Faith. Gays. Abortion. Pedophilia. Women priests. Bishop Jaime Soto fields the hard questions.
Born the eldest of seven children in a Mexican-American family near Los Angeles, Jaime Soto used to play Mass in his backyard with his siblings, pretending to give Communion and take confessions. Little did his parents know that their son’s pretend game as a youth would turn into the real deal. After attending the seminary, Soto was ordained to the priesthood in 1982. He went on to receive a master’s degree in social work from Columbia University in New York, then proceeded to climb the ranks in the Catholic Church. While serving in Orange County, Soto, one of few Hispanic bishops in the United States, urged compassion for AIDS victims and became known as a strong supporter of immigrant rights. But Soto was controversial in other realms, once writing a letter in support of a Catholic priest who had been convicted of sex-abuse crimes. Also, he became a vocal opponent of gay marriage. In November of 2008, Soto was appointed bishop of the Diocese of Sacramento after the retirement of his predecessor Bishop William Weigand. The diocese is huge—encompassing 20 counties—and is responsible for the multitude of Catholic churches, elementary and high schools, and other institutions encircled in them. When SN&R publisher Jeff vonKaenel heard that Bishop Soto enjoys a good debate, he requested and was granted an interview as well as a follow-up. “I am aware of the strong love as well as the anger that many people have for the Catholic Church,” said vonKaenel. “I thought this would be an opportunity for [Soto] to answer some of the tough questions that his supporters as well as his detractors would ask him if they had the chance.” The following is the edited text of their conversation.
Jeff vonKaenel: Bishop Soto, we have 349,000 readers each month, and many of them do not attend services and are not hooked up with any religious organization, Catholic or otherwise. How would they benefit if they joined your faith and attended your services?
Bishop Jaime Soto: I believe that participating in a faith community, and in the charitable works of a faith community, helps us to really discover our own humanity. In our society, we place a great deal of value on freedom. And the Church understands freedom as going out of one’s self toward God and toward others. Whether that’s the divine other or “God”—or whether that experience is mediated by our reaching out to one of our brothers or sisters in need. … I think, ultimately, people have a longing to connect to something that’s bigger than they are.
One of the things I really like are the Catholic high schools and their immersion experiences—where students go to local places like Loaves & Fishes or actually travel to New Orleans or Mexico and really immerse themselves into the experience of poverty and gain a sense of connection with the poor, with the marginalized. And my hope is that out of these unique experiences comes a commitment and habit of seeking ways to live with solidarity with people who are on the margins. And that’s not just an occasional thing, something to do around Christmas. That becomes a habit.
I think that’s what religion does, helps people see beyond themselves.
I’d like to ask some questions about a few “hot button” topics. First, why are there no women priests? My daughter is 18, and she hangs out with a lot of girls from St. Francis High School. And these girls are very smart, very capable and are on their way to successful careers as a CEO of a company or whatever. But the organization that means so much to them won’t let them into the top realm of leadership. You won’t let them become priests.
Well, I’ve been to St. Francis, and I actually get that question quite frequently. I am very aware that many of our young people who feel at home with the Catholic Church and appreciate Catholicism find themselves very influenced by the culture they live in. And oftentimes, rather than use the Church to critique the culture, they’re using the culture to critique the Church, particularly on the “hot button” issues.
When you look at the history of the Church, particularly here in the United States, women have had tremendous opportunities, and long before their contemporaries in other countries. For example, very powerful Catholic health-care institutions here in the Sacramento area were started by women. And an understanding of what the Church did for the role of women in the United States is completely not appreciated; it’s just written off by the secular culture. And many young Catholic women and many women in general have, in a certain sense, accepted without question the critique of the secular culture for their own institutions. And I think that’s probably unfair.
But even if the 17-year-old girl gave you credit for that, why not the whole loaf? Why does the boy in her class get to become a priest or cardinal or bishop and not her?
The identification of the priesthood with men has been a part of the culture, a tradition of Catholicism since the beginning. And the issue of women becoming priests is one that is mostly confined to the United States and Europe. It’s not an issue that has been raised by the Church around the world. … I guess there’s a tendency to believe that America is ahead of everybody else, that we’re smarter than everybody else, that the rest of the world needs to catch up with us. I don’t know if the Asians or the Latin Americans or the Africans would agree with us. In terms of the tradition of a male priesthood, that has been a long-standing tradition and that has existed alongside the Church’s support of women in society and within the Church.
