Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

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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