Stunted Teaching on Sex Has Role in Church's Crisis

By Sidney Callahan
The National Catholic Reporter [Queens NY]
Downloaded March 21, 2003

The effects of the sex abuse crisis in the American church aren't going away. A host of issues concerning church government and accountability continues to surface. Everyone from the bishops on down may agree that change is needed, but when it comes to specifying reforms, disagreements bubble up

Deep and fundamental differences, for instance, emerge when it comes to the future role of the official teachings of Roman authorities on matters of sex and gender. Two opposing agendas for the church directly conflict.

One traditional group sees our current sex abuse troubles as stemming from past and present infidelities of priest perpetrators to Pope John Paul II's articulation of sexual teaching. In this view, sin and evil are recognized as always present, but abusing priests have been led to violate their vows of chastity and celibacy because of the debilitating permissiveness toward sexuality that pervades both the church and the culture. Offending bishops did not exercise their proper authority of oversight and correction, in part because they, too, were infected by the climate of laxity and infidelity to the church's sexual teachings. Granted, the bishops had to cope with the '60s sexual revolution and bad psychological advice, but, goes this indictment, infidelity lies at the heart of the matter. Many seminaries have been remiss in not adhering to the strict theological and practical formation necessary for priests.

The solution? In this neoconservative diagnosis, the American church and its leaders must conform more strictly to the church's sexual teachings as articulated by the Vatican. Disobedience to the hard sayings of Christianity produces sin and hinders the church from being a countercultural force. Courage is called for; the bishops in their teaching roles must reassert the ban on artificial contraception, on women's ordination, on married priests, on remarriage of the divorced, and most important, the ban on homosexual activity, particularly in the seminaries and the priesthood. Only then will health and integrity be restored.

To get with this program, dissenting Catholic laity and theologians, along with wavering bishops, must be shaped up to obedience. The seminaries must be set straight on sexual matters and, if need be, purged of dangerous influences. It may even be a good idea, say some, to ban the ordination of homosexuals to the priesthood.

I cannot agree with the above analysis and agenda in good conscience. I belong to that large centrist, reform-minded group of devoted Catholics who affirm the creeds, the scriptures and the teachings of Vatican II, but have come to a far different diagnosis of our current sexual abuse troubles. Indeed, I see the present teachings on sex and gender as contributing to the current disarray. The last thing we need is a reaffirmation of rigid teachings, which are seriously flawed morally and theologically.

Yes, I agree with the conservative assessment of our sexually permissive secular culture as destructive and dangerous to men, women, children, families and the unborn. But I don't think our present Catholic stance is helping the situation. The official Catholic teachings on sex and gender are too inadequate, stunted and skewed to help engender mature chastity in either a celibate or marital vocation. The distortions on sexuality also weaken the church's moral authority in the crucial work of the pro-life movement and for peace and justice.

While Vatican II marked a positive turn toward accepting human sexuality as a gift of the Creator, no adequate theology of the body and sexuality has been developed since. Paul VI's post-council reaffirmation of the ban on contraception in Humanae Vitae was a sad regression. Giving in to conservative fears, the pope reversed the recommendation for change offered by the majority of the birth control commission he had appointed. In effect, he repudiated the testimony brought by married lay members on the burden of the teaching. He also ignored the opinion of theologians and others. The message given then, and ever since, is that the experience of the married laity, and the value of sexuality can be discounted.

Not surprisingly, the widespread theological dissent from Humanae Vitae has been accompanied by disregard for the teaching by the American laity and the majority of their parish priests. While bishops must pledge their adherence to the ban on contraception to be appointed, one wonders how many truly believe that the majority of their faithful laity, priests and theologians are wrong. While conservatives would see only disobedience, dissenting Cath-olics see in Vatican teaching an authoritarian reassertion of the older fear and disdain for sexuality.

Further rejection of the value of sexuality is signaled by Vatican refusals to consider a married priesthood in the Roman rite, the forbidding of sexuality to the divorced and remarried, and the absolute prohibition of any sexual activity in committed homosexual unions. Women's welfare and dignity are also seen as threatened when contraceptive methods (that are not abortifacients) are repudiated.

