Monday, 31 May 2010

Gender confusion? - Whose Confusion?

The following article appeared in yesterday's New York Times. If you're feeling in need of some comic relief after all the dismal news about oil spills and yet another money-grabbing politician, you should read the whole thing, but here's the bit that really made my day.

Candidates applying for the Catholic priesthood must apparently now answer a wide range of questions about their sexuality:

[M]ost candidates are likely to be asked not only about past sexual activities but also about masturbation fantasies, consumption of alcohol, relationships with parents and the causes of romantic breakups. All must take H.I.V. tests and complete written exams like the 567-question Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, which screens for, among other things, depression, paranoia and gender confusion. In another test, candidates must submit sketches of anatomically correct human figures.
Wait - there's more. Rev. Kevin J. Sweeney, Dirctor of Vocations of the Brooklyn Diocese who is, according to the report, 'one of the more successful vocation directors in the country', has this to say:
Father Sweeney said the new rules were not the order of battle for a witch hunt. “We do not say that homosexuals are bad people,” he said. “And sure, homosexuals have been good priests.”
"But it has to do with our view of marriage,” he said. “A priest can only give his life to the church in the sense that a man gives his life to a female spouse. A homosexual man cannot have the same relationship. It’s not about condemning anybody. It’s about our world view.”
Not much gender confusion there then. But Father Sweeney, if I may be so bold, the idea of the priesthood being a marital gang bang sounds to me like a masturbation fantasy of the highest order. (And, er, haven't you noticed that there are men - not to mention children - in the church?)

May I suggest a few alternative questions?
Do you like women?
Do you believe that women and men are fully equal to one another?
Do you get on well with women?
How many women friends do you have?


The New York Times, May 30, 2010

Prospective Catholic Priests Face Sexuality Hurdles


Every job interview has its awkward moments, but in recent years, the standard interview for men seeking a life in the Roman Catholic priesthood has made the awkward moment a requirement.

“When was the last time you had sex?” all candidates for the seminary are asked. (The preferred answer: not for three years or more.)

“What kind of sexual experiences have you had?” is another common question. “Do you like pornography?”

Depending on the replies, and the results of standardized psychological tests, the interview may proceed into deeper waters: “Do you like children?” and “Do you like children more than you like people your own age?”

It is part of a soul-baring obstacle course prospective seminarians are forced to run in the aftermath of a sexual abuse crisis that church leaders have decided to confront, in part, by scrubbing their academies of potential molesters, according to church officials and psychologists who screen candidates in New York and the rest of the country.

But many of the questions are also aimed at another, equally sensitive mission: deciding whether gay applicants should be denied admission under complex recent guidelines from the Vatican that do not explicitly bar all gay candidates but would exclude most of them, even some who are celibate.

Scientific studies have found no link between sexual orientation and abuse, and the church is careful to describe its two initiatives as more or less separate. One top adviser to American seminaries characterized them as “two circles that might overlap here and there.”

Still, since the abuse crisis erupted in 2002, curtailing the entry of gay men into the priesthood has become one the church’s highest priorities. And that task has fallen to seminary directors and a cadre of psychologists who say that culling candidates has become an arduous process of testing, interviewing and making decisions — based on social science, church dogma and gut instinct.

“The best way I can put it, it’s not black and white,” said the adviser, the Rev. David Toups, the director of the secretariat of clergy, consecrated life and vocations of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. “It’s more like one of those things where it’s hard to define, but ‘I know it when I see it.’ ”

Many church officials have been reluctant to discuss the screening process, and its details differ from diocese to diocese. In the densely populated Diocese of Brooklyn, officials are confident of their results in one respect.

“We have no gay men in our seminary at this time,” said Dr. Robert Palumbo, a psychologist who has screened seminary candidates at the diocese’s Cathedral Seminary Residence in Douglaston, Queens, for 10 years. “I’m pretty sure of it.” Whether that reflects rigorous vetting or the reluctance of gay men to apply, he could not say. “I’m just reporting what is,” he said.

Concern over gay men in the priesthood has simmered in the church for centuries, and has been heightened in recent years by claims from some Catholic scholars that 25 percent to 50 percent of priests in the United States are gay. The church has never conducted its own survey, but other experts have estimated the number to be far smaller.