If someone said we never had an African-American astronaut before, and that’s our tradition, and if an African-American said he wanted to be an astronaut—I mean, we couldn’t say that he’s being denied because that’s our tradition. He’s just being denied.
Well, we have to wrestle with this; we’re still wrestling with it. And right now we’re going to respect the tradition that has served the Church and yet, at the same time, a tradition that has promoted women in both society and the Church in significant ways.
I want to bring up a similar topic. We have a lot of gay readers at the News & Review—what role do they have in the Catholic Church? Is there a welcome mat out to our gay readers who grew up Catholic?
The welcome mat is definitely out, because the good news of the Gospel is for everyone. And I think it is good news, and I think it is a message of hope for everyone. I recognize that for many gay people, as well as others, that there are certain parts of the Gospel that are hard to accept. I still encourage people to come hear us, to come be part of the community life, be part of a parish, because I do believe that the Gospel is persuasive, and I do believe that we have a message that gives hope and a message that saves. It’s important for us, as it was important for Jesus, to leave the door open so that people can hear us and know us and make their decision as to whether they can walk with us.
So is homosexuality a sin?
That someone has a same-sex attraction or orientation, that is not a sin. I don’t know, I’m not a DNA expert, to know how much of any of that is part nature or part nurture, we—all of us are very complex people. But homosexual activity is a sin, as we understand our sexuality as a gift and also as a responsibility. And so we have to use that gift as God intended. For us, sexual intercourse is the expression, the loving commitment, the bodily expression of the loving commitment of a man and a woman.
The New York Times published a story on gay priests and gays in the seminary, and it quoted Catholic scholars saying that somewhere between 25 and 50 percent of people in the seminary are gay. A) Do you think that is true? And B) If so, what kind of conflicts does that create?
I don’t think that that is true. I guess I haven’t looked at the research that closely, but I would doubt that from my own experience. It would probably reflect the numbers in the general population, whatever that is.
That would put you in the minority for people commenting on this issue.
Well, I haven’t looked at the research—that’s my own sense about it; I don’t think that it’s more than the general population. Anyone who is in the seminary, whether you are heterosexual or homosexual, you go to the seminary with the understanding of the kind of lifestyle that you’re called to live, and if you can’t live that lifestyle—if you haven’t lived that lifestyle, better said—you know, a celibate lifestyle, and if you haven’t lived that, you’re not going to be able to get into the seminary. And if you definitely can’t live it, then you’re not going to be ordained.
Let’s talk about priests and celibacy. It seems clear that you’re losing many good potential priests because you don’t allow priests to marry and have families.
Well, the Catholic Church … we take our time with considering some of these questions. I will say that the issue of married clergy came up at the last synod, an international convening of bishops. And the question was: Does celibacy inhibit our ability to provide access to the Eucharist for the people of God? And that’s a very good question. It’s a different question than married clergy. Also, I think that the life of the priesthood is a very demanding life. And demanding not just because of celibacy, I think that the life itself requires a great deal of sacrifice. Young people—they want to be bankers, they want to be lawyers, they imagine being able to have a lifestyle even better than their parents. Comparatively, the life of a priest is highly countercultural. So I don’t think that celibacy is the only “disincentive.”
I hear what you’re saying. But unless I missed something, the religions that don’t have celibacy, they have an excess of people that want to be clergy. The Catholic Church, which has celibacy, is having a hard time recruiting priests.
Well, I don’t know enough about the other churches in terms of what their statistics are, and so I guess I am unwilling to get into a kind of comparison. But I don’t think that putting aside the celibacy thing is going to solve that. What ultimately will solve the issue of vocations is really, in a certain sense, challenging young people to take up the challenge of the priesthood and religious life. And I think young people do have a sense of being called to something more. I think being a priest is a countercultural call. And I think that there is a value to the celibate call. There is still a value for living a celibate life.
OK, if we could go into a polling booth and pull back the curtain, and no one knows which way the bishops of America are going to vote here, do you think they would vote to overturn celibacy?
