Editor’s note: The following account, written by a Catholic priest, is a fiction. The names encode no real persons, no specific institutions. The priestly life here sketched straddles that of religious orders and diocesan seminaries, and the resultant solecisms are deliberate. No element, however, has been contrived without actual parallel in the current formation of American priests.
As did his two older sisters, Jason went to the Catholic college that his father had attended, back in the ’40s, on the G.I. Bill. Jason viewed the “Catholic angle” of the place with neither warmth nor rancor; he regarded his religion much as he did the ethnicity of his last name: an inherited trait that he might be called upon to defend against occasional detractors, but that imposed no other burden of sentiment or duty.
He was a good student and an extraordinarily gifted actor; most of his free time was spent with undergraduate theater groups. Although he was good looking and popular with women, Jason found that his affections never quite matched those of the women he dated, like a tennis player whose racket didn’t meet the ball squarely. When he returned to school in August to begin his senior year, Jason admitted to himself that he would never marry.
To discuss his homosexuality with his parents was out of the question—not because he couldn’t face their wrath, but because he couldn’t face their compassion. A shouting match, disowning, expulsion, the quivering finger pointed out the door—all that he could handle. But none of it would happen. Instead, he knew, his mother would begin a novena to the Little Flower for his “conversion,” and his father would withdraw into a world of sorrow and self-blame. Fury he could deflect; but even the thought of his parents’ love burned Jason like hot oil.
Coming clean was unthinkable, yet that didn’t make life any easier. Already he noticed that his mother began to aim her questions about the “girls in his life” a little more pointedly, obviously eager for information about the woman who would become a daughter-in-law. The prospect of facing those questions month after month, year after year, questions that probed deeper and deeper while he made progressively less convincing excuses and evasions, the ingenuity and shame with which his mother would explain his bachelorhood to curious relatives—all this he viewed with a kind of numb horror. The future held nothing but loneliness, and a loneliness maintained by a wall of increasingly elaborate deceit.
One day in the same autumn the answer to all Jason’s miseries came to him—so quickly, so clearly, so much of a piece, that he laughed out loud that a solution as obvious and uncomplicated as a two-by-four could have eluded him for so long. He would become a priest.
He had gone to Mass on campus one Sunday night, not out of habit or interest but simply to accompany a rather homely girl in the drama club whom he liked and felt sorry for. Halfway through the Eucharistic Prayer she noticed Jason begin to shake with laughter; she even giggled herself in sympathy, imagining that some gaffe on the part of the chaplain had set him off. But he was laughing with happiness and relief as, one by one, the astonishing advantages of the priestly life dropped like ripe fruit into his hand.
To begin with, celibacy was self-explanatory. No archly worded questions from relatives, no breast-beating on the part of his father. No raised eyebrows at class reunions or random meetings with friends. No more painfully planned evenings with women at restaurants or movies which he needed for cover but which filled him with shame and confusion. Priests usually lived with other priests, and the terror of a lifetime of solitude seemed much more remote. Moreover, not only was the priesthood an honorable profession, but his mother would be elated about her son, Father Jason.
The question of whether he had a vocation never really entered Jason’s mind. This is not because he entertained any cynicism about the notion; the simple fact of the matter is that, until the idea of priesthood came to him, he never had any interest in theology or in the Catholic life at all. He had no feelings—positive or negative—toward the Church, and as he had encountered them almost exclusively at Mass he had no strong opinions about priests as a group beyond a vague dissatisfaction with their skill at ceremony. If anyone had asked him whether he had a vocation, Jason would probably have answered yes, not because he was sure it was God who summoned him, but because the suddenness with which the rightness of priestly life came upon him sounded very much like the notion of “divine calling” he had received from books and movies. Yet, for Jason, the idea of Being a Priest was everything, the only real thing; the notion of a Church that this priesthood was meant to serve had no part at all in his thoughts.
