I’ve recently been wrapped in a minor league controversy. I am contributing to a group called Better Church Governance. We are trying to aid the reformation of the Catholic Church hierarchy by researching the connection of our Church leaders with corruption — financial, sexual, and legal — and putting the information in the hands of reform-minded Catholics. I do this on the advice of dear Aquinas, who argues that “fraternal correction…is within the competency of everyone in respect of any person towards whom he is bound by charity, provided there be something in that person which requires correction,” especially since “certain secret sins are hurtful to our neighbor either in his body or in his soul…it is necessary to take steps to denounce him at once, in order to prevent him doing such harm.” (II-II, Q. 33)

This effort was castigated in a recent article by Christopher White, writing for Crux, as an effort by “wealthy Catholics to target cardinals.” This is marvelous news to me, as I had no idea how wealthy and powerful I was until the article informed me. I have since coated all my right-wing saint statues in gold and have taken to chuckling ominously in quiet rooms.

Actually, White’s article was enlightening. It woke me up from the silly narrative that the Catholic Church has been enjoying since the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report — one of a united laity, fed up with corruption, competent to reform the Church against the machinations of evil bishops. And so long as the narrative remained just that — a story told by Catholic onlookers who didn’t actually try to do anything — it was lovely. It had all the makings of a new Star Wars flick: good, not-celibate, democratically-minded regulars take on draconian, hat-wearing, sexless elites.

Of course, this is ridiculous. Reform does not fall along lay and priestly lines, but along the lines of what we believe “corruption” and “scandal” entail. And there is no greater division crippling the effort to reform the Catholic Church than the division between those who would include consensual homosexual acts between priests within the borders of “corruption,” and those who would not. This was the implicit critique of White’s article; it is implicit in the resistance to any “conservative” attempts at reform; it is the dividing line severing the would-be muscle of the laity, rendering their “calls for reform” floppy, ineffectual, and increasingly embarrassing.

This is difficult to explain, because it adds something incomprehensible to the contemporary sexual ethics that have guided most journalism on the issue of sexual scandal in the Church, namely, that the issue is not one of sexual consent. The anger that many lay Catholics feel towards prelates is not simply over the fact that some have abused children, but also over the fact that some have maintained consensual sexual relationships between women and between men (but mostly between men) and that Bishops have covered these acts up. To not understand this is to not understand the crisis.   

One either includes these consensual acts by priests as a part of the corruption to be reformed, or one does not. If one does, it is usually along the following lines:

     1. Sexual acts are a breach of priestly vows to chastity.

2. Unchastity contradicts what a Catholic priest claims to be, namely, a celibate given entirely to his flock. This inaugurates a double-life in the person of the priest.

3. The maintenance of sexual double-lives establishes a network of priests and lovers who, however they may justify themselves, do not take the Church seriously, but see her as a person to be used and then discarded once one does not or cannot obey her laws.

4.These networks create a sub-culture of deceit and cover-up in which worse sins and crimes, i.e. non-consensual sex and child sexual abuse, can be aided and abetted.      

If one does not include the maintenance of consensual sexual relations by priests within the definition of “corruption”, one usually asserts one or two of the following lines:

A. Opposition to consensual homosexual acts is a mistake of the Church. So is the maintenance of a celibate priesthood.

B. Priestly failures to live up to the standards of Church teaching are in no way related to the current crisis, which is a crisis of crimes (non-consensual sexual activity and child sexual abuse), not sins. The conflation of the two distracts from the real problem, namely, child sexual abuse.   

C. Even if one accepts the Church’s teachings on homosexual acts, these acts are not crimes, but sins. We all struggle with sins, from vanity to gluttony — we are not thereby “corrupt.”

D. Assuming that consensual homosexual acts create a “gay lobby” that would blackmail bishops and hide sexual criminals is a cynical, conservative attempt to hijack the anger of the abuse crisis and redirect it towards their favorite scapegoat, namely, gay people.

I think we can safely dismiss (A). It disqualifies the debater from a debate concerning the Catholic Church by its dissent from Church teaching. Clamoring for the reform of the Church on the basis that it is mistaken in its moral teaching is like clamoring for a reform within the vegan movement on the basis that it is mistaken in its prohibition of meat. The interlocutor might be quite right — perhaps the prohibition against bologna is baloney — but no one would speak ill of the vegan who took him by the shoulder, brought him outside of the city park, and said, “Look man, we’re debating in-house issues right now. Why don’t you go find an adult coloring book and come back in an hour?” To reform through dissent is a convoluted way of leaving the vegan movement in its entirety. Likewise, reforming the Church through dissent wants the cool of reform without the uncool of Church teaching. But the Church claims infallibility in her teaching on faith and morals, making explicit dissent in matters of faith and morals a rejection of the Catholic Church, making one’s “reforms” useless.

The idea that consensual, homosexual relations are unrelated to child sexual abuse is true on the face of it — the one is not the other, and the jump from consensual to nonconsensual is a qualitative difference that requires a real moral “jump.” There would have to be some kind of empirical data proving a causal connection between secret homosexual relations and the sexual abuse of children to justify the claim. But it does not follow that consensual homosexual relations should be excluded from the “corruption” which the laity is supposed to reform, unless one believes something like (A), which we have already dismissed, or that any focus on consensual homosexual relations would distract from the primary target of retributive and restorative justice, namely, crimes against children, (B).

