Sex Abuse and the End of Papal Authority

I was a true believer. When the Catholic Church told me that Civil Unions — not even gay marriage— were morally wrong and needed to be fought at all levels of government, I believed that. I was raised Catholic. I was taught that the Pope was infallible. As an article of faith, I still accept this. What I no longer accept is the use of Papal infallibility to support policies that limit the rights of citizens in a free society.

Good Catholics are taught that the Pope is infallible in matters of faith and morals. Notably, the Pope is not infallible in terms of political policy. Those questions must be prudently made with due respect to political reality.

Sometimes, though, the line between politics and morality becomes blurred or, at least, it seems to blur. Politics seems to be inextricably intertwined with morality, and so a temptation that many conservative Christians and especially conservative Catholics face is the temptation to impose our beliefs on others. If something is good, it should be allowed. If something is bad, it should be outlawed. There are many problems with this framework, and most Christians understand that we cannot, for example, enact blasphemy laws.

On gay marriage and gay adoption, though, the principle seemed clear. Two people of the same sex cannot be married and to do say that they can be is a violation of the definition of marriage. It weakens the institution by enlarging the definition, and who is to say that it cannot be enlarged further? If the definition is continuously expanded, when does it cease to be meaningful?

This is an interesting philosophical question, but as a matter of policy, it makes little sense. We have to ask why marriage exists as a civil institution in the first place. If we are to restrict marriage, as a civil institution, what is the limiting principle on that restriction? If we are to expand marriage as a civil institution, what is the limiting principle on that expansion? If we were worried that civil unions will lead to gay marriage (now termed Marriage Equality), why are we worried?

A refrain that I often hear from conservative Catholics is that the government is a moral person with a responsibility to teach good morals. This is ahistorical nonsense. Governments arose, as a matter of historical fact, in particular circumstances to right particular wrongs. Our government, in the Anglo-American tradition, arose to end the interminable rounds of violence between extended family groups (called “maegths,” but “tribe” or “clan” might be a more familiar way to think about them). One injustice would be met with greater retribution, which in turn would be met with yet greater revenge.

This state of affairs was, of course, an affront to basic decency. Scripture tells us, “vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord,” (Rom 12:19), but it was also politically unstable. This was a state of anarchy, with only the family acting as a source of stability. This is why I tell conservatives that the state does not create or uphold the family: the family created the state. It was these family groups that allowed us to have the rudiments of ordered justice.

To say that homosexuals who wish to have same sex unions or marriages should not be allowed to do so because it debases marriage or undermines the family is to put things exactly backwards. The same thing could be said of gay adoption. It is the family that stabilizes society. We must put things right in our own families and our own homes before we can hope to stabilize society. We must put an end to the epidemic of divorce and domestic violence before we can hope to convert our fallen, increasingly neopagan world.

The Catholic Church has accelerated this decline by showing itself to be completely corrupted and dysfunctional. When priests are shuffled from parish to parish in order to evade accountability, the secular world looks on and says, “they have nothing to teach us about morality or good government.” Of course, the world is right. The Catholic Church cannot give what it does not have. If our priests are molesting our children, they cannot give moral purity to the world. If these incidents are met not with a thorough cleaning of our house, but with coverups, a culture of silence and a determination to handle matters internally, then the world rightly sees the Catholic Church as an incestuous, unaccountable mess of an organization.

Let’s put aside the claims of infallibility, Apostolic succession and the like for just a moment. Let us imagine an organization that runs schools; it runs hospitals and soup kitchens. It clothes the naked and ministers to those in pain, but, oh yeah, it also happens to run a dogfighting ring in the basements of its building; or perhaps this organization traffics young girls from the third world or produces and sells heroin. Would we consider this organization to be a good, charitable organization that does good things but also has some problems? Of course not. We would recognize that this is a criminal organization that happens to have some charitable programs.

This is the state of the Catholic Church. All of the sacraments, the charity and the good teaching cannot obscure that the Catholic Church is a criminal organization. The endless coverups demonstrate that the problem is not just a few wayward priests. These rotten apples have spoiled the bunch. Even priests and bishops who are not sexually deviant are too often drawn into the coverups. When you hear “good” priests lament that some of these children are tempting weak priests, then we have to have the courage to say, “enough.” The excuses and deflection are themselves corruption.

