A name I hadn’t thought about in a while came back into the news last week: John Cummins, the retired Bishop of Oakland, California. The story has been widely covered: Cummins, who served as bishop in the 1980s and ’90s, wanted to laicize one particular predatory priest, Stephen Kiesle. In 1985, Cummins wrote several letters to the Vatican office of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who would have had what was essentially the final say on defrocking priests for sexual abuse and other grave sins. Ratzinger, who of course is now Pope Benedict XVI, was exceedingly reluctant to grant Bishop Cummins’ request to remove this pedophile from the priesthood, suggesting that the scandal of the laicization might do more damage to the church than Kiesle had done.
I meet Bishop Cummins in early 1988, when I was seriously considering the priesthood. A brand-new convert to Rome, I was a junior at Cal. I had fallen in love with God and the church, and was dividing my worship time between the campus Newman Center (run by the liberal Paulist Fathers) and the Dominicans (whose small seminary was right across the street from my co-op on Ridge Road.) I met with several Dominicans in Berkeley and Oakland, as well as various priests and officials in the Oakland Diocese. Even though I had a girlfriend at the time, and even while I was volunteering as a peer sexuality educator on campus, I began to explore the idea that I had a vocation to serve as a priest. I began the discernment process, though without breaking up with the woman I was seeing or interrupting my progress towards my bachelor’s degrees at Berkeley.
Though I had fallen in love with the Dominicans, it was my Paulist spiritual advisor, Father Al Moser, who helped clarify for me that I was not called to be a priest. I met with Al not long after I had had a brief meeting with Bishop Cummins, a meeting that had left me on fire for the priesthood. (Not because of anything the bishop said; it was more what I what projected onto him when we had a quick little talk after a mass in Oakland.) Father Al said, “Hugo, most young men who make it in the priesthood are answering a call, not running away from something. And I think if you’re honest with yourself, you’re running away from something.” He was right — I wanted the certainties I imagined would come with being a priest. I also imagined, as I know many young men in my position have imagined, that a life of public celibacy would magically make my sexual struggles vanish.
In my late teens and early twenties, the struggle I had around sexuality was not about my orientation. I had had some attraction to men, but recognized that the passions of my heart and my body were primarily, albeit not exclusively, directed towards women. I certainly didn’t struggle with attraction to anyone age-inappropriate. Rather, I was having trouble reconciling my feminism with my own sexual ferocity. I was compulsively promiscuous and dishonest; the gap between my desire to see women as my true equals on the one hand and my desire for novelty, validation, and sexual release seemed impossible to bridge. I imagined that if I took a vow of celibacy, God would grant me the strength and the courage to live up to that vow. And I would be able to love everyone, men and women alike, without objectifying them.
I went back and forth in my college years between different strategies for reconciling my sexuality with my humanity. I worked for the university’s Peer Sexuality Outreach program, leading workshops on safer sex, consent, and relationships. I took women’s studies courses (there was no “gender studies” program in those days), and sought an academic and intellectual understanding of sex. And I converted to Roman Catholicism and explored a vocation, hoping to find a way to take all of that rambunctious sexual energy and redirect it into something purely selfless. I was a not terribly unusual, though rather persuasive, bundle of neurosis and compassion, shame and defiance, narcissism and generosity. Thank heavens Father Al called me out on what I was trying to do, and gently suggested I needed to rethink my strategy for reconciling my sexual impulses with my ideological and theological commitments. Continue reading