Editor's Note: When historians write the definitive history of the priest sex scandals and the vocation crisis that rocked the Church at the turn of the third millenium, it's likely they'll look to Jonathan Englert's new book, The Collar.
Englert spent a year at the Sacred Heart School of Theology in Milwaukee, immersed in the daily lives of its seminarians and priests, chronicling the struggles of five men on the path to ordination. Some of them made it, and some didn't. But through their stories, Englert is able to show us the complex, human reality of the Catholic priest in a way that statistics and studies never could.
In his introduction to the book, Englert asks, "Why would a man become a priest today?" For his thoughts on this question, see GodSpy's interview with him .
What follows below is a two-part excerpt from The Collar that deals with a narrower issue: sexuality. While the book suggests that sex and celibacy aren't the major issues for seminarians that the media makes them out to be, this brutally candid but ultimately hopeful excerpt brilliantly illustrates how the challenge of human sexuality is at the center of the Church's encounter with the modern world.
As Englert writes: "...a vocation, as is the case of all religious experience, is rooted in the reality of the human condition and often emerges from a jagging uneven road... The individual spiritual life also is a metaphor for the life of the Church, flailing at perfection, often well-intentioned, sometimes not."
An Excerpt from The Collar
No man could go to seminary in the year 2003 without a profound awareness of the fallibility, even the perversity, that might be found among Catholic priests. One’s ideals about the clergy were tempered by the reality that there were deeply troubled, profoundly wounded, even evil clerics—just look at the news. But a medical student did not desist from his or her chosen career because there have been doctors who have murdered their patients.
When Dean had arrived at Father Tom's rectory to spend the year with him before shipping out to Sacred Heart, he had learned that his new housemate considered himself bisexual. The frank admission had been followed by another: Father Tom was still involved with a man. He told Dean that he would never give the future seminarian a holier-than-thou image to follow.
"This is Broken Me," Dean remembered Father Tom saying.
Father Tom was not the priest who had inspired Dean to go to the seminary, but he was the man who in many ways had made the journey possible. It was Father Tom who had gotten Dean to focus on the application process and forced him to begin the necessary work of eliminating his personal debt. Ultimately, Father Tom had consolidated some of Dean's credit card debt himself, with instructions to pay him back after Dean was finished with the seminary. He didn't want Dean burdened with debt through the process, he said. Father Tom was like a second father to Dean. He was the only male figure with an active spirituality whom Dean really knew.
Dean was only partly prepared for what he discovered among Father Tom's personal items when he arrived at the rectory a few days before the priest's funeral.
Even knowing the priest well, Dean was only partly prepared for what he discovered among Father Tom's personal items when he arrived at the rectory a few days before the priest's funeral. Dean found pornography in a strongbox in Father Tom's bedroom. Are all fucking priests fucked-up? Dean thought. He found sex toys and letters from his lover. Father Tom had given Dean a book about priestly celibacy called The Unhealed Wound. So this was the unhealed wound, and that was why Father Tom had an industrial-strength paper shredder in his bedroom, Dean mused. Dean scanned the video pornography. Please don't let there be kids, he thought. There were no children, just gay adult porn that looked very old. God, Dean continued, I don't want to go out that way. Father-walking-scandal-any-minute-now. There but for the grace of God go I...
Dean reflected on what he knew of the priest's life. Father Tom had in many ways been forced into the priesthood. His was a classic story of a son who became a priest because his mother had the vocation. When he'd wavered about leaving the seminary, his mother had told him that he was free to leave if he wanted, but she would never live down the shame if he did. In some ways, Father Tom bore the mark of that pressure for the rest of his life. He seemed to have been frozen into sexual immaturity by it. Some of the questions he had asked Dean during the seminarian's stay at the rectory were so naive, as if he were a child puzzling out the birds and the bees. Dean remembered Father Tom telling him that his sexual compulsion had been evidenced as far back as seminary with habitual masturbation. He had finally been sent to a psychiatrist who, dismissive of Catholic teaching on the matter, seemed to condone the behavior. It was a response that in Dean's experience would have been inconceivable at Sacred Heart in 2003. In those days, though, Father Tom had told Dean, the first time celibacy was addressed was three weeks before his ordination to the diaconate, when he was instructed to sign some paper from Rome.
