitive person they get their feelers into exactly the same places psychologically. It's not just me, I've talked to other young men who feel the same way, and the whole process by which the institution recruits men and the vocabulary of "vocation" and "discernment" gives us the heebie-jeebies.

It's creepy in exactly the same way that sexual grooming or seduction or sexual blackmail is, and plays with exactly the same emotions, gets into the same mental space. Because, after all, the Institutional church is courting these young men in a relationship analogized in all things to a sexual one. Except instead of having sex, you're giving it up, but it's still handing over control of sexuality, and trying to manipulate people into that is still disgusting and creepy.

Now, after all that, I must remind people that I support celibacy (though not mandatory) and believe it is a beautiful life. I personally feel drawn to it. But, as in a sexual relationship, there is a great difference between
falling in love on the one hand, and being groomed or seduced or psychologically pressured or being put in an arranged marriage, etc. Those who become celibate should do so freely and fully because they have fallen in love, as should the married. Any sort of coercion, however subtle, is wrong, and making people "sacrifice" marriage, children, and sex for the priesthood, as if it is a trade-off, is an idea that should make any mature adult cringe.

I'm of the opinion that if one is going to be a committed celibate (as opposed to just "single") then one should always be in a form of full-fledged Consecrated Life. In a marriage, mystical or otherwise, the relationship is marked by three things: loving obedience to the other, handing over ones sexuality to them, and sharing property in common. Obviously, Consecrated persons do this with their community or the Church through the three vows. But diocesan priests do not take a vow of poverty, which is repugnant to me. They are not (currently) part-time volunteers, their life is pseudo-consecrated inasmuch as their priesthood is all-consuming (especially in the celibacy aspect), and yet they do not share their property all in common with the Church, with the diocese. In fact, they are PAID for how they live. They give up their sexuality, but then receive payment instead of sharing their property in common. The twisting of the marital analogy to one of prostitution or some sort of "kept" men...is inevitable.

The romantic analogy of "marriage to the Church" and "Lover of God/Christ" is explicitly made, and yet the clergy gets away with all sorts of things in "vocations" programs and seminaries that would be Red Flags of an abusive relationship if it were between two people instead of between a person and an Institution, namely all the controlling aspects, the expected conformity, the engineered state of dependence (practical and emotional), and the isolation or at least distancing from outside personal relationships and support networks. The marital analogy of celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom (a separate and independent vocation from the priesthood in itself, in my mind) is an obvious one. As I've said, either way you are handing over your sexuality to another exclusively, and it is bound to deal with the same emotions and psychological phenomenon. In itself, it is a wonderful analogy. However, just as their are good and bad reasons to enter a marriage or sexual relationship...there are good and bad reasons to take a vow of chastity or commit to celibacy.

To get personal for a moment, I fell in love. All the way back when I was in 8th grade, I fell in love with God and His Church, whatever other human infatuations, or romantic thoughts, or even romantic loves have intervened. And they have; I'd frankly look with extreme suspicion, disgust even, on any seminary candidate who claimed to have never had the humanizing experience of romantic love for another human being. Such experiences have certainly forced me to truly discern (in the true, non-creeped-out-shudder sense of that word)...but that first love of my life has never wavered, however I have been lax in pursuing it or failed to live up to it at times. It is has been tested many times and even at moments when I have discussions about things like this, moments you might think it is most in doubt or uncertain...it has never been stronger. The most uncertainty comes from the question of whether I will live out this celibate love, a love for Perfect Love and all His wonderfully-tragically flawed children, in an institutional context within the institutional church, or simply as a single lay person. But perhaps it is my strong feelings on the matter that make me especially disillusioned when I see most such institutional contexts courting recruits with tactics more analogous to an abusive, manipulative relationship than to falling in love. Many of the candidates are initially in love with God and His Church in a way that leads them to embrace the ideal of celibacy, but then the institutional structures simply takes advantage, like a seducer, of that love and yearning that truly has brought many of these young men (naive as they might be) to the seminary door, and uses it to control the men mentally and emotionally in an institutionalizing and abusive way.

(I will add that I think Institutional "reprogramming" seems to be much more dangerous and creepy for the Male psyche than for the Female. Women seem better able to handle sex-segregated uniform living be without it becoming a weird "wolf pack" frat hazing sort of thing. For example, to mitigate against the problems in Monasteries [which will always be, in some sense, Institutional] I would definitely require that all Western male communities [except, like, the Carthusians] to become connected with a female community to share liturgy, meals, recreation, study, etc, as "double monasteries" or whatever. However, on the converse, I would not worry too much about likewise pairing every female community [of which there are a greater number anyway] with a male. As much as liberal Sisters may be annoying, and as much as that generation may be simply reacting against prior repression...it is men who are prone to becoming "creepy," and men who are truly a potential danger [child abuse, etc] and from whom the truly damaging behavior has come.)


Anonymous said...

Are you certain you are not overgeneralizing a negative experience you had and applying it to the entire seminary system? Even if a few others had similar experiences, isn't it still anecdotal evidence? Surely you do not deny that there have been (and are) numerous great priests and Saints of the Church formed in these seminaries? Perhaps the perception of "creepiness" though sincere was a misapprehension on your part? Or perhaps the seminary/ vocations office you dealt with was indeed creepy, but this cannot be generalized to all seminaries? Food for thought anyway. Thanks.

A Sinner said...

Unfortunately, I've looked at more than just a few places. I'm not saying everyone involved is creepy, but that the institutional or authoritarian atmosphere/rules are, in themselves, creepy.

