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Book illuminates a life of illusion

by Paul Dinter
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 240 pages, $23


Looking over the 40-odd books concerned with the clergy sexual abuse scandal, this memoir by Paul Dinter promises to be one of the most helpful. It was originally announced as The Diary of a Married Priest, but obviously “the other side of the altar” where the active clergy reside is now more interesting than the world of a married priest -- more interesting because ominous and frightening.

Dinter, author of two other recent books and important articles in Commonweal and The New York Times, does not disappoint the reader. Life in the priesthood of our era, he recounts, is a no-man’s-land. You can easily match it to that dark, underground, almost-all-male, violent world of “Lord of the Rings.” You don’t want to be there.

The text can be uneven, with lapses in the story for unnecessary lectures on ecclesiastical topics, but the book remains a great, if sobering, read. Dinter’s ministry experience is often nightmarish, starting in the minor seminary (“a prep school for delayed adolescents”) and continuing through ordination, doctoral studies, pastoral work, campus chaplaincy, and a sabbatical to the Vatican, “the Men’s Club on the Tiber.”

Throughout his 39-year journey, Dinter kept the rules while keenly observing the strange milieu. One wonders why he did not take his leave earlier. A priest’s world these days can be surreal, and has become so in the popular imagination. No more Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald, “Boy’s Town” and “Going My Way.” It’s a profession laid waste. Priests hide their identities in public. The historic one-year summary of the U.S. clergy abuse scandal in The New York Times Jan. 12 -- a two-column front page spread, plus 10 uninterrupted facing columns inside with graphs, time summaries and photos (one of Dinter) -- is redolent of the start of a war or a walk on the moon. Nothing will ever be the same. The trust that once surrounded the clergy has turned to fury. Abuse of children? With bishops complicit? No more!

The collapse of the clergy mystique is happening in slow motion. The foundations of the structure are cracked: It’s all coming down. The colossal crash will be historic, and may even enter encyclopedias of religion alongside the Crusades and the Reformation.

Dinter ends his chapter on his last year in seminary and being ordained with a handful of stories about sexual misbehavior first in the seminary -- which had become “permissive” -- and later in the priesthood and episcopate. His comment on the training -- “The environment isolated us permanently from some of the most important developmental challenges adolescents face” -- is a ray of light on the scandals. His narratives here are sour and shocking, until you connect them with the avalanche of scandal now before our eyes.

He is in effect claiming that a numbness has taken over in clerical culture. The abuse of children, it seems, is only another form of the sexual misconduct and exploitation many men got used to in the seminary and have come to expect in the clerical system. It is a corrupted atmosphere, in Dinter’s experience. If so, no one should allow a son or friend to enter a seminary to be endangered by it.

The author faces the issue of sexuality straight on, and records what he observed in the seminary, first the “masculinity police” enforcing everything male, then the gradual acceptance of homophilia as part of the scene. Dishonesty and illusion were important factors for both gays and straights, with people in charge as bewildered as anyone else. With repression the order of the day, chaos has resulted, and no amount of lobbying for a return to the past will help.

Blaming homosexuals for the problem is vicious and simple-minded. In my own experience as a Catholic and as a priest, I’ve found that gay men make excellent, in fact, some of the best, priests. It would be suicidal for the Vatican to banish them. What must be banished is the illusion that sex is the enemy and celibacy makes for holiness.

In the future, those elected to lead the church must be people beloved for their charisms, with a proven record of healthy, faithful relationality whether gay or straight, male or female, single or coupled. Obviously the dynamics of priestly “vocation” have been flawed, with tragic results. The entire system must be reinvented, with choices returned to the people in the pew, that is, to the church -- and out of the hands of the career churchmen.

Dinter’s is exactly the kind of book that the church needs: honest, judicious, plain. He lets the facts speak for themselves. His experience will become evidence in the task of inventing the future of Catholic ministry. Reading the story, I came to admire the modest, honest, thoughtful author who is determined to tell it like it is, no matter the awkwardness. It could become an important book because it records the obsolete, soon-to-be-gone clerical system. This kind of account is as important to the church as the Gulag diaries are to the history of the Soviets, a record of an illusion-filled life so bizarre no one would believe it if it hadn’t happened.

William Cleary is a former editor at America magazine and author of Prayers For Lovers (Forest of Peace).

National Catholic Reporter, January 31, 2003