The traditional overemphasis on biological procreation rather than psychosocial generativity belies the lived sexual experiences in a changed social world. John Paul II may have apologized to women for past wrongs, but his refusal to allow discussion of women's ordination and his strictness on sexuality is seen as a de facto repudiation of women's full sexual partnership in the church.

The pope upholds his particular view of the complementarity of the sexes (which he finds revealed in the Genesis creation narrative commanding procreation) and concludes that in the church there exists a female Marian principle (no ordination) that complements a male Petrine principle (ordination). Granted, John Paul II has made efforts to defend the goodness and sacredness of married heterosexuality in his prolific writings, but his insistence upon gender complementarity and the ban on contraception ensure that his teachings fail the needs of ordinary persons. The pope's romantic rhetoric is not received beyond a minority.

While Christian teachings and understanding of sexuality and gender have been evolving over the centuries, at this point we are caught in both an underestimation of the positive power of sexuality to engender love, unity and transformation in committed couples, and an overestimation of the moral, psychosocial and theological significance of gender identity (mostly female). These inadequacies are systemically interrelated and thwart change. Authorities fear that if the ban on contraception and procreative gender complementarity is relaxed, then the way is opened to homosexual unions, which would further threaten gender complementarity, which in turn would threaten the ban on women's ordination, and so on.

All of these lingering denigrations of sexuality and women have played a part in the sex abuse crisis. Both perpetrators and their bishops were formed in a seminary system upholding official teachings that either disdained sexuality or denied its positive power and importance in personal development. There was a biological emphasis upon procreation and the dangers of lust. In a climate of distrust, silence reigns. Future priests could hardly be well prepared for the challenges of mature chastity, interpersonal integrity or ministry to the married. Sexual lapses could end up being equated with drunkenness, as just another instance of individual sin.

Slighting the importance of the interpersonal dimension of sexuality leads to a minimizing of sexual abuse. When the psychosexual value of sexuality is not recognized, it is easy to deny the enormity of the damage that sexual abuse can do to a young person's development. If abusing priests had been dosing young persons with growth-inhibiting hormones, would the priests have been so easily forgiven and secretly reassigned?

Secrecy and denial in a segregated clerical system made it easier for perpetrators to hide. Women, still defined as dangerous and denied equal status, could be kept at a distance and their witness discounted. Mothers, fathers, nuns and other family members, as lay persons, remain without a voice, until they call in the law or the media.

Needless to say, within a distorted sexual teaching focused on reproduction and the danger of adult women, homosexual encounters could be seen as safe from consequences and remain relatively invisible. Illicit sexual activity is more likely when there is little openness or value given to sexual maturity. Homosexuality remains so officially taboo that it is off the moral screen and outside the system -- in theory, if not in practice.

So what to do? Obviously children and young people must be protected. This lesson has been learned. But can moral integrity be restored if authorities rigidly attempt to enforce conformity to problematic teachings, especially in the seminaries? Instead, new efforts should be expended to develop a more adequate Christ-worthy theology of sex and gender. The sense of the faithful must be consulted. Courage is needed to initiate more honest discussions and to dispense with deceptions.

But where or when can we have truly free, open dialogue to confront conflicting agendas? In the universities, in diocesan synods, in newly formed lay commissions, in local and ecumenical councils?

Hope arises only from the faith that the Holy Spirit has led us since Vatican II to acknowledge that we are a learning church, ever reforming, ever on pilgrimage. The sex abuse crisis may force us to admit that we have a long way to go to develop and appropriate the riches of our Catholic sacramental tradition. We believe in the goodness of sexual embodiment, the goodness of committed love, and in gender equality, but working these affirmations out will not be easy.

Of course, all Catholics recognize the perpetual presence of sin and self-deception. Humility means to remain teachable and to keep a willingness to be persuaded by our sisters and brothers in Christ. But humility and a love of the church cannot countenance silence, especially not at this time.

Sidney Callahan is professor of moral theology at St. John's University, Queens, N.Y.


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