Throughout the remainder of his senior year Jason began to spend a lot of time at the chaplaincy. He came to Mass two or three times a week, introduced himself to the chaplains, made himself useful with his considerable abilities at music and production. Gently he intimated to one of the priests that he was not repelled by the prospect of a clerical life. The man had been impressed by Jason’s interest in the chaplaincy, and soon they were discussing the vocation question as a live possibility.
Jason was an excellent actor; so good, in fact, that he could assume a role unconsciously. This worked greatly in his favor in the next few months. In the first place, he was very alert to what the priests wanted to hear; he quickly learned, for example, that they were suspicious of a vocational path that was too neat; they looked for some evidence of conflict. So, without deliberately lying, he began to invent a tale of spiritual ups-and-downs that he knew his listeners would find edifying. He knew too that they wanted to believe that he had dated seriously, and he was able, truthfully, to point to relationships with several women whom the chaplains knew themselves. The fact that he both over-simplified and over-elaborated certain aspects of these encounters was not one the priests were likely to discover. Moreover, Jason was convincing. His audience liked him, and so were predisposed to believe. The story he told was told so well that he began for the most part to believe it himself.
In the fall after he graduated from college, Jason entered the seminary. His first years were uneventful. He found most of his fellow seminarians companionable, and the enthusiasm nearly everyone brought to the program was infectious enough that his sexuality was never much of an issue. He felt the spiritual formation to be tedious but not offensive. Most of the training was centered on ministry, and this was understood principally as social and political concern for disadvantaged people. Jason warmed very quickly to this notion, not because of any theological convictions in its favor, but because the shame he associated with his own homosexuality gave him a spontaneous sympathy for other outsiders of any stripe. He had been apolitical before, but he gradually became distinctly left-of-center. For the first time in his life the idea of “not fitting in” became associated with that of righteousness, and it was an intoxicating feeling. The pleasure of sanctimoniousness is hard for anyone to handle, but for those who have cursed themselves most of their lives it goes right to the head. Jason was drunk on Justice.
Most of his mentors took this newfound commitment, not without reason, as a sign of maturity. They were concerned to wean young men of prosperous suburban backgrounds from a callow materialism and to show them that understanding the demands of the Gospel necessitated an awareness of people generally forgotten, generally ignored. The enthusiasms of the Left were neither an end in themselves nor even a necessary means to this goal, but they were ordinarily taken as evidence that the process was working, change of heart was under way. Jason saw this, and rejoiced in it.
Because he was especially alert to the nuances of the likes and dislikes of his superiors, and because he was more than usually eager to please, Jason was a kind of model seminarian in the early part of his formation. I had entered the seminary the year prior to Jason and could watch, at a distance, as he won the reputation among our instructors of “a man who really understands what we’re trying to do.” As long as he knew he was being sized-up, he played the part expected of him. Gradually, though, the hard scrutiny passed. He sensed he was “in,” and as the pressures came off, so did the frequent congratulations and encouragements of his relatives and family.
Jason had taken vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. At first, while he was still aglow with admiration at his own generosity, these vows seemed only too easy to keep. When it came to be that he was no longer in anyone’s spotlight, they began to rankle.
Poor in Spirit
Poverty was the first to go—not drastically, of course, but step by step. When the ordinariness of his life began to take its toll, Jason would console himself with little pleasures, trivial acts of self-indulgence: an extra Manhattan, an expensive dinner, a night at the theater or the movies. He acquired, partly by gift and partly by redirecting money meant for books, an unusually elaborate stereo system. All of his wardrobe was nice and most of it unnecessary. He accepted the offers of friends to use their beach condos for vacations, and he could always find someone to lend him a car or a credit card in a pinch. During this time his devotion to the cause of the oppressed intensified rather than slackened, and the seeming contradiction caused little comment among his superiors—among those whose opinion counted, at any rate.