That can lead to creepy men, but not necessarily. Some guys are more oblivious to stuff like that seem to be able to let it roll off their back (I mean, some people positively SEEK to join frats, something I could never understand), but I'm very sensitive to that, perhaps because I'm conscious of how the socio-psychology of it all works in terms of re-socialization.

There is no doubt that homosocial dynamics of live-in seminaries, along with mandatory celibacy, serve to ensure that future priests strongest interpersonal ties lie within the priesthood itself. And that causes a lot of problems.

Outside the military or prison...what other adults are asked to live like they're boarding school students? I find it not just creepy, but also patronizing.

Anonymous said...

Could it be you have aversions to hierarchical institutions and authority in general?

Are not priests suppose to leave father & mother and "follow Me"? Doesn't it make sense that a priest's new family would be his brother priests? Non-homosexual brotherly bonding of the healthy sort is noted in combat platoons, etc. As I'm sure you're familiar David, a heterosexual, weeped over his male friend who was dearer to him than women.

Sure there are exceptions, but the more conservative/ traditional seminaries and even some of the more liberal ones have produced many well adjusted, normal, healthy, and intelligent priests.

Boarding schools and military academies have produced men of exceptional abilities, virtues, and talents. Certainly there are exceptions, and abuses occur in all institutions, but the exceptions and abuses are more related, in my opinion, to the way the particular institution is run rather than the mere fact it is run as a traditional seminary/ military academy.

These places are not for everyone, true. Some people have natural aversions to them and see them in a very cynical light. I would simply offer that, while one is free to critique why a particular institution is not to one's liking, one should be cautious in making an objective judgment on the entire system.

The vows of celibacy and traditional seminary formation have served the Western Church well over the centuries and I'd be cautious about suggesting any sweeping changes.Many of these suggested improvements are already practiced in mainline Protestant denominations which are, quite frankly, a lot worse off than Latin Rite Catholicism these days.

God Bless.

A Sinner said...

"Could it be you have aversions to hierarchical institutions and authority in general?"

As I think all true Americans do.

I think I said in one of my posts, "some collectivist cultures might function like that"...but ours does not.

And therefore it raises some serious questions when a man, raised in our culture, "defects" to authoritarianism, dependence, institutionalism, etc.

"Are not priests suppose to leave father & mother and "follow Me"?"

That applies to all Christians, not priests particularly.

Either way, I don't see what it has to do with living in a closed, rigid institutional environment.

In fact, just the opposite; in those early days of the Church, that injunction seems to have applied more to enabling freedom of motion and mission...not restriction of motion.

"Doesn't it make sense that a priest's new family would be his brother priests? Non-homosexual brotherly bonding of the healthy sort is noted in combat platoons, etc."

His new family is supposed to be his parish, but sociologically it just works out that his strongest bonds are unlikely to come from there for a variety of reasons (including the sheer number of people, moving priests from parish to parish after so many years, etc)

What you describe is certainly the idea of "military" model of the priesthood. But, I don't think an army is what we need out of our priests. What we need are physicians, not soldiers. We need healing, not war.

The West's spiritual analogies are very much still colored by the bloody age of Barbarian invasions. It's time to move on. We could learn a lot from the East in that regard.

"have produced many well adjusted, normal, healthy, and intelligent priests."

Define "many". In absolute terms, possibly, just given the sheer volume of men and length of time. But proportionate to the total population compared to the general population? I don't think so.

Sipes gives statistics saying that upwards of 60% of priests are psychosexually underdeveloped, around another 10% maldeveloped, and something like a third of priests discreetly see a therapist for prolonged treatment at some time in their working life.

SOMETHING is pathological in that.

A Sinner said...

"Boarding schools and military academies have produced men of exceptional abilities, virtues, and talents."

Military academies produce killers. That's what they're designed to do. Boarding schools socialize men into the capitalist class, that's what they're designed to do.

I'm not denying good people haven't come out of bad situations, just that I prefer the way American schools work today. Because that's how I was raised. As were most of the men who make up the pool of candidates for the modern priesthood.

If they want to attract those men, they're going to have to adapt to their/our culture. Most adult men in our society simply aren't going to be treated like boarding school students. The very idea of that sort of culture of surveillance is repulsive and insulting to adults today.

"to the way the particular institution is run rather than the mere fact it is run as a traditional seminary/ military academy."

Except it has been shown time and time again that Institutions are breeding grounds for abuses AS Institutions.

Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

"The vows of celibacy and traditional seminary formation have served the Western Church well over the centuries"

A premise I simply disagree with. The West has been rotten internally for a long time now. Countless people have been emotionally traumatized (or worse). There has been spiritual ossification, pious facades, repression. It was a very ugly situation just below the surface, as people are finally starting to uncover and admit.

"Many of these suggested improvements are already practiced in mainline Protestant denominations which are, quite frankly, a lot worse off than Latin Rite Catholicism these days."

In what ways? It's hard to generalize, but informal groups of non-fundamentalist evangelicals are booming, and happy, and authentic and honest, and psychologically integrated. Because their social structure is healthier (and resembles, by the way, the early church). We need to learn from them as much about human interaction as they need to learn from us about dogma.

Anonymous said...

Your posting rings a clear bell for me. I was a seminarian at St Patrick's Seminary and University in Menlo Park, California. If there was ever a bastion of creepiness, that would be the place.

Thank you for this post. I expect I shall read more and I expect I shall comment more as well.

A Sinner said...

Well, rather than saying too much specific publicly, would you mind emailing me to tell me your story?