Now, we as the lay faithful must also look at ourselves. We are suffering from an epidemic of divorce, with too many Catholics looking for the exits after promising eternal loyalty to their spouse. When we get married, we are promising to do whatever is necessary to hold our marriages together. If our marriages are bad marriages, then we should try to correct that. If we cannot fix our marriages, then let us be thankful to God for the blessings that we do have. To be in a bad marriage can be a terrible thing, but God is in a pretty bad marriage, too — with us. We are his unfaithful spouse, a Church that is riven with corruption and infidelity.

Let us also look at the epidemic of pornography and other forms of sexual addiction. Too often, we have looked at homosexuals as being instigators of sexual immorality, but pornography and sexual deviance would still exist if all homosexuals were to disappear tomorrow. Whom would we blame then? We should blame the same people we should blame right now: ourselves. Our sexual immorality is our fault and only our fault. God does not tempt us to fall into grave sexual sin. We allow sin and evil into our hearts. If the numbers are to be believed, two out of three men have been ensnared by this trap. No evidence I have ever seen suggests that Catholic men, even those who are close to the sacraments, are able to rise above this temptation better than any others. Even clergy, when surveyed anonymously, admit to being addicted to pornography.

We can go on. Young women are constantly being trafficked in the United States. If you know the signs, you can see that the problem is everywhere. In strip malls across the country, sexual storefronts are only barely disguised. Now, if homosexuality is the source of our moral problems, why are these businesses primarily aimed at heterosexual men? Homosexual prostitution does exist, but it is not nearly as visible. Who are the patrons of these businesses? I would hope that few professed Catholics and Christians are among those who walk through those doors, but the example of pornography suggests otherwise.

In Jon Ronson’s book, “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” a bust of a sex ring disguised as an exercise studio revealed that even the town minister was a customer. This is just an anecdote, but I have heard enough anecdotes to think that this is more typical than we would like to believe. The great sexual scourge of our civilization is not homosexual deviancy, but sexual immorality among all groups.

How, then, should we as Catholics approach questions of homosexuality? We should start by removing the beams from our own eyes. Focusing on homosexuality is probably an external issue. If only 4% of the population is homosexual (and that is a good estimate, see the book, “Everybody Lies”), then 96% of us never will seriously face such a temptation.

To focus on homosexual “recruiting” is as nonsensical as the 1980s panics claiming that “Dungeons and Dragons” promoted Satanism or that Satanists had infiltrated our nurseries.These moral panics were a way to externalize unease that we felt about our own lives and our own families. Parents worried that they were not passing on their values to their children, and so they made the villain a game that children played. Mothers in particular — although some fathers, too— worried that they were not being sufficiently mindful of their children. This internal fear was externalized in hysterical claims that daycare employees were sacrificing or otherwise using children in Satanic rituals.

The fear of homosexuals or the homosexual agenda is not a fear that we ourselves may be gay. This is a trope that should be put to rest. Rather, the fear is that we are not morally good. We look at homosexuals — and homosexuals really exist, unlike the Satan worshipping babysitters— and we see ourselves. We see people who succumb to temptation. We see people who rationalize their behavior because they believe it does not hurt anyone.

To a certain degree, this is correct. Homosexuality does not, in any obvious way, harm society. The legalization of same sex marriage has not led to family breakdown. It has not led to general lawlessness or disorder. It has not led to increased child abuse. All of these problems are problems that, primarily, we heterosexuals create ourselves. If we want to critique homosexuality, we need to at least have clear facts and a clear argument.

As it stands, we can accuse homosexuals only of things that we are doing ourselves. We are tearing down the family. We are engaging in sexual immorality. If we are to preach to homosexuals that they should abandon their lifestyles, then we must first show that we are happy, healthy and faithful. If we are not, then we are hypocrites demanding that others live up to a standard that we ourselves do not live up to. That will never bring homosexuals to Christ.

I will note here that the issue of Catholic priests engaging in sexual abuse is disproportionately one of male priests attacking young boys. The cause of this is difficult to determine. Again, we must have clear, convincing evidence if we want to address the issue of homosexuality as a moral evil. Where we have lots of confounding variables — priestly celibacy, being a big one— we just cannot have a reasoned argument.

So, if we cannot convincingly argue that homosexuality is intrinsically disordered — and we can’t, because nobody has so far — then we need to stop preaching. We need to start providing an example.