No, the American bishops wouldn’t. I think that the question of a celibate clergy is still an open question. I personally believe that there’s a value in a celibate clergy, and I also believe that even if there were a married clergy that that wouldn’t necessarily solve our recruitment problem. We have a Church that’s growing while many other churches are dwindling, and I think that we’ve seen in our own institution the growth of lay ministries that have exponentially increased our ability to do good works. You know, issues like these—women priests, married priests—it goes back to what I was saying about how the culture criticizes us as opposed to the Church criticizing the culture.
I guess my point is that we have a very vibrant and dynamic institution that has what I consider a lot of “good” problems—the issues of leadership and trying to cultivate enough priests and manage growing and vibrant institutions; we have the issue of multicultural communities that put tremendous demands and challenges on priests; and we have thriving health care, thriving education, thriving social-services communities. But yes, we have problems, institutional problems—and that’s what makes my job interesting.
Ha ha! I don’t think anybody is going to doubt your job is interesting …
I could be presiding over a dying Church. I’m not.
One of the big realms where our readers might be confused about the Catholic Church might be that despite all the Church’s work on social outreach, poverty programs and immigration reform—there’s still a sense that the Church’s opposition to abortion trumps everything else.
Oh, that’s not true. In the eyes of the culture, yes. But not for us.
No one has been denied Communion that I know because they voted against poverty programs, but they’re denied Communion if they vote on abortion.
They’re somewhat different issues, OK? First of all, abortion is the taking of an innocent life. And so one can be against abortion because of what it is; it’s a very clear moral “no.” How do you solve the immigration problem? How do you solve the poverty problem? You know—there could be a lot of different ways to do that. Now the question is, if you intentionally and determinately believe that taking an innocent life is OK, then—not that I am going to deny you Communion—maybe you better ask yourself, do you really believe in what we believe in? You have to ask yourself the question. So they’re somewhat different issues. Now, if you were to ask what kind of mail I get on issues? I get more angry hate mail on immigration than any other single issue. And yet my position is very clear. And the Church is identified as one of the leaders on immigration issues. And yet very few people bring that up. What they’d like to bring up is the one you just brought up. The abortion issue.
I was in your lobby. I picked up The Catholic Herald—
Well, abortion was the theme of that issue. The next issue will be a different theme.
I assume that the sex scandals forced some changes in the Church. I’m sure people would be interested in hearing a quick comment on that.
There’s no doubt that in terms of the history of the Catholic Church in the United States, this has been a very dark and shameful chapter—first of all, for the victims who suffered such terrible abuse; and then for the rest of the Church, both clergy and laity, as they came to understand what had been inflicted on these people.
But one thing I think that the abuse crisis did is that it has made the Church much more transparent. Some would say that we haven’t gone far enough. But I think that there’s no doubting that the experience that we’ve been through has made leadership understand transparency and accountability in a way that the hierarchy did not understand before. And I think that’s a good thing. Not only just the hierarchy, but even the laity have an expectation of transparency and accountability. When I meet with people, there’s no apology to ask questions of how are decisions made, and what are the finances and other things.
How did the pedophile scandal impact you?
Well, the priesthood is a fraternity. Personally, I’ve always been a believer that none of us is a priest alone. And so it’s been very painful for me personally, because I’ve come to know the victims, and then I’ve also known the perpetrators. And there is a sense that these perpetrators failed us, and betrayed the Church and betrayed the priesthood. And there’s also a sense, as being bishop, for me as a priest, that we failed in serving the Church when we didn’t do the things that we should have done in the past. We do a much better job today. I expect that we will live with this scar. I will live with this scar for a long time.
Knowing both the perpetrators and the victims must be a hellish position to be in.
People expect so much from the Church, and they expect so much from priests, and the priests are very human as well. Because we are human, we are flawed. And this particular human dynamic that flaw is very, very important. As ugly as it is, it’s also in moments like that when I have to rely on God’s grace, because I’m not going to be able to heal the victims; only God’s grace is going to do that. And myself as bishop, and other bishops, we’re not going to heal, we can do what we have to as bishops, but we’re not going to heal the Church; that’s going to take God’s grace, God’s providence to do that.
Let’s go back to that young person who loves the youth programs, loves the ceremony of the Catholic Church, loves the poverty programs, supports you on immigration, supports you on the death penalty—but they just cannot drink the Kool-Aid on the opposition to birth control or abortion. Are they welcome to still come to church?
