Last week, over a hundred Catholic bishops gathered in Rome for a conference that addressed the problem of child sexual abuse by priests.
The church, and the general public, have known about this problem since the 1980s, when complaints began to surface in the United States. The Vatican chose, at first, to regard it as a localized phenomenon.
Then, over the ensuing decades, thousands of reports of abuse came in from Canada, Ireland and Australia, then from the continental European countries, and finally from Asia, Africa and South America. The church has finally been forced to acknowledge that the problem is a global one.
The Vatican has made some efforts to address the problem, but its reluctance to take measures to punish the higher-ranking church officials who have participated in the cover-up of the crimes of the priesthood has been conspicuous. It has acted, it seems, only when public outrage has left it no choice.
No doubt the conference was a positive step, though critics of the church pointed to a problematic, age-old conviction of the Vatican, viz. that it, and it alone, has the responsibility of disciplining priests, even when they commit civil crimes that the secular justice system is willing, and able, to deal with.
After four days of discussion, the Pope closed the event with a proposal for a new set of corrective measures. Most observers were disappointed at his failure to suggest concrete and decisive steps to solve the problem.
My own suggested solution was probably not considered by the bishops, but seems to me to be the only just and effective one: declare moral bankruptcy and close up shop.
That may seem a somewhat radical solution, but, in my view, the problem is not just the criminal behavior of priests and the tolerance and concealment of their crimes by the church hierarchy. At the root of the church’s betrayal of the trust of Catholics around the world are the mistaken and misguided tenets of Catholic doctrine. To put it bluntly, the church’s conception of human sexuality is oblivious to what science tells us, and distorted by shame, ambivalence, fear and self-interest.
On the one hand, Catholicism takes the view that the sex act originated in disobedience and mankind’s fall from grace. It is therefore forever tainted with shame and guilt, and the pleasure it produces is only a temptation to sin.
On the other hand, the church teaches that God created human nature, and did so with intelligent and benevolent intent. Since it’s evident that humans’ urge to engage in sexual activity leads to procreation, the church decided that that was God’s intention, and declared that God has ordered mankind to multiply and have dominion over the earth.
So, as repugnant and insidious as the church believes the sex act to be, it is, in one respect, a good thing — but only in that one respect. Sexual intercourse is permissible only when performed with the right intention (to procreate); with the right motivation (to obey God); and under circumstances specified by the church.
The church sets itself up as the overseer of sexual activity. It asserts that sexual relations are only licit with the church’s cooperation, i.e. within marriage. It has urged married couples, especially during the era of the “early church,” to have sex only out of a sense of duty to God, and to have it as infrequently as is consistent with that duty. Needless to say, any attempt to prevent conception — an outright defiance of God’s wishes — is forbidden.
The church has always known that one consequence of this doctrine, when combined with its insistence that all progeny be raised within the faith, is a rapid increase in the population of faithful Christians, over whom it would have authority. The resulting benefits to the hierarchy in terms of societal control, power, and wealth have certainly been taken into account.
A particularly troublesome aspect of Catholic doctrine about sexuality is what it says about humans who wish to have sex with other humans of the same gender. How is homosexual sex to be explained? “The work of the devil” seemed to have been the earliest solution, and, to this day, gay people are considered by the church to be “disordered.” As to actual sexual activity, since the only justification for intercourse is procreation, gay sex is both unnatural and pointless. All gay sexual relations are therefore sinful and gay marriage is forbidden.
Ironically, the church faces a special difficulty here. Though the exact percentage of priests who are gay is unknown, it is known to be substantially higher than the percentage of gays in the general male population. One might suppose, since all priests, whatever their sexual inclination, take a vow of celibacy, that there shouldn’t be a problem. But there is, because it’s a Catholic tradition that priests ignore that vow, and get away with it. Usually they do so with consenting adult partners, but unfortunately some choose to sexually molest children.
The church, because of its deep-seated hostility to gays, is inclined to focus on them as chiefly responsible for child sexual abuse. In 2002 it ruled that gay men could not enter the priesthood.
That’s why it’s important to keep in mind that, although gay priests have undoubtedly committed child abuse, there is no empirical evidence that they are any more likely to do so than straight priests.
In the 2011 research report of the John Jay College research team, which conducted extensive surveys and interviews with abusing priests and their victims, the conclusion was: “The data do not support a finding that homosexual identity and/or preordination same-sex sexual behavior are significant risk factors for the sexual abuse of minors.”
I feel obliged to re-emphasize, in conclusion, that, aside from recognizing a few undoubted biological facts, the church’s doctrine about human sexuality is entirely fictional. Human sexuality is a product of evolution, and evolution is not a process that embodies any intention, design or goal.
Asking what God had in mind when he created our sexual nature is like asking an astronomer what the purpose of the planet Neptune is. The question presupposes a teleological universe, and there is absolutely no evidence that we live in one. An answer can be invented, of course — just as the Catholic Church has concocted a creation myth and claimed privileged access to God’s intentions — but it will still be a fairytale.
Leonard Hitchcock of Pocatello is an alumnus of the University of Iowa and did graduate work at Claremont Graduate University and the University of California, San Diego. He taught philosophy in California and Arizona for 15 years. In 1985, after earning a library degree, he was hired by Idaho State University. He retired from ISU’s Oboler Library in 2006.