The Archdiocese of Philadelphia recently announced that it would require parents of all children enrolled in its schools to sign a “Memorandum of Understanding.” In addition to explaining that the archdiocese’s schools “will teach the doctrine of the church” (sounds totally groovy), the document demands that parents “are in agreement” with this doctrine and insists that “they uphold all principles and policies that govern the Catholic school.” In this document, the Archdiocese identifies its intentions as ensuring that “moral integrity permeate every facet of the school’s life and activity.”

It’s hard to know from the information on hand if the children of parents who refuse to sign this pledge or who are known to be breaking their promises will be allowed to enroll at one of the archdiocese’s school, but, especially in light of the firing of openly lesbian and gay teachers at Catholic schools across the country, this would seem to be a legitimate possibility. In light of this, I ask the following sincerely offered questions:

  1. Does this pledge mean that children of heterosexually divorced and heterosexually remarried parents can no longer attend the archdiocese’s schools? How can a divorced and/or re-married parent be said to “agree” with or “uphold” all facets of Catholic doctrine?
  2. Does this policy require proof that parents who conceived their children out of wedlock have confessed the sin of pre-marital sex before they can enroll them in one of the archdiocese’s educational institutions? How can a parent who was never married to their partner in procreation sign this pledge without forfeiting the very integrity the archdiocese identifies as its purpose?
  3. Does this imply that the children of non-Catholic parents can no longer attend Catholic schools falling within archdiocesan borders?
  4. Does this pledge exclude the children who descend from one Catholic parent and one Protestant/Jewish/Muslim/atheist parent?
  5. Will the archdiocese require parents who are enlisted in the military to participate in only those wars that the church officials have deemed just? Will it require confession of those military parents who have participated in the Iraq War, which Pope John Paul II soundly condemned, before their children can return to the Catholic classroom?
  6. What happens if a prospective parent refuses to sign this pledge? Can his or her children still attend Catholic schools?

If the archdiocese has introduced this pledge as a way to crack down on a rampant lack of moral integrity among its parochial school parents, then requiring them to sign a pledge that they cannot be made to follow would in fact turn a problem of disobedience and disagreement into one of hypocrisy. This pledge seemingly exists precisely because the archdiocese does not believe in their parents’ willingness to obey and uphold Catholic teaching on their own.

Catholic officials insist they act in the interest “moral integrity;” they have grown weary of the discrepancy between what parochial school communities claim to be, Catholic, and what they actually are, dissenting and divided.

But parochial schools have been filled with visibly dissenting parents and teachers for decades. For example, despite the fact that divorce rates were much higher during the 1970s and 1980s, I could find no evidence of Catholic primary and secondary schools firing divorced or re-married teachers in the way that they have expelled lesbian and gay teachers in recent years. (If I am wrong about this historical detail, I welcome correction.)

And, in earlier eras, church officials explicitly promoted parochial schools as a way not just to strengthen the faith of the already-Catholic, but to evangelize the not-yet Catholic. In introducing this pledge, church officials would seem to signal an abandonment of this philosophy.

If we judge the archdiocese by its actions and not just its words, it would seem it cares not just about shoring up the shaky foundations of Catholic communal identity, but also about ensuring that homosexuality in particular remains repressed and closeted, especially within the church.

This is not hypocrisy, however. It’s something at once more subtle yet more powerful. I truly do believe that many church officials sincerely perceive the rapid rise in social acceptance of openly LGBT people as a singular, if not unprecedented, threat to the stability of the Church. In particular, I believe the new visibility of vow-bound and committed relationships between lesbians and gays troubles them even more than would the public celebration of mere “gay sex.”

We should ask why. Why would a priesthood that contains several times more homosexually oriented men than the general population fear the acceptance of the purported “sin” of homosexual sex so much more than other sins?

Perhaps the heightened homosexuality of the Catholic priesthood provides not the question but the answer.

Place yourself in a homosexual priest’s psychological shoes: you yourself are sexually attracted to men, even if you never act on it; you feel called to join a community that contains more homosexual men, as a percentage, than almost any other organization in your society; you lead a church that teaches the superiority of heterosexuality to homosexuality and increasingly envisions your role as a priest as a type of metaphorically heterosexual act. During mass, you represent the male Christ’s purportedly masculine and therefore heterosexual love for the church, his feminine bride. You must both perform and exemplify not just masculinity but heterosexuality.

This itself would seem to foment a type of distress within the clerical psyche, no?

Yet in addition to a qualifying as a profession that homosexual men find more attractive than almost any other, the priesthood operates through what Mark Jordan terms a “homoerotic” power.  You can have your gay cake, and you get to eat it in a manly way. But if women join your ranks, he explains, the symbolically sexual character of your order would become not just apparent but no longer homoerotic. It would instead replicate the hetero-erotic dynamics that structure the society you left behind the day you entered the seminary.

Perhaps even worse, the Catholic priesthood will have become gender-neutralized, if not feminized. The masculinity you are often unjustly accused of lacking as a homosexual man can no longer be secured through your status as a priest.  Now when you eat your gay cake, you might look like “just one of the girls.”  Only if the “homoerotic” character of what Jordan terms “clerical power” remains closeted can you truly, albeit symbolically, express both masculinity and homosexual desire.

The Catholic priesthood paradoxically provides a safe haven for homosexual masculinity only by locking it in the closet, even when the bulging contours of this closet door provide on-lookers a pretty good idea of the contents it hides inside.

Eventually this door will burst off its hinges.

4 thoughts

  1. It seems fairly clear that a pledge like this, if intended to focus on one thing, has tons of unintended consequences if the Archdiocese is going to be consistent in the way that they approach it.

    I will add, however, that one of the schools I taught at in the mid-2000s had a teacher who was divorced and essentially engaged, but could not get remarried because she would lose her job. So some schools, at least, are consistent in enforcing Catholic teaching across the board.

    1. I agree with your point about the unintended consequences and thank you for bringing the mid-2000s incident to our attention. It would be quite helpful if someone could do a comprehensive study of this issue.

  2. You are so fierce dear Katie, thank you for your witness in all of this. I think of all the moral sins and injustice of economics, war, and so much more. If our perfect morals were required the churches and the schools would be empty. Is this Catholic Christian life a destination or a pilgrimage? I’m sticking with the latter, as I limp my way forward – arms and hearts ever interlocked with friends like you. Let those doors bulge and burst, as we all make our way.

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