There were two reasons for this. In the first place, the practice of priestly abnegation was generally viewed as part and parcel of an older style of religious life, of a piece with an entire fabric of tradition and sentiment which was certainly provincial and often harmful. Personal austerity was thus regarded as a regression, a return to the mentality of the Catholic ghetto, not as an element of spiritual growth. Secondly, there was an unspoken but clear message given by his contemporaries that a certain kind of naughtiness was becoming in a priest, and even added to his effectiveness. The ground was uncertain here, and it was of course never put into words, but Jason correctly surmised that some kinds of inconsistency were prized because it was assumed that the real unity must occur at a deeper, more spiritual level; moreover, a priest who discreetly evidenced a disregard for some rules could be relied upon not to be doctrinaire about others, not to be a pedant. He was a sound man, a man not of the Letter but of the Spirit.
Jason now began the study of theology that, after four years, would culminate in his ordination. Although the discipline was mild, he found even minimal restrictions more and more irksome, like pieces of sharp gravel lodged in his shoes. Even a request that he notify someone of overnight absences seemed an unreasonable and gratuitous insult. In addition, for the first time in his life, Jason was brought face to face with the teachings of the Catholic Church. He was appalled by what he found. One might ask how Jason could have gone so far in the program without having made such a discovery earlier, but it must be remembered that it was his imagination, not his intellect, by which he made his way into the seminary, and this imagination was fascinated by a picture of the life of a priest for which the Church was merely a backdrop—red paint and gilt pillars—with no history or reality of its own.
Concomitant with the shock of meeting the Church for the first time, “terrible as an army with banners,” a Church whose Mass and inertia seemed entirely contrary to the anti-authoritarian ideals on which his notions of ministry were based, Jason encountered an equally unsettling fact: his homosexuality was no longer a dead letter. I have misled you if you have formed the idea that Jason had been at any time unchaste. Neither in high school, nor in college, nor again in the seminary had he stumbled. Even when he finally admitted his tendencies to himself, he never seriously contemplated the possibility of acting on them. But things changed. Several of his classmates were open about their own homosexuality, and openly contemptuous of anyone who found it incompatible with priesthood; for the first time in his life he was taken to a gay bar, and, though he did nothing but drink and joke, and had no idea what he was leaving and what he was entering, he sensed he had crossed a kind of Rubicon. The slow erosion of his vow of poverty had worked in two ways to make the problem more acute: a habit of voluptuousness, of ever-so-slyly illicit pleasure, had borne him gently but surely from the sensualities of alcohol and sunbathing and the Jacuzzi to the threshold of sex. Moreover, since he had learned to live in defiance of one of his vows without calling down the wrath of heaven or his superiors, there was no longer any horror of oath-breaking that stood between Jason and his appetite. The only question was what he could get away with.
To do him justice, Jason was frightened at his own predicament. There had been no conscious duplicity or fraud on his part when he decided to become a priest, but now he realized with peculiar clarity that there was never any renunciation in his decision, no severing of the umbilical cord that bound him to the World. On entering the seminary he had left behind no riches, real or imagined—nothing, in fact, but the mental picture of distressed parents and an empty apartment. What was worse, he understood just as clearly that there was no turning back; he was no more capable of telling the seminary rector than his family the real basis of his vocation.
Meanwhile, the more he learned about the Church, the more it was obvious to Jason that Catholic doctrine and the moral authority that flowed from it formed the two greatest obstacles to the fulfillment of the sexual promptings and political schemes which burned insistently inside him. Jason was no fool. He understood perfectly well that the “life of gay abandon” (as one of his friends expressed it) could not co-exist with Catholicism. One or the other would have to be sacrificed. Earlier he had simply assumed that it was his sexual inclinations that were to be trammeled, or at least deflected. Now, under the influence of politicized gay acquaintances, he began to think differently. The rhetoric of conspicuous compassion and the political dogmas that had formed his mind over the years made the next step so obvious that he was unaware when it was taken: the problem (he decided) isn’t with me, but with the Authority that won’t recognize who I am. Unconsciously Jason was baptized into the churchlet of the Self, that coziest of all congregations, as he wryly mouthed a parody of an earlier Baptist: “The Church must decrease, that I might increase.”