The sexual abuse scandal has prompted some conservative bishops to lay blame for the crisis on a “homosexual subculture” in the priesthood. While no one has proposed expelling gay priests, the crisis has pitted those traditionalists against other Catholics who attribute the problem to priests, gay and straight, with dysfunctional personalities.

In 2005, the Vatican sidestepped that ideological debate, but seemed to appease conservatives by issuing guidelines that would strictly limit the admission of gay men to Catholic seminaries.

The guidelines, which bolstered existing rules that had been widely unenforced, defined homosexuality in both clear-cut and ambiguous ways: Men who actively “practice homosexuality” should be barred. But seminary rectors were left to discern the meaning of less obvious instructions to reject candidates who “show profoundly deep-rooted homosexual tendencies, or support the so-called gay culture.”

Though some Catholics saw room in that language for admitting celibate gay men, the Vatican followed up in 2008 with a clarification. “It is not enough to be sure that he is capable of abstaining from genital activity,” ruled the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education, which issued the initial guidelines. “It is also necessary to evaluate his sexual orientation.”

Some seminary directors were baffled by the word “orientation,” said Thomas G. Plante, a psychologist and the director of the Spirituality and Health Institute at Santa Clara University, who screens seminary candidates for several dioceses in California and nationwide.

Could a psychologically mature gay person, committed to celibacy, never become a priest? Dr. Plante said several admissions officers asked. Could the church afford to turn away good candidates in the midst of a critical priest shortage?

The Vatican permits every bishop and leader of a religious order to make those decisions, which vary from stricter to more liberal interpretations of the rules. But the methods of reaching them have become increasingly standard, experts say.

Msgr. Stephen Rossetti, a psychologist at Catholic University who has screened seminarians and once headed a treatment center for abusive priests, said the screening could be “very intrusive.” But he added, “We are looking for two basic qualities: the absence of pathology and the presence of health.”

To that end, most candidates are likely to be asked not only about past sexual activities but also about masturbation fantasies, consumption of alcohol, relationships with parents and the causes of romantic breakups. All must take H.I.V. tests and complete written exams like the 567-question Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, which screens for, among other things, depression, paranoia and gender confusion. In another test, candidates must submit sketches of anatomically correct human figures.

In interviews by psychologists — who are usually selected because they are Catholic therapists with religious views matching those of the local church leadership — candidates are also likely to be asked about their strategies for managing sexual desire.

“Do you take cold showers? Do you take long runs?” said Dr. Plante, describing a typical barrage of questions intended both to gather information and to let screeners assess the candidate’s poise and self-awareness — or to observe the tics and eye-avoidance that may signal something else.

In seminaries that seek to hew closely to the Vatican rules, a candidate may be measured by the extent to which he defines himself as gay.

The church views gay sex as a sin and homosexual tendencies as a psychological disorder, but it does not bar chaste gay men from participating in the sacraments. That degree of acceptance does not extend to ordination.

“Whether he is celibate or not, the person who views himself as a ‘homosexual person,’ rather than as a person called to be a spiritual father — that person should not be a priest,” said Father Toups, of the bishops’ conference.

Beyond his assertion that “I know it when I see it,” no one interviewed for this article was able to describe exactly how screeners or seminary directors determine whether someone’s sexual orientation defines him. Some Catholics have expressed fear that such vagueness leads to bias and arbitrariness. Others call it a distraction from the more important objective of finding good, emotionally healthy priests.

“A criterion like this may not ensure that you are getting the best candidates,” said Mark D. Jordan, the R. R. Niebuhr professor at Harvard Divinity School, who has studied homosexuality in the Catholic priesthood. “Though it might get you people who lie or who are so confused they do not really know who they are.”

“And not the least irony here,” he added, “is that these new regulations are being enforced in many cases by seminary directors who are themselves gay.”

It is difficult to gauge reaction to the recent guidelines among seminary students and gay priests. Priests who once defended the work of gay men in the priesthood have become reluctant to speak publicly.

“It is impossible for them to come forward in this atmosphere,” said Marianne Duddy-Burke, the executive director of DignityUSA, an advocacy group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Catholics. “The bishops have scapegoated gay priests because gays are still an acceptable scapegoat in this society, particularly among weekly churchgoers.”

Seminary officials of the Diocese of Brooklyn and the Archdiocese of New York would not permit a reporter to interview seminarians. But the Brooklyn diocese did allow a reporter to talk to its psychologist, Dr. Palumbo, and its director of vocations, the Rev. Kevin J. Sweeney, whose incoming classes of three to five seminarians each year make him one of the more successful vocation directors in the country. Half of the nation’s seminaries have one or two new arrivals each a year, and one-quarter get none, according to a recent church study.

