By Anthony Esolen / August 1, 2018
More than fifty years ago, a group of prelates, priests, and cherry-picked leaders in Catholic higher education published the so-called “Land O’ Lakes Statement,” a declaration of independence made on behalf of Catholic colleges from the oversight of, and from influence by, the Holy See, local bishops, and the magisterium of the Church. The ostensible reason for it was that the Church was seen by its secular counterparts as retrograde and sluggish in producing scholars and statesmen of international recognition. That is, Notre Dame, the school whose president, Father Theodore Hesburgh, led the signatories, was not yet Harvard, Yale, or Princeton. A petitio principii if there ever was one, for why should Notre Dame have wanted to be one of those schools, which were all in the very quick process of abandoning most of their classical and Christian heritage?
We know, of course, what was at issue here. It was a preemptive strike against what Pope Paul VI would issue in 1968, namely the encyclical Humanae vitae. For the business of contraception, abortion, fornication, and every other sexual sin for which there is a name was on the table for reconsideration. A mere ten years later, the authors of Human Sexuality: New Directions in American Catholic Thought (1977), would find it somewhat difficult even to condemn sexual activity with animals, let alone anything else that human beings might do, so long as they did it with the appropriate funny internal flutter (if I may adapt Frank Sheed’s wonderful phrase), a flutter of love, whatever love is, and mutuality, and sincerity, and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
I bring the matter up, because one of the signers at Land O’ Lakes was the now disgraced Theodore Cardinal McCarrick, at that time the president of the Catholic University of Puerto Rico. McCarrick was also one of the main movers in Dallas in 2002, when the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops twisted themselves into pretzels so as not to bring up the staggeringly plain facts of the clergy sex scandal. That is, more than four-fifths of the victims were boys, and most of those boys were big kids, not little kids—big enough to resist the advances of a grown man. They were seduced, not overcome by sheer physical force. That, as I’ve said elsewhere, does not make the deed less miserable. In a crucial way it makes it worse, because the boys were inveigled into cooperation with their own defilement, and so they could never say that they had no part in it.
In an interview with USA Today, from June 2002, speaking about the upcoming conference in Dallas, McCarrick tries to parry the whole question of homosexuality. When the interviewer brings it up, he engages in another petitio principii: for the real question is whether someone who has engaged in, and who feels a strong desire to engage again in, actions contrary to nature and to the division of the human race into male and female, suffers from a severe moral and psychological syndrome, one that would disqualify him from the priesthood or from any line of work that would put him in contact with boys and young men. So, responding to the suggestion that homosexual men not be admitted to the seminary, McCarrick makes the standard move, balancing homosexuality with heterosexuality:
“You want someone who can live a chaste life; that is key for me. If somebody who would like to go into the seminary says, ‘All my life, I’ve tried to be chaste, I’m a heterosexual, and I have tried to be celibate, and I have proven that I can be,’ I think you say ‘Fine.’ If someone says to you, ‘All my life I’ve tried to be chaste, I have a homosexual orientation, but I’ve always tried to be chaste,’ I think you do that one case by case. Probably beginning in this next school year, the question of admission to seminaries will be discussed. It might be that the overwhelming weight of opinion will say that homosexuals should not be ever admitted to seminary. I’m not there yet. But if that’s what they tell me to do, then that’s what we’ll do. Certainly, I’m there if we say anyone who has been active in a gay life should not be admitted.”
I detest having to parse a bishop’s sentences, but when he will not speak frankly, he leaves us little choice. We notice that all that is required of the homosexual here is that he has “tried to be chaste.” I can try to hold my place on the field of battle. I can try hard to do it, and then I can run away. I can try not to sin. But in the cases of fornication and sodomy, trying is not good enough. We are not talking here about sins of intemperance, including what used to be called self-abuse. We are talking about sins that you actually have to plan in advance, as McCarrick himself did. It may be difficult to refrain from the lewd thought or the untoward glance. It is not difficult to keep your clothes on.
We should perhaps not say that McCarrick was a flat liar when he uttered that final sentence: “I’m there if we say that anyone who has been active in a gay life should not be admitted.” He may by then have repented of his deeds, after all. He may also be slurring the word “active,” or the word “life.” Never underestimate the human capacity to draw distinctions in our favor. A man may say, “Pornography is not a part of my life,” and mean it, while still he views it once in a while, casually—as if it were something he stumbled upon at times, or at least did not strive too hard to avoid. A man may say, “I am not an active adulterer,” because he has not committed adultery in several years and has no intention to do so in the near future.
But what has all the turmoil in the Church and in Catholic colleges been about, ultimately? Not controversies over the Trinity, not scholars hurling books at each other’s heads for misinterpreting Augustine, not even profound disagreements over such important matters as evolution, the character and the dangers of democracy, the licit use of money, or the relative blessings of work and leisure. Not community and what it is, not culture and why it is fading, not the duties we owe to both our ancestors and our posterity. Nothing of that. Consider Land O’ Lakes and the recent revelations regarding Cardinal McCarrick to be bookends on a shelf, and every book between the bookends is about nothing more respectable, nothing more complicated, and nothing less grubby than how to do what you want with your groin and have a nice day afterwards.
ANTHONY ESOLEN is professor of English Renaissance and classical literature at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, N.H. He is a prolific author and has translated several epic poems of the West. He is a graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina. He is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.