Jason was adept at handling the vocabulary of oppression and liberation, and he began to shift the focus of his passions for social justice from the familiar capitalists and generalissimos and train them instead on the Church itself—or rather, on the hierarchical Church. He developed a profound hatred for the Masculine, an idea that in the heat of his disgust took on an extraordinary solidity, an idea that comprised everything rough, male, unyielding, unanswerable, aggressive, black-and-white, nay-saying. The fevers of indignation and lust brought out the histrionic side of Jason, and in his imagination the pope and bishops were not only tainted by the hated Masculine, but were its archetype, its caricature, its Platonic ideal. Yet Jason did not become a gay activist or even “come out.” Instead, he took up the causes of women’s ordination and repeal of the prohibition of contraception.
His motives for championing these two causes were varied, and operated on different levels. Jason’s political canniness told him that both issues struck near the heart of the teaching Church, that is, they called into question the basis of authority full stop. He told himself, “Cut the carotid artery, and the whole magisterium is dead meat.” But in a more elemental way he understood that if the connections between maleness and priesthood and between sex and fertility could be shown to be arbitrary (and then severed), an enormous weight would be lifted from his own shoulders. So, in his seminary classes and in the high school confirmation lessons he gave on weekends, he cast himself in the role of women’s advocate, arguing that in sexual matters they were victims of cruel and obtuse male hierarchs. Once again, the seminary faculty viewed his enthusiasm with satisfaction, as a sign of intellectual independence. Almost all of them, for various reasons, were of the same mind as Jason on the Big Issues, though they were generally more discreet in expressing themselves. Jason was by no means out of the ideological mainstream of his contemporaries, and when the time came he was unanimously approved for ordination by the evaluation board.
Ironically, the ordination ceremony itself was the lowest point of Jason’s career. As he lay prostrate on the marble floor of the cathedral, listening to the names of the martyrs and saints winging overhead, he felt for the first time in his life the weight of the ancientness, the appallingly heavy majesty of the Church, and it nearly crushed him. He hated the Church for its solidity; he hated himself for his flimsiness and duplicity. He cursed his parents, his professors, his classmates. He envied the simplicity of the man stretched out next to him; he envied him the possibility of taking it all seriously, of not having to be jokey or flippant or camp, of being able, if only for a few moments, to accept the Sacred at face value. Most of all, Jason envied him the chance to find in all this weight a Rock to cling to or a Temple to serve, instead of a hostile flattening pressure that squeezed out the breath until one suffocated.
It was largely because of his own ordination ceremony that Jason decided to become a liturgist. Jason was an excellent actor; he felt both the power and the limitation of symbols. He was no longer under any doubt as to what he was up to; it was imperative for him to “trans-value” the entire symbolic structure of the Church—imperative not politically, but personally. It had become a question of survival. When the dean of the seminary offered him the chance to lecture in sacramental theology, he jumped at the opportunity.
Jason needed ambiguity; he needed it not as some men need alcohol but as all men need oxygen. Sharp boundaries, clear distinctions, univocal meanings—all such things were for Jason devices of asphyxiation. Clarity was the prime bogey, the Enemy Number One. Clarity divided the world into a chessboard, and Jason hated the white squares yet couldn’t bring himself to stand in the black. He thrived on the greyness in which his homosexuality and his priesthood could co-exist, nuzzle each other, tease each other, without ever having to make a final reckoning, a definitive choice. A stray line of Ronald Knox, muttered in sarcasm by one of the “unreconstructed” faculty members, had pierced Jason to the core:
What matter whether two and two be four,
So long as none account them to be more?
What matter whether black be black or white,
If no officious hand turn on the light?
That verse gave Jason the program of his campaign as a liturgist. The key was not to turn on the light, to make sure that the right questions were not asked, to blur every boundary and cloud every distinction; this, and only this, would give him the air he needed to breathe.