Oh, absolutely, I want them to come. The Church is a community of sinners, you know. But that doesn’t mean that I’m going to compromise the message that I preach. It’s a challenging message. Because I have to walk in the shadows of people like St. Francis, Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, St. Vincent de Paul. And I’m not perfect either, but I have to do the best I can to try preach that Gospel.
The beauty of Catholicism is it has a message that attracts everyone. It’s a challenging message, a message in some sense wrapped in mystery, but yet at the same time it affirms the beauty and the grace of humanity in a variety of cultures and languages—and that is a beautiful tapestry that allows all of us to share in the love and mercy of the Lord Jesus. I guess I can only say what Jesus said to the two disciples that asked, “Lord, where do you live?” And he simply said, “Just come and see.”
The Church has done so much good in society, and yet the culture is so determined to say, “Those Catholics, they’re so crazy”—they have this thing about “They treat women bad,” and I know many Catholics get influenced by that. But I think they need to be reminded of all the good we do and of the hope we bring to American culture and society.
I think that, for the Catholic community, there is sometimes the temptation to believe that we should withdraw and let the culture go forward. I believe that would be a mistake. I believe that it’s important for us to engage the culture. And to engage it, what I think this interview has been about, but also to be clear about who we are and what we’ve done. What it means is answering the questions that are asked [of] us, and I think I’ve tried to do that in the best way I can, but it also means for us to challenge the questions.
When you look back on this century or the last century, the Catholic Church went through many changes, Vatican II being the biggest example. Lately, though, the Church seems to have gotten more conservative and harder to change. If you were to predict where the Church will be 20 years from now …
I don’t know. Because in 20 years, you are reaching the level of fiction. … But I think we’re going to see the Church in Africa and India grow to greater prominence. The Christian population, and then the Catholic population, in India will probably always be a minority, but in such a huge country, the size of the Catholic population will be significant in terms of the rest of the world. So I do think that the Church experience of those two countries will affect us internationally.
I think that, in some sense, the American Church has a very limited experience of what’s possible. … It’s not a matter of saying, “When are they going to catch up with us?” I think that particularly, you look at India—you know, India could potentially be not just catching up, but a rival of American economic power along with China. It makes all the decisions we make more difficult, because we as a Catholic Church have this great regard for culture, which has been one of our key contributions and insights to religion and culture, and yet at the same time, we try to keep this that we’re also Catholic. And it won’t be easy.
I’m on the Habitat for Humanity board here in Sacramento. And the international Habitat board comes up with certain rules that they want us to follow. But when we try to apply these rules, given the economics of California housing, it’s just impossible. Is the American Catholic Church faced with a similar situation where principles that make sense on an international basis—maybe celibate priests, no women priests, restrictions on birth control—are concurrently going to make it impossible to have a functioning Church in America? And if you apply those rules and go forward, are you looking at a train wreck?
This will not be a direct answer to your question, but let me try this out: About every 10 years, the bishops in Latin America have these big general meetings, and in the recent conferences, they’ve invited North America—Canada and the United States. I went as part of a small U.S. delegation to be part of that meeting. While I was there, a bishop from Mexico asked this question of the body: Are we in an age of change, or are we in the change of age? You know, it comes across better in Spanish. The change of “epic.” And hard to imagine still, even though we talk about globalization, the impact of what globalization will do to not just the Church, but to us, the United States and to the world.
Will the Church survive? Will the U.S. survive, as we understand it today? The Church has endured much more, has been around for a while and has endured epical changes. I don’t want to necessarily say that we’re going to endure this one, but I believe we will, but my belief is probably more upon religious hope than it is on any kind of sociological proof.
You’re mentioning right now, and I don’t mean it in a critical way, but you’ve mentioned in this interview many issues that have to do with the sexual revolution that’s taken place here in the United States and is moving across the world with globalization. But right now, we’re actually in a biotechnical revolution that could make the sexual revolution look tame in comparison—all of those advances could potentially produce more dramatic changes than—and more challenging social changes—than what we’ve been talking about today. Globalization has the potential to bring a lot of good to both the Church and the world, but it also has the potential to bring a lot of harm.
I believe that, pulling back from an old metaphor, we’re kind of like the ship of Peter going into very troubled waters. But at the same time, I remember Pope John Paul borrowing from some of Jesus’ words from the Gospel, which says, “That’s our job, we’ve got to go into deep water.” So I don’t know what our future is, but I’m willing to go along for the ride.