Inadequate—and blameworthy—are expressions of sympathy for the abused that disguise the elephant in the rectory. The first responsibility is to call things by their right name.
By Maureen Mullarkey, September 28, 2018
The editorial board of the New York Times declared it had identified the source of “The Catholic Church’s Unholy Stain.” It names pedophilia and asks: “How have so many pedophiles been allowed into the priesthood?”
The question was purely rhetorical because the board had an answer ready. It cited the usual grounds: “the all-male priesthood and the celibacy imposed on Catholic priests; the elitism, careerism and clericalism of the church hierarchy; the lack of transparency or accountability among bishops.” Most damning is “the power a man of God has over a child.”
Every parent knows instinctively that sexual abuse of the young and vulnerable is an evil that cries out for punishment, swift and severe. Anything less mocks the harm done by abusive priests. Equally inadequate—and blameworthy—are expressions of sympathy for the abused that disguise the elephant in the rectory. The first responsibility is to call things by their right name.
Ignoring the Issue Will Prevent Addressing It
To casual readers, duly angered, the Times’ charge sounds about right. More thoughtful ones, however, will hesitate over the word pedophilia. With few exceptions, sexual abuse by priests has been visited overwhelmingly upon pubescent boys, and young men, most often teenagers. This is pederasty, not pedophilia. And pederasty is endemic to gay culture. (For an unsparing indictment of that culture by a gay man, read Jason Hill’s “Loveless, Narcissistic Sex Addicts” in The Federalist.)
Without intending to, the Times’ studied determination to ignore homosexual predation as the culprit parallels the Catholic Church’s dilemma. How is the hierarchy to work at “restoring trust, instituting accountability, and eradicating the cancer of sexual abuse” without acknowledging a subject inoculated from judgment by reigning opinion?
Homosexuality has been normalized, officially approved, ratified, and okayed. Since the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from the roster of mental disorders in 1973, activists have parlayed homosexuals into a protected species, more like black rhinos or orangutans than moral beings. The church’s ancient description of homosexuality as an “objective disorder” is dismissed as the last gasp of the 19th-century Society for the Suppression of Vice.
Why Celibacy Isn’t the Problem
Before going any further, stop for a moment on the matter of celibacy. The credibility of the priesthood is in the dock when celibacy is presented among root causes of sexual predation. To say that it is imposed suggests it is something done to a man against his will, more like castration than a free choice. Yet no man is forced to become a priest. Priestly celibacy is both a free choice and a free gift.
Unchosen celibacy, by contrast, is the condition of many men—and women—who are celibate by happenstance: no opportunity for marriage presented itself; marriage was disallowed by health problems, disability, or disfigurement; a spouse was removed by divorce or death. Many single people live without alternative. Yet no one would be so doltish as to believe unsought singlehood leads to rapacity.
Just so, it is grossly simplistic to present marriage as a cure for sexual predation. Andrew Greeley, both priest and sociologist, was a passionate, outspoken advocate for victims of abusive priests. No naïf, Greeley was also a vigorous defender of the celibate life: “Anyone who thinks that marriage or sexual relations solve many male (or female) problems has not paid much attention to the human condition.”
The church is not a museum, as Pope John XXIII quipped. We are called to live in, to leaven, the times in which we find ourselves. Perhaps the pressure of numbers on vocations will cause the discipline of priestly celibacy to be relaxed in the by-and-by. But that is for conscientious men to decide for reasons beyond the ken of a Times’ editorial board. And it would not abolish the beauty or efficacy of a celibate vocation, faithfully and joyfully lived.
Meanwhile, the words of moral theologian Bernard Häring still resonate. In 1996, two years before he died, Häring wrote that celibacy, rightly understood, is not a form of ascendance over laity: “To the contrary, celibacy expressed as ‘life in Christ’ and ‘love in Christ’ is the sum and center of the priestly celibate life.” He concluded:
An especially one-sided philosophy or psychology that emphasized self-fulfillment is unlikely to find meaning in sexual continence. Above all, it is joy in the Lord, coupled with generous service to the Gospel on behalf of God’s people, which gives sexual continence its deeper meaning, thus making it a positive experience. However, only persons of deep faith can come to this realization.
Homosexuality Is the Opposite of Taboo
That brings us back to homosexuality. Has there ever been a time when men—and women—with homosexual leanings have not been drawn to life in the church? Likely not. The Vatican’s own history testifies against the notion. There have been homosexually oriented priests, prioresses, and probably a few saints. (St. Philip Neri: “What we know of the virtues of the saints is the least part of them.”)
