Monday 20 January 2020

We could all learn lessons from Maynooth scandal

We can snigger at clueless clerics, but this scandal says more about us as a society than the state of the church, writes Donal Lynch

QUESTION: Why does an organisation that disapproves of gay people still attract gay people? Stock Image
QUESTION: Why does an organisation that disapproves of gay people still attract gay people? Stock Image
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

'So I suppose this makes me like Annie Murphy", I said to the recently ex-seminarian sitting on the edge of my bed. He smiled wryly at me. This was the early 2000s, we were still very young, and post-coital banter felt like a strange kind of progress - gay sex in Ireland still had a furtive air to it. And every extra taboo we could violate - including a religious vow - made the whole thing even more exciting.

A relationship would not have been possible, even if we had wanted it. The years of pent-up sexual energy this man had accumulated had by now given way to even more years of reckless promiscuity. That began in the seminary itself - at least five of his classmates had been gay - but it quickly became untenable to stay there. Even then there was a tipping point for rumours.

After he left Maynooth, even by libertine gay male standards, his single-minded pursuit of new encounters was legendary. In the years after we first met there were tales of his life that seemed alternately swashbuckling and tragic.

Through the addictive fog of this behaviour, little glimmers of insight came to this man. He told me the years in the seminary had not made him like this. Joining it was supposed to have been a solution to an obsession. He had grown up in a world that had told him that his sexuality was bad. Like a lust-obsessed Victorian this shame and secrecy around sex had placed it at the centre of his life. The seminary seemed like the logical panacea. And yet it only made things worse. As Camille Paglia said of the church scandals in the US, "when the wires go underground they raise their voltage."

I thought of the seminarian this past week as the situation in Maynooth developed. It has been a curiously enjoyable sex scandal. It has a storm-in-teacup aspect - the harassment element aside, nothing is greatly at stake. The hypocrisy is delicious. There are no children involved, which makes it easier to read about than most clerical scandals. It reinforces everything we already think about an out-of-touch and secrecy-obsessed church.

On Twitter, on television and on late night radio the jokes have flowed thick and fast. The young men at the heart of the story seem to embody St Augustine's confused prayer: "give me chastity… but not yet."

The question was asked over and over this week why an organisation that disapproves of gay people would still attract gay people - presumably modern, young, relatively liberated gay people - to join its ranks. The implication is that the church should soul search about this question, but the church will probably take any priest it can get at this stage. Moving the seminarians around, as the hierarchy did, might seem like a stupid move in hindsight, but perhaps the seminarians were being given one last chance at self-control. The fact that these priests seem to have been gay, or at least bisexual, does make the stance on homosexuality look even more hypocritical, but you imagine the hierarchy would still be concerned if there had been heterosexual harassment and straight sex apps being accessed. Either way it would have been a scandal.

Read more: Crisis in Maynooth: Growing disquiet about scandal won't just go away

The real question seemed to be what was in it for the young seminarians? Why are a seemingly disproportionate number of them gay to begin with? Why does the Holy See in Rome have, what Paddy Agnew called, "more gays per square inch than anywhere else in the entire world"? Are these men in denial about themselves? Did they simply not have the strength of character to live up to their commitment to the organisation they joined and the god they believe in? Or are they just the latest sign that the church will always fall on its own sword?

The answer to that is tied up in an understanding of the guilt every adult Irish gay person carries with them about their sexuality. Of course the marriage referendum changed things hugely, but the memory of a time when 'gay' was a slur word, gay bars were borderline speakeasies and David Norris was the only Irish gay man in existence, are still very fresh.

Every gay person has dealt with a horrified and tearful parent. The message from society was: your sexuality is the worst thing about you. Anyone who survived that carries the marks of it.

It's no wonder that many people would respond to this conditioning by seeking out celibacy. Irish people have a great facility for martyrdom. I have even known gay people who have chosen a kind of secular celibacy. They thought it would be easier for them, easier for their families. In diet terms it is a type of purge, an ill-advised attempt to be too pure. It is little wonder that after a while, for many of the seminarians, the binging began.

The celibacy my friend attempted in Maynooth, and the bacchanalian excess of the newly liberated gay world he emerged into, are two sides of the same coin. Both are defined by a kind of pathological intimacy avoidance. While our headlines were dominated by gay seminarians, this week in the UK the biggest gay-related story was the debate around the introduction of PREP (the HIV prevention drug) on the NHS. As with the Maynooth story, the PREP debate is presented as oppression of gay people by a possibly homophobic organisation, but both could also be characterised as symptoms of an unhealthy relationship with those who are being oppressed and their own sexuality.

In this country the HSE has already started conducting research into the rapidly increasing prevalence of chemsex - gay sex and drugs, basically. That such research is now needed is nearly as tragic as the seminarians going blind on Grindr every night. Ayn Rand was right when she observed that sex is too important for promiscuity or chastity. That Maynooth and chemsex - which gave its name to the recently released movie - have been two of the biggest Irish gay stories in the year after the referendum should probably give us a little insight into how far there still is to go in terms of a healthy understanding of gay sexuality. When you have a group of people who are so disconnected from themselves that they want to try, however half heartedly, to stop having sex altogether and another who need to have so much unprotected sex with strangers that they need to take powerful antiviral medication to prevent themselves getting terminally ill, you know something is wrong.

Not just with the church or the health system, but with the wider society that these young men are drawn from. Maynooth is a scandal we can have a cosy little snigger at because it looks like it's about clueless clerics. But really it is about us.

Sunday Independent

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