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Bless me, Father ...

By Diogenes (articles ) | Aug 15, 2003

Jesuit psychiatrist James Gill was enormously influential in the adoption of "psycho-sexual maturity" as a gauge for what he called the human development of priests and religious, and is regarded as a pioneer in the diagnosis and treatment of sexual abusers. In his Boston Globe obituary, he is quoted on the subject of abuser-priests:

"You've got some who transgress because they're immature and some who transgress because they're sick," he said. "Our job is to figure out what's immaturity and what's pathology. When you actively violate the vow of celibacy with a child, when you step over that line, we know that you have stepped into pathology."

It's true that transgressers may act out of immaturity or pathology, but there's a third possibility -- sin.

Gill's omission is not accidental, and those familiar with contemporary priestly formation can attest that the institutional concern for sexual integrity is rarely directed at strengthening the moral fiber of the candidate -- i.e., it doesn't deal with avoidance of sin -- but instead is concerned with "growth issues." This interest in maturity is not a bad thing; we want ministers psychologically capable of making free choices -- yet the absence of instruction in asceticism is a problem.

Look at it this way: if Gill is right that the vow of celibacy can be transgressed only as result of immaturity or sickness, why take a vow at all? Why not simply lay down a Rule of Celibacy for priests which, by definition, mature and healthy men will respect and abide by? In Gill's terms a man can't break a vow, because violation entails incapacity to keep it, and someone incapable of fulfilling a promise cannot be morally bound to it.

Yet the problem is larger than the semantics of oath-taking. Immaturity and sickness provide all-too-serviceable excuses for men who break their vows -- who break them for the old-fashioned reason that they succumb to lust. I've known priests who blandly dismiss past amours with a flap of the hand and say, "Oh, I was adolescing" -- that is, acting normally for my stage of maturity at the time. And we all remember Bishop Anthony O'Connell's explanation of his canoodling a seminarian he asked to share his bed: "I would say that I was extremely ill-advised and naive in that approach."

We might contrast Fr. Gill's legacy with that of St. Augustine by considering this question: in the official statements of USCCB officials regarding the clergy abuse crisis, which word appears more frequently, "inappropriate" or "sinful"?

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  • Posted by: John J Plick - Aug. 20, 2003 6:31 PM ET USA

    I am offering my mass tonight, 8/20, for all the writers at CWN and all of those who have had the courage and conviction to write in. I have greatly enjoyed the stimulatring dialogue and have found that it has elicited within me not only courage and boldness but also an increased consideration for respect and wisdom. I pray that Jesus might give us all the courage to continue no matter what the circumstances as we follow the path that He has marked out for us. God's Peace, JP

  • Posted by: RC - Aug. 19, 2003 5:55 PM ET USA

    If I may be so bold as to rewrite Diogenes, here's what I think he meant: "It's true that transgressors may act out of immaturity or pathology, but there's a third possibility: free will."

  • Posted by: extremeCatholic - Aug. 18, 2003 7:23 PM ET USA

    RC, D's analysis makes sense -- see CCC 1750 to fill in your knowledge gaps. "Inappropriate" is a code for "appropriate in other circumstances" or "not intrinsically evil" The same notion of breaking a vow applies as well to marriage. Here the grave matter of breaking vows is treated with contempt in granting anullments for lack of due discretion. If only the tribunals could adjudicate the violations of celibacy with same craft they do for violations of marital fideliity...

  • Posted by: Pseudodionysius - Aug. 17, 2003 2:18 PM ET USA

    I'm with Diogenes. The symptom of a lack of conscious asceticism is lukewarmness. Forgiven sins should still elicit humility in the penitent, even after many years. Do you remember Augustine and the pears? The prideful presumption that Diogenes alludes to is everywhere. The overt clericalism and legalism prior to the 2nd Vatican Council [I refuse to say Vatican 2 to avoid sounding like a movie mogul] has given way to overt presumption and lukewarmness. Both betray a hardness of heart.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Aug. 16, 2003 6:44 PM ET USA

    I'm with RC on this one. It isn't either/or, its both. You certainly don't sacrafice the reality and possibility of mortal sin on the altar of mitigating circumstances. In any case, society and the Church need to be protected and the Bishops come up grossly negligent either way. A little less passion and a little more clarity, Diogenes.

  • Posted by: RC - Aug. 15, 2003 8:41 PM ET USA

    Diogenes' analysis isn't altogether clear. Gill says that some abusers transgress because of immaturity, and some transgress because of pathology. Diogenes suggests that they have transgressed because of sin. But, if I understand things aright, the transgression -- the act of abuse -- is itself the sin: so Diogenes seems to be arguing that abusers commit their sins because of sin. He has a fair point in here somewhere, but it needs some clarification.

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