Father Sweeney said the new rules were not the order of battle for a witch hunt. “We do not say that homosexuals are bad people,” he said. “And sure, homosexuals have been good priests.”

“But it has to do with our view of marriage,” he said. “A priest can only give his life to the church in the sense that a man gives his life to a female spouse. A homosexual man cannot have the same relationship. It’s not about condemning anybody. It’s about our world view.”

Thursday, 27 May 2010

The Excommunication of Sister Margaret McBride

The Spectator - Nun's excommunication shows hypocrisy:

Sister Margaret McBride, the highest-ranking Catholic official at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, Ariz., was excommunicated earlier this month.

The sin that earned her the most severe punishment the church can dole out?

McBride condoned a life-saving abortion for a patient.

A 27-year-old woman pregnant with her fifth child arrived at St. Joseph’s last November in critical condition. Doctors discovered she had pulmonary hypertension, a heart condition that would have almost certainly caused her to die if she had not aborted her 11-week pregnancy.

McBride, the hospital’s vice president of mission integration, consulted with a group of medical professionals. They approved the procedure to save the patient, who was already experiencing heart failure, according to hospital records.

See also 'Sister Margaret's Choice' by Nicholas D. Kristof in The New York Times.

Monday, 24 May 2010

What is Theology?

There's a lively discussion happening over on The Guardian's "Comment is Free" website in the "Belief" section. I was asked to contribute a piece on the question "What is theology?" I love the fact that so many people who repudiate religion and theology spend so much time wrangling about them on the Web!

Being Catholic, Being Human - Pentecostal Musings

I've dedicated much of this blog in recent months to criticising the Catholic Church in the light of the position of women and the sex abuse scandal, and I make no apologies for that. Yet there is sometimes a risk that legitimate criticisms obscure the vast canvas of goodness and hope against which they are daubed, and sometimes it's necessary to step back and celebrate the wider picture.

Twice this weekend I've been reminded of how vital and positive the Catholic faith is, and of how it reaches across all human boundaries to create a vast living organism made up of billions of people, living and dead, which spans eras, continents and cultures in its universality. These seem like appropriate reflections for the Feast of Pentecost.

First, I listened to a podcast of Desert Island Discs, broadcast on 26th March, which featured the writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce, whose film credits include Hilary and Jackie, Welcome to Sarajevo and 24 Hour Party People. DID is one of my favourite radio programmes (the other is In Our Time), and Cottrell-Boyce was one of the most joyful interviewees I've heard. He referred repeatedly (without any pious pretentiousness) to the centrality of Catholicism in his life, offering vivid reminiscences of a working class childhood in Liverpool where the church was the hub of the community, and of his own experience of family life as a husband and father of seven children, all of whom - remarkably - share their parents' commitment to their Catholic faith. It was a life-giving programme which made no mention of the Church's failings, but rather served as a reminder that the Catholic Church has been a great force for good in postwar Britain, in its provision of education and its capacity to hold together communities and families at times of social disintegration and growing economic disenfranchisement. I believe it still has that capacity, and it would be a great loss to our society if we allowed the failings of the Church to obscure its enduring strengths. Cottrell-Boyce's chosen record was Allegri's Miserere, his book was Charles Darwin's The Voyage of the Beagle, and his luxury was a ferris wheel!

The other experience which made me stop and think was reading an article by John Waters in Friday's Irish Times, reflecting on the pervasive antagonism towards the Catholic Church in the Irish media (which is of course also true of the British media). He refers to a speech by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin which encompassed a wide range of questions and insights about the Catholic faith in modern Ireland, but which the media reported very selectively only in the context of its relatively few references to the sex abuse scandal. You can follow the link to read the full article, but here are the paragraphs which most struck me, because they apply to any society in which a secularist ideology has triumphed over perennial questions of human existence which necessarily shade towards theological reflection:

[C]itizens now have no public forum – in the day-to-day public conversation that largely creates the culture in which they live – in which to encounter explorations of the fundamental questions relating to their humanity in its fullest dimensions. Each of us is, for example, mortal, and we must deal with this condition as perhaps the most defining aspect of our human condition. We are frail, fragile beings, mystified as to the origins of our consciousnesses and inner realities.