To return to my main topic of faith and politics, trying to crowd out homosexuals through laws that discriminate is wrong headed. It has not worked as a strategy because we do not have convincing rhetoric. We will not have convincing rhetoric, and so the movement to prevent marriage equality was always doomed. Opposing Civil Unions was not a wise strategy to protect society. It was an opportunity that we foolishly threw away in large part thanks to bad advice from the Catholic Church.

This should not surprise us. An organization that is as thoroughly corrupt as the Catholic Church is not likely to have good advice on governance. They cannot even manage themselves. How can they manage all of society? They obviously cannot. So, let us leave them behind in discussions of politics. The Catholic Church has nothing to offer political leaders. If anything, their advice is more likely than not to be political poison that will lead to greater sin and evil in the world.

The issue of gay adoption was one that I opened and have thus far failed to address. We, as a society, have no real idea what the effect of homosexual adoption is on children. There is not enough data and the studies that have been conducted so far are all hopelessly polluted by partisanship. Again, if we want to argue in favor of discrimination, the evidence must be clear and convincing.

As an example, nobody is taken seriously when they argue in favor of sexual exploitation of minors, and nor should they be because the evidence is crystal clear. Sexual exploitation of minors causes great, measurable evil. We can justify, then, discrimination in our laws on the basis of age. This distinction we draw has a scientific and moral basis, not to mention it has widespread political support.

Much of what we believe about homosexuals simply does not fall into this category. We really have no idea what the effects of homosexual relationships are on children of such relationships because our reason is limited and the power of science is limited. This is not an easily resolved question and, even if it were, so what?

Often, political decisions are not made on the basis of science or are even consistent with science. If we were to find that children of homosexual relationships were 10% more likely to drop out of school, so what? People are free to make decisions that produce suboptimal results for their children. Government does not exist to engineer the family. Again, family created the state. The state did not create government. For government to assume the role of a moral teacher and parent of the parents, then we can no longer have a free society.

Well, you may be saying, why, then is it so important to live in a free society? Why should we learn to coexist with people whose values we disagree with? The answer is the Protestant Reformation. After the Reformation, the western Church split into two camps: Catholic and Protestant. Northern European leaders— who had previously been distant from Rome and therefore neglected by her— seized the opportunity to recenter religious power in their own nations. This worked for the most part, but it also led to horrific wars the likes of which we did not see even in the 20th century. Compared to the 30 Years War and the 80 Years War, World War II was a picnic in the park. Imagine, if you will, a war that killed 60 million Americans. That is the scale of violence that we saw in the European Wars of Religion.

It is important to note that the Wars of Religion were the product of Christian success. Christians from Constantine to Alfred the Great were usually tolerant of pagans in their midst. We can point to counter-examples such as Hypatia or the sack of Palmyra, but these aberrations were themselves symptomatic of declining order. Christendom was not built on anti-pagan violence or the violent suppression of heresies. It was built on a truth that outshone its competition. Christianity won the war of ideas in a context where citizens were free to choose between paganism and Christianity.

As paganism receded in the minds of Christians, the need for religious tolerance did as well. Eventually, Christians were so successful that we felt comfortable fighting amongst ourselves and ignoring external threats. This allowed Islam to swallow large swathes of Christendom, but it also allowed Christians to fight fellow Christians in the Wars of Religion.

We forget that this is the crucible that produced the Treaty of Westphalia, which marked the beginning of the autonomous nation state. No longer could Spain invade the Netherlands and claim that they were merely defending Christendom. An attack by Spain on the Netherlands was a war of aggression and not of defense.

Religious liberty did not immediately spring out of this context, but it was a necessary and logical conclusion. For the American colonists to form one nation out of many states with different established churches, they need to be tolerant of each other. To do otherwise would have been to invite the kind of bloodshed that the Europeans had so recently experienced and which was fresh in the minds of our Founding Fathers.

We take freedoms such as Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Assembly and so on for granted. We forget that early America was not far removed from a Europe that burned heretics and witches at the stake. Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Assembly were necessary ingredients to safeguard the Freedom of Thought that enabled Freedom of Religion. Even the Right to Bear Arms in the English Bill of Rights was drafted to allow English Protestants to resist Catholic Oppression.

