Wednesday, July 24, 2002

From the Fuzzy Twaddle Department

I may be a little late to this party, but I'm still warming back up to blogging after my vacation. And I'm loath to disagree with people I like as much as Dom Bettinelli, and even more so with Amy Welborn (Amy is the virtual Mom for the St. Blog's community, and who wants to disagree with Mom?), but I can't agree with their positive assessment of the Washington Post article on Theological College, the seminary at The Catholic University of America, that appeared this past Sunday. I would agree with Dom that the article is "candid": it certainly presents the opinions of the ex-seminarians interviewed in an "unvarnished" way. But I'm afraid that the sloppiness of the reporting and the limitations of the reporter's sources left me wondering at the end just what the point of the article was about, and ultimately shed no real light on the state of affairs at Theological College. Furthermore, unlike Amy, I don't see any evidence in the article that the secular press, much less the seminarians involved, have "waked up" (pace Nihil Obstat) to anything.

Before I go further, a few notes are in order: My comments here are not a "defense" of Theological College, or a contention that "everything's peachy" there. I've never attended TC, though I have known seminarians there. But I think that Ms. Rosin's article in reality demonstrates far less than one might think at first reading. Furthermore, I think it is actually intended as subtle criticism of Catholic teaching and discipline, and not as the "candid" expose that some take it to be.

Amy points out the "stunning cluelessness" of the reporter, who identified the "Daughters of Trent" as a real religious order. And surely that is cluelessness of the highest order, because the reporter could have remedied it by asking a simple question (isn't that what reporters are supposed to do?). But when I see cluelessness of such a truly "stunning" magnitude, it makes me question the perception of the writer's work as a whole. Call me suspicious or cynical, but when a writer exhibits a lack of perception on such a easily remediable point, my Twaddle-o-Meter starts to twitching.

The first significant problem with the article is it's breeziness and lack of precision. The first instance of this is in her characterization of the debate surrounding homosexuality in the seminary as centering on "the mere presence of a significant number of gay students." Sorry, but that is not what the debate centers on. The issue is not whether we have a problem when some "critical mass" of homosexual seminarians is reached, but whether homosexual men should be admitted to the seminary at all. And just what is a "significant number" of gay seminarians? The "straight" seminarian interviewed, Mr. Krzmarzick, made it seem as if there were homosexuals practically coming out of the woodwork, but there are reasons to take his account with a grain of salt, as I will demonstrate below. Another instance of the writer's sloppiness lies in her statement that "many" seminarians she interviewed admitted to participating in or witnessing "some sexual activity" while at TC. But how many is "many"? And what does she mean by "some sexual activity?" Does she confine that term to homosexual acts? These questions are unanswered. She only alludes to one incident in her article: the claim, by Mr. Krzmarzick, that he witnessed two seminarians kissing. While such behavior is certainly inappropriate and sinful, this one incident (and this is the only one specifically mentioned) is hardly evidence that TC is the hotbed of homosexuality that Krzmarzick and Ms. Rosin try to portray.

The second siginificant problem with the article is it's primary reliance on disgruntled ex-seminarians for testimony. I criticized this faulty methodology in my review of Michael Rose's Goodbye! Good Men, and the methodology is no less faulty here. But the methodological problem is compounded by the fact that the seminarians interviewed all seem to embrace a view of sexuality that is not Catholic. The "straight" seminarian repeatedly goes out of his way to make it clear that he doesn't have any problem at all with homosexuality, and the gay one makes it clear that he embraces his homosexuality. These men do not have a well-formed intellect or conscience on the matter of sexuality, so their perceptions and judgments on these matters is at best questionable. Mr. Krzmarzick reveals his questionable judgment when he described an openly gay Unitiarian Universalist minister as being more "healthy" than the "atmosphere of suffocating sexual repression" at TC. Clearly Mr. Krzmarzick's criterion for "health" are not those of the Catholic Church.

Dom at Bettnet asks "Does anybody but me think that if only the faculty would only stand strong with the Church's teachings that homosexuality is disordered that most of these guys would be better off and less confused?" Certainly I agree with Dom that a strong witness by the seminary faculty would be infinitely helpful, but even if these seminarians could have been exposed to good teaching at TC, they in fact never had the opportunity to be formed by it. Mr. Krzmarzick left after his first year at TC, and Kucharski left after two. At most Krzmarzick would have had his first fundamental morals course in that year: issues like sexual morality don't typically come up in the curriculum until the second or third year. These men didn't get their confused views on sexuality from TC, they had them before they went in and weren't there long enough to be converted to a more Catholic view.