Ireland is a human community more than an economy political society or democracy. The vast majority of those who inhabit the civil realm also continue to perceive their essential humanity through the prism offered by Catholicism. We are all citizens, yes, but most of us are also embraced by that religious category, “the Catholic faithful”, and even those who are not betray the same human characteristics as those who are. Whether any particular individual elects to “believe” or not is beside the point: we are all subject to – and, perhaps more importantly, are collectively defined by – several ineluctable facts: we are creatures, we are dependent and we are mortal. No matter how effectively media-generated culture succeeds in shutting out the questions arising from these ineluctable human characteristics, they continue to assert themselves in our silent, solitary moments, in our dreams and nightmares, in moments of apprehension or ill-health. In a Christian society, only Christ answers these questions.

The first and most fundamental issue at stake in the crisis that besets the church, therefore, is not the “faith” of Irish citizens, but the capacity of the public conversation to accommodate discussion of the total humanity of Irish people. The threat is not to our Catholicism but to our humanity.
While I think the vitality of Catholicism is well-served by informed and trenchant criticism when necessary, I admit that reading that article made me ask myself if sometimes I too quickly allow the secular media to shape my perceptions of the Church. Catholics in today's world need to face both ways, not by being Janus-faced but by appreciating that our identities and values cannot but be shaped by secular and theological perspectives, and that the two must be held in creative tension. It's so easy to lose our balance, and tilt into defensive religiosity on the one hand or hostile critique on the other. Keeping one's balance is easier said than done, but perhaps this posting shows me picking myself up and dusting off my knees, preparing for the next fall (as a daughter of Eve must do)!

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Save the foetus - let the mother die

We have seen in recent months just how reluctant the Catholic hierarchy has been to take decisive action against abusive priests. Yet once again, we are reminded that no such prevarication afflicts its ability to act with ruthless efficiency when it comes to policing women's bodies by appealing to a form of moral absolutism which has little justification in the Catholic tradition. Until the last century, there has always been greater flexibility in the Church's understanding of early abortion than Bishop Olmsted's actions suggest - particularly in situations when the mother's life is at risk. Until the men who govern the Church become less intoxicated with their own power and more willing to listen to women who live and love in situations which sometimes create profound moral dilemmas, some of them will continue to behave as the most brutal and ignorant of moral dictators. Once again, the actions of a bishop bring shame upon the Church - and embarassment upon the many wise bishops and priests who know better than to reduce the profound complexities and tragedies of human life to black and white moral absolutes. Sometimes it seems as if it's better to be a foetus than a woman, if one wants the protection and love of the Church.

Published on National Catholic Reporter (


Nun excommunicated for allowing abortion

May 18, 2010

By Michael Clancy

PHOENIX -- A Catholic nun, who was a member of a Phoenix Catholic hospital's ethics committee, was excommunicated and reassigned last week for her role in allowing an abortion to take place at the hospital. The surgery was considered necessary to save the life of a critically ill patient.

The surgery took place at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix. The decision, involving Sister of Mercy Margaret McBride, physicians and the patient, drew a sharp rebuke from Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted, head of the Phoenix diocese. He said abortion is not permissible under any circumstances.

A statement from the Phoenix diocese said, McBride was excommunicated because she "held a position of authority at the hospital and was frequently consulted on ethicalmatters. She gave her consent that the abortion was a morally good and allowable act according to church teaching. Furthermore, she admitted this directly to Bishop Olmsted. Since she gave her consent and encouraged an abortion she automatically excommunicated herself from the church."

The statement added that other Catholics McBride consulted "who gave their consent and encouraged this abortion were also excommunicated by that very action. So too is anyone else at St. Joseph’s who participated in the action; including doctors and nurses."

Neither Olmsted nor McBride would answer questions about the case. Nor would hospital administrators or officials of Catholic Healthcare West, St. Joseph’s parent company. St. Joseph’s is Phoenix’s first hospital, and one of the area’s most prominent.

The bishop does not have direct control of the hospital, but as bishop he carries authority on matters of faith and morals.

The surgery took place in late 2009 as the patient’s condition worsened. She had a rare and often fatal condition called pulmonary hypertension in which a pregnancy can make things much worse. She was 11 weeks pregnant, according to a statement from the hospital.

Pulmonary hypertension limits the ability of the heart and lungs to function properly, especially when confronted with the physical changes that accompany pregnancy.