Today we have a liberal order that is grounded in Religious Liberty, but that liberal order also seems to undermine faith. Young people look at how the Church views homosexuality, and views the Church as being hateful. As I have already argued, this is correct. If we are removing splinters from the eyes of others, we had better first remove the beam from our own. The fact that we have not done this suggests that we are lashing out at others in order to feel better about ourselves. This is hate.

For faithful Catholics, this is a difficult situation. We cannot trust the Church to guide us in making political policy. They have shown themselves to be untrustworthy. We cannot trust our own instincts, because the conservative intuition that bad things should be unlawful has been shown to be destructive to conservative ends.

What we should do is embrace the liberal order with greater fervor. We should support gay marriage and gay adoption, not because we think that these things are morally good. We should support the rights of homosexuals to marry and adopt because to do otherwise is to ensure our own destruction. Even if we were to succeed in these culture wars — and we will not— the cost would be the end of the political settlement that made religious liberty possible. Freedom of speech, assembly and religious expression cannot be separated. If you destroy one, you destroy them all.

This is the lesson of the Wars of Religion. Thinking that we are right and we need others to be right with us led to endless war and unimaginable death. The Culture War has been similarly destructive. We were unable to defeat homosexual marriage and adoption because we could not defend our opposition in terms that respected the values which make our political order possible. If we do not have equality before the law, can we even make a claim that we are a nation of laws?

Just as racial discrimination led to lawless lynchings and all sorts of violence against blacks, sexual discrimination could not help but promote violence against homosexuals. As Christians, we can condemn such violence, but we enable it by enabling legal discrimination against homosexuals. As Christians, we should care about these consequences.

The reason why homosexuals won their battle for equality before the law is the same reason why blacks have won full legal equality: they have more invested than heterosexuals do. Even if society could theoretically be made marginally better by prohibiting homosexual unions or adoption — a dubious proposition — heterosexuals have so little to gain by opposing homosexual rights that the power was never going to be on our side.

And so, I have turned the page on this chapter of my life. The Catholic Church will never again tell me how to vote. They will never again tell me what policies to support or oppose. If they point to the evils of drugs, I will point to the horrific drug war that is tearing Mexico apart. If they point to the evils of homosexuality, I will point to the evils of running a child abuse ring for many decades or perhaps centuries. If they tell me I must support prohibition of abortion, I will point to the abysmal failure of the prohibition of alcohol and the success of regulating smoking into virtual non-existence in the United States.

We must love homosexuals not just in theory, but in practice. We must not attack them or their families. If we want to preach to a deaf world, we must be better people. We must not forget that 4% of the population is not responsible for the majority of our problems. If we were ever to reach a state where the 96% were so virtuous that the 4% really were responsible for most of society’s ills, then we would be ready for such a discussion. From what I can see, we are nowhere close to such a state today.

Let us not die on the hill of opposing gay marriage, gay adoption or LGBTQ issues. Let us be mature enough to realize that such compromises are necessary and even good. If we hew closely to the liberal order, we will protect religious liberty as well as gay rights. We can be friends rather than enemies. In the wake of the Reformation, it was difficult to imagine Catholics and Protestants standing together, and yet we do. We recognize that we have a common enemy in the anti-religious left. If we wish to survive the next round of thesis, antithesis and synthesis, we must again learn to turn enemies into allies.

The ability of the Catholic Church to burn heretics and censor films has come to an end. As a practical matter, so has the Church’s ability to police sexual propriety. This does not mean that we should become heretics or watch immoral films. Nor does it mean that we should engage in sexual immorality.

The erosion of Church authority is not the end, but a new beginning. We have seen the authority of the Church wax and wane over time. The Christian Right was a real force to be reckoned with a generation ago. Today, it is a joke, a collection of losers doomed to failure. The Church, again, became a victim of her own success. She benefited from greater religious tolerance, only to undermine that tolerance. In doing so, she did not win the Culture War, but lost it and, in so doing, lost the protections that had given her the political muscle to wage such a war. If we want our Catholic values to again be ascendant, we must be willing to accept the end of Papal authority in political matters. This has always ended poorly.

We must love others and recognize that we do not have compelling arguments to make. We must convert by offering something that our society actually wants. Our society does not want to be lectured by Catholics about morality. They do want the joy that comes with having a strong relationship with God. Since we do not have strong relationships with God, we cannot offer that to our fellow man. We must go out, build the City of God and only then will the City of Man follow.

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