The most serious problem with the article is its almost total reliance upon Mr. Krzmarzick's subjective perceptions regarding the prevalence of homosexuality at TC. Mr. Krzmarzick's criterion for whether a fellow seminarian is gay or not seems to be little more than whether or not that man made him "uncomfortable." Krzmarzick repeatedly describes himself as being made to feel "uncomfortable," and on the thinnest of pretexts. He admits that there was little overt evidence of homosexual activity, but nevertheless contends there was a huge "undercurrent." His reason for perceiving this undercurrent? He was "uncomfortable." The standard isn't evidence of objective behavior but his own feeling of discomfort. Well, that discomfort could stem from many things: he was the youngest in his class, relatively un-accomplished compared to his peers, and the fact that he was a young man from a small city in Iowa plunged into a very cosmopolitan city. These factors seem to me to be ample grounds for him feeling discomort in social situations, without introducing his vague "discomfort" at a homosexual undercurrent.

Mr. Krzmarzick seems to be of two minds: on the one hand he describes the atmosphere of TC as one of "suffocating sexual repression". He complains that sexuality wasn't talked about, but that if one "came out" as gay, one would receive all manner of approval and support. How could the atmosphere be sexually repressive and at the same time supportive? What is clear is that the issue wasn't talked about in the way he would have liked: he appears to believe that the Rector's conferences on issues of sexuality should have been turned into some kind of "encounter group" session in which seminarians could stand up and raise one another's consciousness about their own drives and longings. But the proper place for discussion of such matters is within spiritual direction, and it is clear that such converstions did take place between seminarians and spiritual directors at TC. Mr. Kucharski shows the same bipolarity: How could homosexuality be the "elephant in the room" and yet the seminary be a "great place to come out"?

Mr. Krzmarzick's reaction to the alleged undercurrent of homosexuality borders on the obsessive: I can assure you that neither I nor any other sane/stable seminarian of my acquaintance ever sat up in the evenings looking through class rosters and pointing out seminarians who were "gay, gay, gay but doesn't know it... etc." Certainly in my seminary experience there were seminarians whom I or others suspected were gay ( a little too much swish here, a little too flamboyant there). But given, on the one hand, the evidence that these "suspect" men were obedient, prayerful, and loyal,, and, on the other hand, the lack of any evidence of disobedience or sinful activity, one learns to look beyond the effeminate exterior and see the person beneath, who frequently isn't actually homosexual at all. Frankly, if I were a seminary rector and learned that these guys were engaged in this "spot the homo" game, I'd wonder about their suitability to be in formation. At the least their behavior was immature, at the worst it was unjust calumny and gossip. In any event it was a colossal waste of time. That the problem was with Krzmarzick and his friends can be seen in the fact that, after a while, practically anything became evidence of a man's homosexuality. Their perceptions and accounts can hardly be regarded as trustworthy.

Finally, it seems to me that the whole article is actually intended to be an indictment of the Church's teaching and discipline, not an expose of problems in a seminary. For Messrs. Krzmarzick and Kucharski are clearly cast as the victims of the "bad old seminary" and hence the "bad old church". They are portrayed as victims of the repression of the Church's "traditional ban on sex" (what a ridiculous phrase!). But one is specifically held to be a victim of the homosexual "undercurrent" which made him "uncomfortable", while the other is the victim of a Church which won't let him say "I'm Father Dave and I'm gay." Both remain unshakable in their conviction (anointed by dominant-liberal-elite opinion) that being gay is just fine. After all, says one of Krzmarzick's friends, the gay priests are the "most pastoral" guys.

So in the end, it seems to me, this article is little more than a puff piece buttressing the edifice of liberal opinion. Dom Bettinelli writes of TC, "What a dysfunctional place!" The only things clearly dysfunctional to me are the opinions and judgments of Messrs. Krzmarzick and Kucharski, and the journalistic competence and motivations of Ms. Rosin. I am left wondering at the end what really is going on at TC, because the article never sheds any real light on it. The article uses a lot of subjective opinion and cloudy judgement to imply a murkily dissatisfactory account of TC, all in order to further the leftist cant that the big bad old Church is the problem.

And that kind of twaddle makes me very uncomfortable.