Few have had as close a view of the “priest crisis” as Fr. Stephen J. Rossetti. For the past fifteen years he’s worked with troubled priests and studied their problems, and is currently CEO of the Saint Luke Institute, one of the leading mental health centers for the treatment of priests and religious, a facility that was in the news during the church sex abuse scandal.
Yet despite being immersed in the difficulties of religious life, Fr. Rossetti has written The Joy of Priesthood, a book he’s addressed to his fellow priests that debunks the popular perception that priests are miserable and experiencing a terrible crisis of confidence. While he acknowledges the problems—the scandals, the declining number of vocations, and the burden that’s been placed on existing priests—he says survey after survey shows that the large majority of priests are happy, and very satisfied with their work (read more about it in this from the book).
More than just a survey of the state of the clergy, The Joy of Priesthood is an honest, faithful, well-balanced, deeply profound meditation on what it means to be a priest today. Given his experience and insights, we asked Fr. Rossetti to address the recent Vatican Instruction on homosexuality and the priesthood, and the need for priests to have an integrated masculinity.
GODSPY: What do you think of the Vatican document?
Fr. Rossetti: I think the document provides very good guidelines for the Church that give the Bishops and the seminaries a common understanding of the problem. I also think it clearly shows a scholar’s hand. It’s nuanced.
Now, one of the problems with nuances is that it leaves things open to interpretation. The document is not black and white—it’s going to require in-depth discussion and understanding. We’re already seeing some disagreements about what it means.
As most everyone knows by now, the document says “the Church, while profoundly respecting the persons in question, cannot admit to the seminary or to holy orders those who practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called ‘gay culture.’ The first and third conditions are obvious. What about the second one—“deep-seated homosexual tendencies”?
Yes, that is the question. No one would disagree with one and three. The question is number two—what does that mean? What exactly is a deeply-rooted homosexuality? I think the reason it’s hard to know what it means is that the whole question of sexual orientation itself is fuzzy.
Some interpret that statement to mean anyone with homosexual tendencies. On the other hand, Bishop Skylstad has said it’s someone who identifies himself principally by a homosexual inclination or orientation, which is a different interpretation.
The definition of "deep-rooted homosexual" will take some time to work out. But I think the general direction the Vatican has laid out for us is clear: we need to "raise the bar" when it comes to considering candidates who admit to having some homosexual tendencies. Our past approaches were not rigorous enough and we suffered because of it.
We need to "raise the bar" when considering candidates who have homosexual tendencies.
We cannot equate homosexuality with heterosexuality. They are different. And there needs to be some specific guidelines when screening candidates who have homosexual tendencies. And these guidelines need to be stronger than they were in the past. The Vatican document is a step in that direction. But this Instruction is the beginning of a long process, not the end.
That the initial reactions from different parts of the Church are different—I’m not sure that is completely a bad thing. The guidelines are helpful in pointing to a general direction but we wouldn't want them to be so specific as to not allow bishops from different countries and in different circumstances the ability to make their own prudential judgments.
Some psychologists practice what is called Reparative therapy, which tries to heal the psycho-sexual wounds they believe cause same-sex attraction. What do think of this?
The Church says that homosexuality is intrinsically disordered, and I think that’s right. Now, the question is what does the church mean by that—I would say it’s a theological and pastoral statement, not a psychological statement. It’s a statement that says that this is not the way it’s supposed to be in the ideal order.
Now, lots of people rail against that. But think about it more clearly—how many parents are hoping their kids will grow up to be gay? I don’t know any who would. It’s true that if their kids are gay, they’re going to treat them with compassion and caring. But it’s not the ideal, it’s not what you want to have happen. That’s what the Church is saying. It’s not part of the ideal. It’s a fairly obvious statement.
Archbishop Sean O‘Malley of Boston, in a recent statement, said that Catholics shouldn’t feel themselves torn between loving their gay family members and friends, and believing in the Church’s teaching on homosexuality…
I totally agree with that. You see, people take the Church’s teachings on homosexuality, and quote them out of context, and distort what the Church teaches. You can say that homosexuality is not part of the ideal order, and at the same time say we must treat people with a homosexual orientation with compassion and kindness. I think those two things go together, if you’re intellectually honest.
How many parents are hoping their kids will grow up to be gay?
