In the midst of the news of a convention for sado-masochists (“Beat me in Saint Louis”) and the Supreme Court making the Internet safe for virtual child pornography, a growing chorus—no, cacophony—of opinionators on clergy sex abuse swells with familiar but contradictory melodies.
How unexpected, that some former priests who have questioned celibacy now find the pedophilia scandal proof that celibacy is the problem. How strange that longstanding opponents of the Second Vatican Council have discovered that Vatican II is the reason for clerical misconduct. How remarkable that people who have long ago rejected the church’s teachings and traditions on chastity think that the church’s teachings are to blame.
A prediction: Almost every commentator will miraculously come up with a solution that perfectly mirrors his or her ideology. You will be hard pressed to find a liberal who suspects that the liberalization of sexual morality has anything to do with it. You will not be able to find a conservative who even asks the question whether women’s ordination might be part of a solution.
We do know this. Those who actually kept the rule of celibacy and were faithful to the vow of chastity, whether they were liberal or conservative, have not caused this problem. And yet it is chastity and celibacy that are most under attack.
If a columnist writes that “everyone” is getting sex, we know one thing. That person, and presumably all the people he or she knows, is getting sex. If someone says that no one can live without sex, we can be pretty sure the speaker feels he himself cannot live without it. Such common cultural opinions, opposed to basic Catholic teachings, inform us more about the opinionated than about the world.
The great danger in our responses to the abuse scandal is that ideologies alone will be proposed, not the reform of our lives. Whether it is the ideology of homosexualism or homophobia, of masculinism or feminism, of clericalism or anti-clericalism, vested interests swoop upon the issue like senators swarm over a new pork-barrel bill.
A basic question we will have to face is whether we actually affirm and adhere to the Christian virtue of chastity. It still is a virtue, you know, despite the mantra of the last decades that chaste makes waste. Married couples are called to practice chastity, even if it requires great courage and restraint. Single people, whether by choice, fate, celibate requirement or vowed covenant in community are called to live chaste lives.
Some commentators think chastity is impossible. By their account, you cannot be fulfilled without sexual union. The only way to find love is to find a sex partner. Anyone who disagrees with such an account is presumably either a liar or a repressed ghoul. This claim just does not compute with my 40 years as a Jesuit. I have met countless married people, singles, celibates and religious—as well as, yes, even today, graduate and undergraduate students—who are chaste. If any of them fail, they know they are wrong. They repent. They strive to amend their lives. And they are neither liars nor repressed fools.
An old Jesuit, now near 90, said to me as I approached ordination, “You need a great love, equal in strength to the great goods of marriage, children and sexual fulfillment, if you are to live a celibate life.” Such a love of others, close or far away, and love of the church, the people of God, ultimately is impossible without a persistent love of God and of Jesus Christ who is love incarnate. By following him, studying him, seeking to accompany him, one finds oneself drawn into a love that not only radically challenges our sexuality, but our relationship to power and money as well. (Notice, by the way, that it is not sex alone, but sex, power and money all woven together into this scandal.) By most naturalistic accounts and almost all acculturated accounts, it is not merely chastity that is foolish and impossible. The whole Christian narrative is silly. Cultural myths become “reality” principles. “Money talks.” “Look out for number one.” “Everybody’s getting a little on the side.”
We Catholics are poised at a time when we must ask ourselves whether we believe that sexual intercourse is a human expression of love appropriate only to a married woman and man or whether the cultural account is correct. More deeply, we must ask ourselves whether we indeed aspire to any kind of Gospel holiness in matters sexual, political and economic. These are questions for every believer, whether in the humblest church pew or on some archbishop’s throne.
And so, dear bishops: Whatever you say or do, do not say or do it like Nixon and Clinton. Do not have a public relations firm do it for you or say it for you. Do not have your lawyers craft your words. Speak out of your faith and the Gospel of our Lord. If you do not, you may well not deserve to be bishops, for that Gospel and faith are your only legitimacy.