Jason was under no illusion that he could simply replace the doctrines and symbols themselves (his ordination had convinced him of their endurance), but he knew that, by pumping a multiplicity of meanings into the words and gestures that made up the tapestry of the Church’s life, he could effectively geld them of their impact—in the first place by sowing doubt as to whether a”right” meaning existed, and in the second place by gently foregrounding a more expedient meaning as the most basic or fundamental one. Jason noted with satisfaction that this was precisely the course taken by other gay priests who worked in moral or dogmatic theology. The game was to say, first, “Nobody really knows what doctrine X means.” Next, “Whatever X means, it can’t mean Y (what you always thought it meant).” Then, “If it means anything at all, it would have to be Z.” And finally a whisper after hours to the interested few, “Just between us, Z is what the real theologians would have been saying all along if they were free to.” If the battle cry of the older theologians had been “DINSTINGUO!” the murmur of the moderns was “CONFUNDAM.”
It must not be imagined that Jason was in any sense conspicuous, either for his beliefs or his behavior. He had not announced publicly that he was gay, and the mildly effeminate mannerisms he exhibited were scarcely distinguishable from the affectation of tenderness that passed for sensitivity among his clerical colleagues. Further, inasmuch as making his views clear was the very opposite of his intention, in the rare instances when someone raised an eyebrow over a position he took, Jason was provided with plenty of orthodox cover into which he could retreat: the high grass of deliberate double entendre. Of course, most important of all was the fact that no-one, and least of all his bishop, wanted to ask closely about doctrine, even when it was suspected that a priest might be sailing too near the wind. The chancery shuddered at the prospect of enforcing doctrinal discipline even more than the faculty feared to be its victim; and so, paradoxically, the strategy of maximum ambiguity worked to the advantage of both. Jason was able to operate well within the accepted bounds of creativity.
The strategy of ambiguity took several forms in Jason’s campaign. Perhaps the simplest was the linguistic trick of always substituting a generic term for the specific, so that, for example, the Mass was always a “liturgy,” and the celebrant was always a “presider.” In the first place no one could say the general terms weren’t true, but more to the point was the fact that the use of the vaguer and less familiar word abetted the process of unmooring the traditional meanings that Catholics connected with the specific one. Thus, once “presiding at liturgy” came to mean both what a priest does at Mass and what a nun might do at a prayer service, the semantic shock of a woman presiding at the (Eucharistic) liturgy will have been reduced to naught. Further, the feeling of arbitrary injustice in the Church’s allowing women to preside at some kinds of liturgy and not others could be greatly intensified. “Blur,” Jason said to himself as he started Mass, “obfuscate, nuance, mystify.”
Jason’s First Law of Liturgy (confessed to no-one but himself) was, Just So It Ain’t By The Book. Initially Jason deviated by “shocking the bourgeoisie”—importing dancers in leotards to present the offertory, inventing rituals out of whole cloth to enact on the altar, dealing throughout with maximum informality. It worked, but it provoked some complaints. Later he decided on a subtler, more effective approach. He stuck fairly close to the traditional forms of piety, but he exaggerated them, and used them to interrupt the anticipated course of the Eucharist. Once he pulled a rosary out of an empty chalice just before the consecration and invited the worshipers to join him in praying a decade “for the marginalized.” Many people were vaguely upset, but who could object to the rosary, or to his fervor? “Game. Set. Match,” Jason chuckled to himself as he tripped down the aisle for the recessional.
