D Gregory Smith

"Among The Flutterers" Explains A Lot

Filed By D Gregory Smith | August 15, 2010 5:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: Colm Tóibín, Maureen Dowd, scandal. Catholics, Struggles with the church, The Pope Is Gay

In the London Review Of Books, Colm Tóibín reviews The Pope Is Not Gay by Angelo Quattrocchi, and comes up with a mind-numbingly simple analysis of clerical culture, social norms, gay priests and ecclesiastical/institutional fear. As I was reading it, I was simultaneously flashing on my own childhood, adolescence and early adulthood as a priest.

I swear he was in my head. A sample:

This is almost an aspect of the Catholic religion itself, this business of knowing and not knowing something all at the same time, keeping an illusion separate from the truth. We knew that the bread and wine, for example, were literally and actually changed into the body and blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ by the priest at Mass, and, at the same time, we must have known that this was not the case, that, really, they remained just bread and wine.

This is one of the best treatments of clerical culture, fashion, gay power and hopefulness in the midst of despair that I have read in years. And it just gets better from there.

emph. mine

The shame an adolescent felt about being gay in those years should not be underestimated; the feeling that you were less than worthy, that if people found out the truth about you they would despise you, went deep into your soul. This was another reason to become a priest. You could change your own powerlessness into power. As a priest, you would be admired and looked up to, you would spend your life - as so many Catholic priests have indeed spent their lives - doing good and being good. And being seen to be good, being needed by the sick and the dying, being wanted to officiate at weddings and baptisms and funerals, saying the sacred words which would mean so much to the congregation, all this would offer you a fulfilled and fulfilling life. Becoming a priest solved not only the outward problem of forbidden and unmentionable sexual urges, but, perhaps more important, offered a solution to the problem of having a shameful identity that lurked in the deepest recesses of the self.

This idea of knowing two things at the same time has been essential to gay people in other ways. Gay people have known that our sexuality was actually, despite what we read or were told, quite normal, quite natural; it was only the world that thought otherwise. While the world's view often ate into the self, there was another part of the self which remained intact, confident, sure. Introspection, the study of the self, for gay people became necessary, fruitful. The struggle between our knowledge and their prejudice often meant that a spiritual element in our being - something private, wounded, solitary and self-aware - had reason to come to the fore and seek nourishment in a close relationship to God. This is another reason so many gay men have become priests.

This was so true for me - and judging by our conversations, for many of my seminarian/priest friends. But it doesn't stop there. Tóibín looks at Ireland, Europe, secularization, the sex abuse crisis, celibacy, Maureen Dowd, clerical wardrobe changes and the Pope's handsome secretary, explaining all with such common sense you want to invite him to lunch, or for the weekend.

If you want to understand more deeply my struggle with the church, or maybe your own read the full text here.

It explains a lot.


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Awesome piece, Gregory--thanks for stumbling on this!

I followed the link and read the entire critique. One of the most fascinating and enlightening pieces I've ever read on this subject.

Excellent, indeed. One of the most expansive and insightful treatments I've read in ages. Andrew Sullivan thinks so, too.http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2010/08/the-pope-is-not-gay.html

1. The term in the article by Toibin, "confused about one's sexuality" requires some further analysis. I think that many of us were not "confused", but grew up in a culture and in circumstances which demonstrated to us that our homosexuality, already realized by us, was not going to be an asset in life. In fact, depending upon how many times you had been bashed, called queer or sissy, or urged by family to take up a rough team sport, there were lots of young gays of my generation working hard to "play straight" or seriously wondering if maybe the lack of attraction to the opposite sex was in fact a "vocation". It is true that the priesthood looked appealing to many who thought that not only would they no longer be ridiculed, but they would be instantly esteemed. Furthermore, no worries about needing fake girl friends, everyone in the clergy is celibate.
The bottom line in Catholic culture's hierarchical system which promotes ass-kissers, rather than seekers of Truth, is the same lesson as in the fable, "The Emperor has No Clothes."

2. Maureen Dowd and family grew up in Washington, DC. When her brother quotes the police chaplain, I am sadly reminded that this chaplain was posthumously accused of several instances of diddling with altar boys during trips to his out of town trailer by the beach. Just a few years ago, these instances resulted in some law suits.

I think you're right Drake. I was not confused by my sexuality as a kid, it was pretty clear to me. I was confused about what to do with it and how it (and I as a whole person) could fit in to a world and a church which so obviously hated (or at least ignored) homosexuality.

Terrific piece, and very insightful comments, Drake & Gregory. I love Colm Toibin this side of idolatry, (or at least this side of Wilde-olatry). His take on the spirituality of many gay men finds echoes in Whitman (and Wilde too), Edward Carpenter, even Isherwood and Harry Hay. Fascinating and funny, a glorious read!! Thank you, Gregory!!

Thanks! I'm a huge fan, too.
Keep reading and commenting Hugo- that's what makes this site great!

I am assuming that the chaplain that I referred to in my above comment was named Joseph Dooley. I am not aware of any other chaplain that they had in that era. See Washington Post article of June 11, 2009.

Coibin's essay is on my reading list, when I find time this week. but it's definitely been making its rounds.