Cambridge conference tackles clericalism and sexuality

Cambridge conference tackles clericalism and sexuality

Cambridge conference tackles clericalism and sexuality

Participants in a Cambridge workshop exploring the relationship between clericalism and sexuality. (Credit: Von Hügel Institute.)

A workshop at Cambridge explored the relationship between clericalism and sexuality.

NEW YORK — A three day conference held at Cambridge University earlier this month set out to explore the relationship between clericalism and sexuality. Sponsored by the Von Hügel Institute for Critical Catholic Inquiry, the gathering brought together a range of participants from historians to psychologists, from Dominicans and Opus Dei members to agnostics.

The workshop’s organizer, Luigi Gioia, spoke to Crux about how the conference sought to understand the current crisis in the Church and its multifaceted dimensions.

Crux: What was the inspiration for this conference and how did you decide who would participate?

Gioia: The main inspiration for the workshop was Pope Francis’s singling out of clericalism as one of the main causes of the present crisis in the life of the Church. In the past, the accusation of clericalism used to come from people hostile to the Church. Now, on the contrary, its use is promoted internally and from the very top, that is from the pope himself.

Overcoming clericalism is one of the avowed key objectives of Pope Francis’s pontificate. He defines it as a group mentality based on stereotypes whereby ministry is identified with power rather than with service. This mentality is a fertile ground for paternalism, self-obsession, corruption and loss of missionary impetus. These are behaviors that compromise the integrity and the resilience of the institution both spiritually and pastorally. In some quarters of the Catholic Church, however, there is a tendency to believe that the present crisis is not caused by misconceptions about clerical power but by the disproportionate number of gay priests and bishops.

This last narrative was bolstered by the publication of Frédéric Martel’s book In the Closet of the Vatican. We were aware of the sensitivity of the topic: Catholics do not want to appear to be challenging the practice of clerical celibacy or its rationale. There is a psychological dimension to this reluctance, namely that the faithful tend to separate the sexual and religious lives of their ministers. Moreover, the faithful practice of celibacy is taken for granted and lacks proper emotional, psychological and spiritual support.

On both sides of the argument (clericalism vs. homosexuality) the risk is that epithets are weaponized for polemical purposes and that people lose sight of the complexity of the situation. This is why the Von Hügel Institute for Critical Catholic Inquiry at the University of Cambridge (UK) has launched a research project that combines both aspects of the question — clericalism and sexuality — and tries to examine them and their interrelation from a non-polarized and interdisciplinary viewpoint. 25 scholars from the U.S., France, Italy and the U.K. took part in the debate from the viewpoint of theology, ethics, history, canon law, gender studies, psychology, sociology and anthropology. The people we invited were chosen because they represent a variety of views, have  first-hand knowledge of the topic and are able to take part in a conversation both critically and constructively.

What did this conference reveal about how clericalism is understood and exhibited in the west versus in the global south?

Clericalism seems to concern only the Church in Western countries where especially under the pressure of the media and of the judiciary it has become impossible to deny the systemic and institutional nature of sexual abuse, cover-up and the disproportionate number of closeted homosexuals in the clergy. The combination of these factors has brought to light a system that has a dysfunctional relation to power, truth telling and to managing emotions in general (not just sexuality but also anger, fear, isolation, frustrations). It is not sexuality per se which is a problem. Sex becomes an issue only because a harmonious relation to sexuality requires a healthy relation to power, truth-telling and emotions. Hence the crisis of trust.

By its very nature and mission, the Church claims that its teaching, institutions, and personnel should be trusted on the basis of divine mandate. At the same time, the crisis has led many people to question very seriously whether the Church deserves to be trusted, at least in some areas. In this context, clericalism is the attitude of those who in the Church still think that the institution should be trusted without having to earn that trust or even despite having repeatedly betrayed it.

The Church in the Global South (especially in Africa and Asia) on the surface seems to have been immune to this crisis and still is largely trusted by the faithful and respected in society. This however is changing under the pressure of the data which are emerging concerning the sexual abuse of nuns which presents patterns analogous to those of abuses in the West: the unbalance of power that makes consent impossible and the cover-up, the refusal of care and the silencing of the victims. Those who are tempted to scapegoat gay priests for the crisis in the West have to face the reality that the relation between clericalism and sexuality is just as dysfunctional among prevalently heterosexual clergy in Africa and Asia.

This conference included a session on Frédéric Martel’s widely discussed book, In the Closet of the Vatican. What was the tenor of that conversation? 

Frédéric Martel explained that his work is not meant to be a criticism of the Church (the author is agnostic) but stems from his fascination for a very peculiar gay community and for the way it has had to morph to survive in an environment that offers safety to gay people at the cost of denial and forces them into a secrecy that has bred all sort of dysfunctional behaviors. In the conversation which followed it was observed that one of the main results of the book is to have destroyed a myth, namely that immorality is a consequence of lack of doctrine.

Most of those who lead double lives at the highest levels of the Church are well known for their doctrinal intransigence. Among the possible shortcomings of the book there is the tendency to reduce the Church to the gay code, as if it could explain everything. It was also observed that there should have been a more cogent narrative of the good of which what the book describes is the corruption. In the reception of the book it is crucial to distinguish homosexuality from abuse. The author stressed that the problem for him is not that there are gay people in the clergy but the system that forces them to adopt toxic strategies of survival in a hostile environment.

This was a pretty diverse group of scholars. How do you hope to take away the insights from this conference and apply them in concrete ways within the institutional Church? 

One of the main problems concerning the relation between clericalism and sexuality is the absence of a truly comprehensive sociological research on the actual practice of celibacy in the Church. Some studies have been conducted on it by practitioners (mainly psychologists) working with priests but the Church has not yet authorized a truly large scale investigation on the topic. Thus one of the areas of research should be the collection of data necessary to reach an accurate description of the phenomenon.

Then there are many models of positive and healthy integration of priesthood in the life of the community which are based on the principle of division of powers. This is the case of traditional orders (like for example, the Dominicans or the Benedictines) and new movements (like Opus Dei) in which there are mechanisms of accountability in the exercise of ordained ministry. The advantage of these models is that they are resources which have been tested over time and are the expression not only of managerial choices but of robust spiritualties.

Follow Christopher White on Twitter: @cwwhite212 


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