If you ask most Americans what they believe, they would say that they wouldn’t want their kids to grow up to be gay, but if they do, they want them to be treated with compassion and kindness.
Some gay activists said exactly that when arguing for the existence of a “gay gene,” that no one would choose to be homosexual if they had a choice.
I’ve dealt with a lot of people who were homosexuals who would rather that they weren’t. You try to help them live at peace with who they are, but I think a lot of them would change if they could.
In regard to Archbishop O’Malley’s statement—I think he’s a holy man, that’s why he was picked for that position. He leads with compassion and caring. And that’s what people expect, they don’t want the Church to waffle on its teaching but they want it to be compassionate.
Let’s go back to the reparative therapy question. To me, it’s not compassionate or “progressive” to normalize a condition that is—if you find the reparative therapy arguments convincing—the result of psycho-sexual wounds, caused by same-sex rejection by a parent or peers, or something else...
As a psychologist, I would say that you have to beware of simple answers to complex phenomena. I’d say there are many different kinds of homosexuality, as there are different kinds of heterosexuality… I’m sure there are some who fit into that theory, but I suspect there are some who don’t, so I think it is much more complex than that and you can’t use one theory to explain everything.
Do you think that if Catholics conveyed more of a sense that we’re all sinners, and that we’re all in need of grace and forgiveness, that homosexuals wouldn’t feel so singled out?
Yes. You have to be careful to uphold the Church’s teachings in a way that doesn’t inadvertently single out or scapegoat homosexual people as somehow being the root of all evils. Frankly, that’s Nazi Germany. It’s not American and it’s certainly not Catholic.
I know that sometimes people who are homosexually-oriented complain that society seems to single them out for negative behavior, and they’re not always wrong about that.
If you read the Catechism, you read that all of us to some extent have disordered sexuality. For example, when anyone lusts—remember the controversy when Jimmy Carter admitted to the sin of lusting after women? All of us are tainted by original sin and all of us have disordered sexuality. Yes, we believe that attraction to the same sex is intrinsically disordered, but we also believe that heterosexuals, because of the fact that they’re subject to lust, suffer from disordered sexuality.
Homosexually-oriented people complain that society seems to single them out for negative behavior, and they're not always wrong.
You recently made the point in an interview that while the large majority of gay priests were not abusers, a significant percentage of abusing priests were gay. That’s an important distinction, but it’s hard to communicate such nuances through soundbites.
That’s one of the things I love about the Catholic Church—it recognizes the complexity of life, and it’s reflected in its doctrine and teachings. It’s not simplistic. It usually can’t be communicated in two sentences. You have to study it.
Another subtle point—the fact that the faithful, orthodox priest down the street may be homosexually oriented—isn’t that beside the point? The Church obviously realizes that some good men may get filtered out as part of this policy, but they’re dealing with risk factors and probabilities, for the common good of the Church and society...
You’re absolutely right. When you set up human policies you end up having positive effects and negative fall-out.
Several bishops recently, including Bishop Skylstad, have publicly said that there are homosexual priests and sisters who serve admirably, and he supports them. The fact is that in the Church’s experience down through the centuries, we’ve had homosexual priests and nuns who have served admirably, and perhaps some have been saints.
We have to be careful about black and white approaches. The Church never does that; it recognizes the complexities; that’s why the document is a little bit unclear, and perhaps has to be, because in the end the bishops will have to make the final judgment.
It’s hard to talk about this pastoral issue without appearing mean-spirited, but—do we need a more masculine priesthood? If only to effectively minister to the average straight male?
Yes, I think that’s true. I address this in my book. We do have a need to ensure that the priests we have, whether or not they have homosexual tendencies, they still need to be masculine people—they’re men. Obviously, there’s going to be a range, but we want normal human development. Having a balanced masculinity is part of the formation and screening of seminarians. You see it in Pastores Dabo Vobis, you see it in the work of Pope John Paul II.
The negativism toward maleness today is likely a backlash from centuries of male dominance and discrimination toward women.
But at the same time you’re hoping for a deeper integration. You begin with integration of one’s masculinity, but once the person’s done the masculinity, you want other traits developed—if you want to call them feminine—you want the sensitive, caring priest. You don’t want an excessively macho person.