Despite the shock of his discovery, Dean could not overlook a certain irony. Father Tom was an enormously obese man—so obese that Dean used to be embarrassed to eat out at a restaurant with him. Dean was sure that people would look at them together and think, Well, we don't have to worry about celibacy with the fat one, do we? That's all straightened out. But dammit, Dean, you're gonna cause problems because of your looks. In his mind, Dean would counter, The guys who are gonna cause problems are the ones who've never had people hit on them. Because they're wearing a collar, they're suddenly gonna have people hittin' on them, and they won't know what to do.
Only God knew where Father Tom stood in the eyes of God, but Dean didn't know how a priest could live with himself if he wasn't true to the promise. He thought, I have two years, maybe two and a half, before I profess my promises. I'm going to do everything I can to get ready between now and then. The key seemed to be to remember that you were human and that celibacy wouldn't be under control until you were six feet under. There hadn't been much in the way of formal instruction yet, but in the fall Dean had been enraptured by a lecture given by a visiting monk named Brother Zullo. The monk had outlined practical measures one must take to avoid burnout and the risk of inappropriate behavior. A network of people seemed to be crucial to avoiding burnout—that and, Dean added to himself, God's grace.
Many priests had come from beginnings that had stacked the odds against them.
Dean disposed of the strongbox and shredded the letters. He called Father Tom's lover on the phone after he puzzled out the number. The lover didn't know that Father Tom had died. He told Dean that he was shocked, but he didn't cry. Dean said that it would be fine for him to call if he needed to talk—the seminarian didn't know what else to say. He kept thinking that he should be in shock himself about Father Tom's activities, but he wasn't.
When Father Tom had told Dean a few months into his stay at the rectory that he had a lover, Dean had informed the priest that he could no longer be Dean's spiritual director. Father Tom had been hurt, but Dean was resolute. Dean knew that his mentor had in many ways been a very good priest—even a great priest. As a pastor, he reached out to people in their need, in their frailness and brokenness, and he had so endeared himself to his parishioners that when he was transferred, they campaigned to get him back—and did. Father Tom had failed at a very high bar, Dean thought, and others struggled with it, too. Many priests had come from beginnings that had stacked the odds against them. This was a human story, as Dean, the child of multiple divorces, knew well.
The Knights of Columbus stood guard over Father Tom's open casket during an overnight vigil. The bishop attended the funeral Mass, as did many of the diocese's priests. The church was filled to overflowing, and Dean helped set up chairs outside for the crowd. During the Mass, Dean sat on the dais and looked at the parishioners over the coffin. Perhaps they were looking at him and thinking, There's someone from this community. There's someone who's at least looking into the priesthood. Someone to serve us. Dean knew just how badly they needed a priest to serve them.
He had been thinking lately of Archbishop Dolan's book Priests for the Third Millennium and his reference to other pitfalls of priesthood, such as bitterness and reliance on material comfort. Dean wanted to avoid those, too. He wanted to be a priest in whom God could vibrantly dwell and act, and not be hindered by a crippled nature or a double life. But looking at Father Tom's casket, he knew that he must honor this man as well. Perhaps the strongbox was just a reminder to Father Tom of a problem over which he had triumphed. Wasn't Christ the Shepherd-Redeemer searching the shadows and ravines for his lost sheep? So great was his love for each person and his desire that none should be lost, he searched with passion and a fierce, never-resting intensity. Perhaps Father Tom had wanted to get rid of the box himself but couldn't because he was physically unable to climb the stairs to the second floor. Six months of knowing that the box was upstairs, Dean imagined, and not being able to reach it. Maybe that was it, or maybe not.
Among the things that Dean brought back from Father Tom's rectory was the dart set that he had given the priest for Christmas and a few pages from a journal that in the end Dean found he couldn't shred. The journal was from Father Tom's days in the seminary—when the specter of sexual compulsion first arose. If Father Tom had been told not to feel guilty about his masturbation, was that enough to purge him of the feeling of guilt? But is it only the feeling of guilt that separates you from God? Dean wondered. And if you got rid of the feeling? Guilt is a funny thing, Dean thought. If you push it down, it will come out in some other way and wreck your life.