Jason was especially shrewd at exploiting the fact that, in the minds of most Catholics, the notion of “priest” was inextricable from that of “sound Church teaching,” so much so that the priest was often granted an almost oracular reverence, as if he were not the servant of doctrine but its source. Nor was Jason blind to the irony that he for whom the teaching of the Church meant nothing at all until it began to interfere with his life should turn this sentiment to its destruction. In his most solemn and didactic voice, he would explain to his classes and congregations that his deviations, his ever-so-subtle adjustments of meanings, were expressive of a “good theology,” in a way which made it perfectly clear that the older usages were not. So, for example, he might wear the green chasuble of ordinary time on the feast of a martyr, explaining that green, the color of life, stood for the value of human life that the martyr embodied. A positive sign, he would stress, not a negative one. Or again, just to keep others off-balance, he would bow profoundly before the tabernacle on some occasions, and utterly ignore it at others. To do it always in one way would edify, to do it always in another would get him written off; the trick was to keep God’s people guessing, to keep meanings in flux. “If thou hast been unfaithful in small things,” he reasoned, “yet shalt thou be unfaithful in great.” And so, little by little, a millimeter at a time, edging, doubling back, making strategic retreats and cautious advances, he ensured that the vision of the Faith was always just slightly murkier after Mass than it was before. Jason was pleased with himself. He could breathe again.
Then one day he returned from Mass to find a message slip on his desk. A friend from earlier days, a man who had left the seminary before ordination, was ill. Could Jason visit? With a sickening sense of foreboding he drove to the hospital and asked his way to the ward. As he made for the door pointed out to him at the nursing station, Jason tried to “switch on” his customary bedside sunniness, but on stepping into the room his breath seemed to be punched out of his lungs by the sight before him. He stood in silence for some moments, trying to find in the patient’s eyes, unnaturally large over the hollowness and pallor of his cheeks, some resemblance to the exuberant, dandified wag with whom he had crawled the bars and lampooned the bishop. While he struggled to find words of greeting a nurse hurried into the room; the look with which she took in both patient and visitor pierced Jason more deeply than anything she could have said. She gave a strained smile and chirped (just a little too cheerfully, Jason thought, for Jason was an excellent actor), “Good afternoon, Father,” and turned to her patient.
In an instant, in the twinkling of an eye, Jason’s world was unmade. He had the sensation of a man who has spent his entire life looking through what he believed to be a telescope, only to find to his horror that he was the specimen under a microscope instead. He wanted to shake the nurse and ask her, “What did you mean by that?” He wanted answers; he wanted . . . clarity. But he merely stood by dumbly and watched her find a vein in his friend’s arm, insert a thin steel shaft, and then fill a plastic tube with dark blood while she chatted about the weather. As Jason saw the nurse push a wad of cotton against the vein while she withdrew the needle, he noticed she was wearing rubber gloves. “Well, that can mean more than one thing,” he said to himself.
* * *
Four years later I concelebrated at Jason’s funeral Mass. One of the Scripture texts was mine to read: “Go, and learn the meaning of the words, ‘It is mercy I desire, and not sacrifice!’ “I tried to keep my mind on the readings and the homily, but my eyes, against every effort to the contrary, kept straying back to Jason’s family in the front pew. His sisters wore identical masks of controlled disgust, as if they were doing unavoidable business with a public official whom they knew to be corrupt. His father looked simply stunned; his lower lip still dangled slightly in shock, and his eyes, every few minutes, would detach their gaze from the casket and wander over the sanctuary—a man looking for the answer to a riddle that was too deep for him. But it was Jason’s mother who really got to me. She had none of her daughters’ detachment or her husband’s vagueness. Her face said, WE HAVE BEEN BETRAYED. She knew her own mind, and ours too.
After Mass I started to walk up to Jason’s mother to offer my condolences, but, knowing that I couldn’t answer the question she would ask, I shied off at the last moment. No funeral is without ironies; death itself is an eironeia, a feigning, when set against the fact of the Resurrection; yet as I made my way down the steps I remembered a line from a book I had read in my own seminary days—something about the hardness of God being more merciful than the softness of men—and it struck me that it was precisely this hard mercy that none of us had had the guts to extend to Jason. We were promiscuous with the love that costs nothing: compliments, petty indulgences, the banalities of “affirmation,” yet nobody was willing to pay the full price of compassion. Meanwhile, the Church of Jason’s boyhood—both the sham-Gothic building we were leaving and that eternal communion of saints and martyrs—remained solid, still, unperturbed, as a lasting reproach to our softness.