If priests aren’t modeling an integrated masculinity to the Church or society, don’t you end up with a distorted masculinity, men who are aggressive and selfish, rather than men with a strong sense of service and sacrifice?
Yes, sure. The priesthood and society need men who model an integrated, balanced masculinity. Unfortunately, we see cases to the contrary and society is harmed by it.
In my book, there’s a chapter titled, The Priest as a Male: In an Era of the Ascending Feminine, where I talk about how there is an underlying, subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle negativism toward maleness today, and that it is likely a backlash from centuries of male dominance and discrimination toward women. Today’s men are suffering from the sins of their fathers.
Within this cultural bias against masculinity and maleness, the priest as a man needs to be courageous enough to welcome his masculinity, embrace it, and express it in a balanced way. Ironically, the priest who’s not able to do this is prone to lapsing into one of two destructive extremes. He may either repress his masculinity and become “wishy-washy” and indecisive, feeling guilty and apologizing for his maleness, or he may fall into the other extreme, becoming aggressive, power-hungry and domineering.
Becoming a mature male means being comfortable with one’s masculinity, not needing to hide it or exaggerate it. We ought not to apologize for being a man. At the same time, we should not use our masculinity as a weapon. But we need to remember, if you have 150 priests in a diocese, you’re going to have guys all over the lot. The strength of the priesthood is in the communion, of all being together…
In your book you also talk about how the decline of masculinity has hurt the Church’s ministry and theology.
Yes, in modern times we’ve emphasized such good theological values as God’s forgiveness and mercy as well as God’s love and closeness to humanity. We’ve also emphasized that human beings are good and made in God’s image. These flow naturally from a feminine theological approach.
These are all true and an important antidote to the earlier masculine era in which sinfulness and the reality of God’s judgment and hell were preached with gusto; many older parishioners will relate how they feel scarred by such negative images of self and such harsh, judging images of God.
But by moving away from any masculine values and almost totally embracing the feminine, I believe there’s been a tendency to downplay important theological truths that are necessary for a balanced preaching of the Gospel of Jesus.
This explains why the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s declaration of 2000, entitled Dominus Jesus, received so much negative press. While it could be argued that the document needed to be more sensitively worded—more couched in “femininity”—its masculine approach to the faith offered an important antidote to modern excesses.
As celibate priests, our lives are meant to be a complete and total giving to the Kingdom of God.
While we wouldn’t want to return to the days of a masculine-only perspective which lead some into guilt-ridden scrupulosity, we would do well to listen to this resurgence of the masculine and reintegrate it, in a balanced way, into today’s church.
If men with homosexual tendencies constitute just 2 to 3% of the population—
No, 4 to 6%.
Okay, 4 to 6%—Alfred Kinsey’s 10% figure has been debunked—if that’s the proportion of homosexual men in the general population, shouldn’t the priesthood have no more than that number?
I’d say it shouldn’t be badly skewed. You don’t want to have quotas, but…
…It shouldn’t be way out of whack?
Right. It shouldn’t be out of whack with the proportion in society.
Was that another reason for the Vatican Instruction? Too many homosexual men in the priesthood?
I don’t know if that entered into the Vatican’s motivation for putting out the document. That would be pure speculation on my part.
A few years ago Michael Rose wrote Good-bye Good Men, a book which claimed that the presence of homosexual subcultures—“pink” seminaries—had driven faithful, heterosexual men from the priesthood. Do you think that was true, and is it still true?
I’ve met some men who encountered that sort of experience. But I think those days are over. When I go to seminaries today, I’m impressed. I think they’re solid, good places. They’re a heck of a lot better than they were then.
How does the future of the celibate priesthood look to you?
We should recognize that the sexual abuse scandal is not a priest problem per se, it is a human problem. Can circumstances in the seminaries exacerbate things? Yes. But primarily, these dynamics are rooted in the fallenness of the human person. We shouldn’t think that this is all going to go away because we’re no longer in the sixties and seventies.
Our society is sexually addicted, it’s obsessed with sexuality, and that obsession obviously flies in the face of chastity, in general, and celibacy, in particular. That’s probably why we need the celibate commitment even more, as a witness to the fact there are things more important than genital sex. As celibate priests, our lives are meant to be a complete and total giving to the Kingdom of God. This certainly is countercultural today.