The key seemed to be to remember that you were human and that celibacy wouldn't be under control until you were six feet under.
Oscar took Dr. Esther Warren's hand in his and held it for an uncomfortably long time. The basement room was perfectly silent. Dr. Warren blushed.
"This is sex," Oscar observed in his soft voice and thick Spanish accent.
He released her hand. The point had been made. The second-year seminarians could breathe again. Sex meant virtually everything.
By February, Heiser, Jim Pemberton, and the other men in second-year formation were well into the question of celibacy. The topic defied easy approach. Heiser found himself chopping at the table with the blade of his hand and demanding a definition of sex; the discussion had ranged too freely, and the word had come to mean too many things. Was it the sexual act or the sexuality of a person? Father McLernon spoke of how priests and nuns are not considered sexual, and yet sexuality is a profound part of every human being.
Father McLernon had served through the pre–Vatican II days and the tumult of the 1960s and 1970s. Celibacy had gone from being accepted but not discussed to being openly questioned and challenged by both clergy and laity. He had lived through the crazy period of the so-called "third way," in which a priest could not get married but "could" have a committed sexual relationship. At that time, he said, many progressives believed that if a person wasn't having sex, something was wrong with him or her. He remembered attending a seminar in Florida run by a priest and a nun he would later regard as wacky. The priest had rings on all his fingers and earrings up and down his ears. At one point, he broke the participants into small groups to discuss the question "When did you have your first sexual experience?" One of the members of Father McLernon's group was a feisty nun in her seventies. She refused to participate, but she was no prude. Father McLernon and the rest of the group encouraged her to tell the larger audience how she felt.
"This is nonsense," she announced. "Why should I tell you the first time I touched myself?"
Father McLernon believed that the nun was right. Celibacy might be problematic, but the answer was to embrace the challenge, not misconstrue it.
To embrace the challenge, one had to know what was at stake. Dr. Warren passed out a detailed questionnaire that was intended only for each seminarian's own use, although he could share his answers with his spiritual director, if he chose.
"The idea is that knowing yourself will be extremely helpful to you as a priest," Dr. Warren explained. Students in the past, she added, had appreciated the exercise.
The questions covered a range of issues: "Toward whom did you feel attracted as: (a) Pre-Adolescent? (b) Adolescent? (c) Young Adult?" "Were you attracted to persons: (a) Older than you? (b) Peers? (c) Younger than you?" "If you are heterosexual and never married, did you engage in sexual activity prior to coming to seminary?" "How long between your last sexual activity and coming to seminary?" "What is your understanding of friendship?" "Do you have friends?" For most of the men, these questions were hardly surprising. They had already endured a barrage of psychological questions just to be considered for candidacy to the seminary.
In Jim Pemberton's section, Father McLernon used an exercise that he warned would make everyone a bit uncomfortable. He wrote the words "vagina," "penis," and "rectum" on the board. The men broke up into groups of two or three and were given the task of listing as many words or associations as possible for each word. After the instructors had left the room, there were a few jokes about "boners," and one man regaled the others with an account of a former girlfriend's remarkable anatomical abilities. When Father McLernon returned, he asked each group for a tally, without asking for the specific words. He wrote each tally on the board. There were dozens of word associations. If you went into a bar, Father McLernon observed, and challenged the crowd to see how many names they could find for penis or vagina, there would be hundreds. He erased the board, then wrote the word "elbow" How many other words for elbow? he asked. No one had any.
Father McLernon spoke of how priests and nuns are not considered sexual, and yet sexuality is a profound part of every human being.
"Why are we talking about this?" Father McLernon asked. "Because you brought it up," Jim Pemberton said. Everyone laughed.
Then Jim tried to be serious. The number of word associations and their harsh and demeaning tenor betrayed the puritanical quality of our culture, Jim offered. Take the f-word, he said. How could such a violent word, which more often than not was used to punish, blame, and curse, be used to refer to the sexual act, which he considered sacred?
"Wherein lies the dynamic of our need to have such a plethora of expressions for that area of our body which is sexuality?" Father McLernon wondered.
"Sexuality is a major dynamic of our lives," Jim said. "It shows up in all areas: culture, art, movies, books, language, cartoons. More and more it seems ... Twenty years ago, nada."