McBride, who had been vice president of mission integration at the hospital, was on call as a member of the hospital's ethics committee when the surgery took place, hospital officials said. The committee is called in for circumstances such as these, but the nature of the group’s deliberations is unknown.

The patient was not identified, and details of her case cannot be revealed under federal privacy laws.

The hospital defended the ethics committee's decision.

In a statement, Suzanne Pfister, a hospital vice president, said that the facility adheres to the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services. But, she argued, the directives leave some gray areas.

"In those instances where the Directives do not explicitly address a clinical situation -- such as when a pregnancy threatens a woman's life -- an Ethics Committee is convened to help our caregivers and their patients make the most life-affirming decision,” she said. "In this tragic case, the treatment necessary to save the mother's life required the termination of an 11-week pregnancy.”

Pfister issued the statement on behalf of the hospital, its parent company Catholic Healthcare West, and the Sisters of Mercy, McBride's religious order.

According to the medical directives that the hospital follows, abortion is defined as the directly intended termination of pregnancy, and it is not permitted under any circumstances.

But a second directive allows conditions other than pregnancy to be treated, even if they result in termination of the pregnancy.

In a statement issued late Friday, May 14, the diocese confirmed that Olmsted learned of the case after the surgery.

"I am gravely concerned by the fact that an abortion was performed several months ago in a Catholic hospital in this diocese," Olmsted said. "I am further concerned by the hospital's statement that the termination of a human life was necessary to treat the mother's underlying medical condition.

"An unborn child is not a disease. While medical professionals should certainly try to save a pregnant mother's life, the means by which they do it can never be by directly killing her unborn child. The end does not justify the means."

Olmsted added that if a Catholic "formally cooperates" in an abortion, he or she is automatically excommunicated.

“The Catholic church will continue to defend life and proclaim the evil of abortion without compromise, and must act to correct even her own members if they fail in this duty.”

Olmsted disputed Pfister on whether the health-care directives were vague, arguing that they are “very clear,” despite the details of the case.

Olmsted is known in the Phoenix Diocese for his strong advocacy of pro-life issues. He has led prayers in front of Planned Parenthood offices several times, has forbid Mass to take place at a Phoenix venue celebrating the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe because the venue previously had hosted Planned Parenthood, and criticized the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation for its links to the family-planning organization.

He has not refused Communion to politicians who have taken pro-choice positions.

A letter sent May 10 from Catholic Healthcare West, signed by Sr. Judith Carle, board chairwoman, and President and CEO Lloyd Dean, asks Olmsted to provide further clarification about the directives. Agreeing that in a healthy mother, pregnancy is "not a pathology," it says this case was different. The pregnancy, the letter says, carried a nearly certain risk of death for the mother.

"If there had been a way to save the pregnancy and still prevent the death of the mother, we would have done it," the letter says. "We are convinced there was not."

Fr. John Ehrich, head of Olmsted’s medical ethics committee, disagreed with that conclusion.

“In difficult situations when the mother’s life is threatened by an underlying condition, the solution can never be to directly kill her unborn child,” he wrote for the diocesan newspaper, the Catholic Sun. To do so is an abortion…. The reason for such a procedure never matters.”

McBride was the highest-ranking member of the Sisters of Mercy at the hospital, which the order founded in 1895. In an e-mail, Pfister said McBride has been transferred "to another position in the hospital to focus on a number of new strategic initiatives."

Catholic News Services reported that in a letter to the editor of The Arizona Republic May 18, Dr. John Garvie, chief of gastroenterology at St. Joseph's, called McBride "the moral conscience of the hospital" and said "there is no finer defender of life at our hospital."

"What she did was something very few are asked to do, namely, to make a life-and-death decision with the full recognition that in order to save one life, another life must be sacrificed," Garvie said. "People not involved in these situations should reflect and not criticize."

According to a brief biography posted on the hospital's website, McBride "has 34 years of health care experience in both for-profit and not-for-profit health care management." She holds a bachelor's degree in nursing and a master's in public administration, both from the University of San Francisco.

[Michael Clancy is a reporter for The Arizona Republic [2].]

More Information:

• Copies of Olmsted and Pfister’s complete statements are here [3].

• The Phoenix diocese put together a resources page on its newspaper's Web site: Resources and more information about the situation at St. Joseph's Hospital [4]

• On the U.S. bishops' conference Web site are the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services [5]