Down the centuries, stigma against same-sex activity—and all non-marital sex—was universally accepted by a society that was Christian by birth, including those to whom censure applied. However much forbidden behavior might have been engaged in, it did not challenge the norms of Christian conduct. A sense of sin, drawn from the Hebrew bible and coupled with insistence on the perfection of the Christian life, saturated the air breathed by saint and sinner alike.
Moreover, sanctions were inhibiting. Outside rarefied court culture—and such elite precincts as the Platonic Academy of Renaissance Florence—consequences were severe. (Our word faggot evokes the kindling used to burn heretics or embroidered onto a miscreant’s clothing as a badge of infamy.) Forces of disapproval were powerful agents of deflection and redirection, or sublimation, as we like to say today. Virtues were forged in the furnace of interiorized prohibitions.
Those constraints are gone, the brakes shot. They have been psychologized and conjured out of existence. Western man lived between God and Satan until relatively recent times. John Milton’s audience grasped the truth of the myths of Moloch and Belial. Ours does not recognize the names; it would mock them if it did. Gay is so okay that militant sexual nihilists now feel free to move the goal posts from gay marriage to transgenderism as the new frontier of civil rights.
The First Place to Start Is With the Truth
Seminaries function in the midst of this sea change in public morals. Tainted air does not stop at the seminary gate. Modernity is not about to be rolled back. What to do?
We can begin by calling things by their right names. A rhetorical smokescreen has been up since the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. In the late 1970s, before the HIV virus had been identified, the medical profession witnessed what it called GRID or “gay-related immune disease.” Instead of encouraging withdrawal from the “gay lifestyle,” identification of the virus prompted activists to mobilize in safeguarding their sexual conduct. Psychiatrist Jeffrey Satinover, in “Homosexuality and the Politics of Truth” (1996), wrote:
The first priority was to protect homosexuality itself as a perfectly acceptable, normal, and safe way of life. Massive interventions were designed and funded to a greater extent than with any other illness, but none were allowed to target the number one risk factor itself, homosexuality. Even treatment to help those homosexuals who fervently wished to change came under fierce attack . . . .
In the early ’80s, the first move was a name change. GRID was changed to AIDS, or “Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.” A spreading lethal disease was disassociated from its cause, from specific sexual practices peculiar to a limited population.
In a replay of that sleight of mind, pederasty—the erotic attraction of older men to younger ones—has been stricken from our vocabulary. Pedophilia, sexual attraction to prepubescent children, is the governing usage, the controlling conceptual category.
It scapegoats the priesthood as a deviant caste while it shields a hierarchy in which apparently active homosexuals go unrestricted. They create commissions, hold conferences, and tout “safe environment” protocols to handle near-nonexistent pedophiles while they protect themselves under the pretext of protecting children and the prestige of the church.
Protecting People Is More Important than Image
The Catholic Church is not breaking up, as some contend. But its institutional manifestation is at a definitive crossroads. Upper management can follow this debased pontificate further into the embrace of temporal powers and principalities. Or it can brave the decisiveness that theologian Romano Guardini called for seven decades ago: “It must strip itself of all secularism, all flabbiness and eclectic mixtures.” Higher clergy must distinguish themselves more sharply from all ambitions destructive of the Judeo-Christian ethos on which we depend.
Higher clergy must distinguish themselves more sharply from all ambitions destructive of the Judeo-Christian ethos on which we depend.
If church officials acquire the grit to admit the nature of the scandal, what then? The renewed hounding of Christian baker Jack Phillips by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission gives us a hint. Courage is needed to place the wellbeing of the young—and truth itself—ahead of concern for institutional image. Catholics see their own shepherds frightened of losing the approval of a secular order they were ordained to sanctify, not appease or emulate.
In 1997 the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) issued “Always Our Children,” a lengthy, appropriately compassionate pastoral letter to parents of homosexual children. In 2017, the best it could do in response to predation by predominantly homosexual clergy was this: “Each month, supported with your prayers, the Secretariat of Child and Youth Protection offers a rosary for the healing of those who have been sexually abused, and for the protection of minors and the vulnerable.”
More to the point was Cardinal DiNardo’s latest statement, made in the wake of the McCarrick scandal: “We have failed you.” But even here the underlying origin went unnamed. Zero-tolerance policies, safe environment training, “victim assistance coordinators,” and the like are of small use if the leading cause cannot be acknowledged.
Maureen Mullarkey is an artist who writes on art and culture. She keeps the weblog Studio Matters. Follow her on Twitter, @mmletters.