"That raises a question in my mind for you, then," Father McLernon said. "Where are the places you can go that you're not likely to see sexuality? You're suggesting that there's almost an obsession with sexuality—not just an awareness of sexuality, but an obsession with it. In some cultures, they are very aware of sexuality, but they're not obsessed with it. We're obsessed with it."
"We seem to be driven by it," Jim agreed.
"Where are you likely to go in our culture that you're not going to be hit with that?" Father McLernon repeated.
"Religion, church, that whole atmosphere," Jim said. "There seems to be a tendency to leave sexuality at the front door."
"Now if, as you suggest, sexuality is such an important component of our experience — our life experience, of who we are as individuals—that it pervades every aspect of our lives, why is it that you don't deal with it in the Church?" Father McLernon asked.
"Thank you, Saint Augustine," Jim said archly.
Don Wright disagreed. Catholicism deals with sexuality but focuses on the love portion, he said.
"Maybe one answer to your question is that somehow we have lost the sense of the sacred in conjunction with sexuality. We automatically think of it as something dirty, something not good," Jim advanced.
"I don't think our culture's saying that it's no good or dirty or sinful—not at all. You think our culture's saying that?" Father McLernon countered.
"No, I don't think they give a damn about sin," Jim said.
"The culture is saying that it's okay to do it with anybody and everybody, do it as much as you want," Mike Mallard contended. "Whereas the sacredness of one person, the commitment, they're saying that part's not good."
"In the context of a religious service, you're not going to deal with the issue of sexuality in an inappropriate way," Father McLernon emphasized. "However, it is something that ought to be ... Just recently, I did a homily in a parish, and it was on the text of Saint Paul. He was talking about `Don't you know your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit?' and what I talked about in the homily was the difference between puritanism and pornography. I was really surprised at the number of people who came up and thanked me for talking about it."
The collar seemed to attract women. Seminarians accepted this as a strange but irrefutable fact.
Time was running out, and Father McLernon had a piece he wanted to read. "Let's end with something about sex," he said. He read from the Song of Songs, as translated in the New American Bible:
Ah, you are beautiful, my beloved,
Ah, you are beautiful!
Your eyes are doves
Behind your veil,
Your hair like a flock of goats
Streaming down the mountains of Gilead . .
You are all-beautiful, my beloved,
And there is no blemish in you.
You have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride;
You have ravished my heart with one glance of your eyes, With one bead of your necklace . . .
Your lips drip honey, my bride,
Sweetmeats and milk are under your tongue;
And the fragrance of your garments
Is the fragrance of Lebanon.
"That's very sensual," Father McLernon said after a long silence.
"Are you hearing confessions afterward?" Jim Pemberton joked.
"The spirituality of our sexuality" Father McLernon mused.
"A gift from God," Jim concluded.
"The Hebrew Scriptures are filled with sensual references to human relationships and to our relationship with God," Father McLernon said. "And of course not only this book, but also some of the mystics. Their language is unbelievably erotic. So they're tapping into that energy, but they're doing something very different with it than this culture is."
He paused and looked around the room.
"We're tapping into that energy, and we're using it for destructive purposes or for selfish purposes: to sell things, to seduce, to get our own pleasure. But that energy is there. It's there to be tapped. That energy is in all of us. Sexuality is there. It gets your attention. Where are you gonna go with that energy? That becomes the question for the celibate. You have all that energy, and it ain't ever going anywhere. You're gonna have it when you're seventy as well as when you're seventeen. It's not about denying our sexuality. It's about harnessing it."
After class, Heiser passed a seminarian from the formation class in the hall, and they started talking about celibacy. The seminarian mentioned that three women in their fifties were going after his pastor back home. "They'd leave your ass," he had told the pastor in case the middle-aged priest had any ideas about responding to their advances.
The collar seemed to attract women. Seminarians accepted this as a strange but irrefutable fact. Maybe it was the challenge, getting the attention of someone they weren't supposed to have. The seminarian told Heiser that just before he had left work to come to Sacred Heart, a married female coworker had actually propositioned him. He recalled her words: “You spend one night with me, and I’ll make you forget all that priesthood stuff. I’ll turn you every which way but loose.”