I don’t see how (B) could be the case. The unearthing of any secret, sexual acts performed in contradiction with Church law and a priest’s professed vows would naturally uncover both. Whatever the double-life of the priest entails, one would be lead to discover it by investigating the acts by which that double-life is maintained — money disappearing, trips out of state, burner phones and computers, deleted emails and blank histories, behavior changes, suspicious absences, the whole gambit. That all these clues would end in the discovery of, say, child pornography rather than consensual, homosexual activity, would not be clear until further investigation. Likewise, the cover-up of both of these acts involves a similar, recognizable pattern of payouts, destroyed communication, moving priests to different dioceses, unexplained “sick leaves,” and all the rest. So even in the best case scenario, in which a secret, double-life of consensual homosexual activity is completely and totally unrelated to the secret, double-life of child sexual abuse, the very fact that they share a formal, secret structure falsifies the idea that the investigation of one is a distraction from the other. Rather, focus on the one would put an investigator worth his investigating salt in contact with the other. The desire to root out and reform the priesthood of child sexual abuse and its cover-up would necessitate unearthing sexual double-lives of every kind.   

Of course, this won’t matter to the person who believes (A), or the person who already places consensual sexual activity within the borders of corruption. I take (C) as the strongest argument, because it neither dissents from Church teaching, nor does it argue on the basis that  any focus on consensual sexual activity will detract from the pursuit of criminals. It argues that unchastity, homosexual or otherwise, is one sin amongst sins, no more deserving of being labelled as “corruption” than any other sin of, say, vanity or greed. Implicitly, it argues that a “cover-up” of unchastity is not some dark move of a cynical bishop, but about as humdrum as the “cover-up” of any other, non-criminal failing.

But the priest is not like a single person committing a sin against chastity, an event we would hardly call corruption. A priest is like a married man, vowed to an exclusive relationship with a woman, who commits adultery. And while a single man’s sin could fall under Aquinas’ second category of secret sins, “sins which injure none but the sinner, and the person sinned against,” I’m not sure about the married man’s sin. If I were to discover another man’s adultery, it would be a cop-out to say, “this injures none but the sinner and the person he sins with.” Adultery quite obviously injures the person he is vowed to, his family, and by extension, the entire community before whom he made a vow of fidelity and to whom he now shows a duplicitous face.

Similarly, a priest is vowed to the Church. He makes his vow of chastity in order to serve and devote himself to the Church, present in the actual community of Christians that make up his parish. To break his vows of chastity is not to commit some private sin, rather, it establishes a new kind of relationship between him and the Church he serves — one of duplicity. The one who finds out that a priest is breaking his vows is not like one who finds out that he overindulged at Christmas dinner, drank to excess, or cursed an old lady in the parking lot. As bad and scandalous as these acts might be, they do not set the priest up as one who is fundamentally and objectively misleading his flock — a flock who believes their priest to be dedicated, in his vow of chastity, to them. The cover-up, in this case, assumes that there are no victims to the consensual sexual act, even if it is a sin, and thus it can be covered up by the priest and, ultimately, by a bishop without any charge of “corruption.” Because liberal sexual ethics begins and ends with “consent” rather than with fidelity and the vow, it sees no harm in a priest breaking his vow of chastity in a consensual sexual relationship. It sees no victim who does not consent to the act. But liberal sexual ethics is too limited. The priest made a vow of chastity to the Church; therefore the victim is the Church, sacramentally present in the local church, just as the victim of adultery is the bride.

There is something deeply homophobic about this argument. Most of these consensual sexual acts that have been brought to light since the McCarrick scandal have been homosexual acts. (C) argues that we are to treat these acts as being of little importance. By taking this line, purportedly LGBT-friendly Catholics have reverted to a mode of dealing with homosexuality that I thought we had moved beyond — an attitude which sees homosexual relationships as silly flings, pure sideshow in comparison to the heterosexual main act. The language of the 21st century, in which “love is love” and people of all sexual orientations long for lasting, loving, sincere adult relationships — all this is rudely dropped the moment we’re speaking of homosexuality within the Catholic priesthood. We’re then obliged to believe that consensual homosexual acts involve no fundamental commitment that would force a priest into duplicity, no diversion of his life and assets into the relationship — that homosexual acts are just private failings without serious bearing on the relationship of the priest to the Church he has vowed to serve.

Either “love is love” and homosexual acts in the priesthood are a serious break from the vow to serve the Church in chastity, or homosexual acts are comparatively frivolous — private sins that can be covered-up by Bishops without guilt.

All of which is to say, I think the least homophobic, least self-contradictory position to hold is that the secret breaking of the public vow of chastity by a priest does fall under the “corruption” that the laity is supposed to help reform. Stopping our opposition to “corruption” at the gates of consensual sexual relations takes on a rubbish sexual ethics that only knows consent, and not fidelity, as its norm. It is neither theologically cogent, philosophically consistent, or practically possible. Nevertheless, many lay Catholics seem to think it is all three. And so the laity is divided.

A kingdom divided against itself cannot stand, much less adequately aid in the reformation of the priesthood. This is fairly well evidenced in the controversy surrounding Better Church Governance. The one lay movement for reform that dares give itself a name and hold a fundraiser is called a right-wing crusade against homosexuals, and the idea of a united laity demanding reform from a corrupt Curia goes out the window. But if reform will not be aided by a unified laity, it will have to be aided by a disunified laity. The alternative, of course, is to do nothing at all, which is not an alternative, but a surrender.

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