Tuesday, 29 June 2010

The Sex Crisis in the Church

I believe it is time for all Catholics to awaken from the shame and guilt they have been bombarded with in recent times. Much of the Church sponsored controversy seems to be focused on human sexuality. Stories about sexual abuse are now part of the daily diet, while abortion, homosexuality, and same sex marriage threaten tear apart the very fabric of the Church. The magnitude of this crisis is so great that our bishops, priests, etc., are unable to cohesively respond to the spiritual needs of those they are called to serve. Thanks to the following wisdom and insight from Prof. Daniel C. Maguire Catholicism may yet recover from its present darkness and enter into a new light.

Hierarchy, Sex and Power —
a primer on educating bishops

By Daniel C. Maguire

Here is the surprising news. The Catholic bishops are not all that interested in sex. As far as I have been able to discover, bishops do not walk around all day lasciviously savoring sexual images. Some of them may do that, and perhaps it would be better if more of them did that, as long as they found nonviolent ways of expressing their obsession. They might then have less time to investigate nuns and harass politicians and pretend in the press that they are theologians although most could not pass a graduate (undergraduate?) exam in theology.

I will grant that the bishops do talk a lot about sexual matters but mainly to say how awful it all is. They have a plausible claim to being the leaders in the "Just Say No To Sex Movement." They say no to stem cell research, no to contraception, no to abortions, no to same-sex marriage. They even say no to masturbation, a topic that does not much concern the rest of the Christian Right. That is carrying the no-to-sex thing a bit too far. Masturbation, after all, has a claim to innocence. No one gets pregnant; no one gets a sexually transmitted infection (STI) and someone has a wonderful time. You would think they would have spared that one. But no. Our bishops are nothing but thorough in their war against sex.

What then is the agenda of these bishops in their crusade against sexual joy? Here I turn to Thomas Aquinas for help. Poor Thomas had a lot of trouble with bishops who were always condemning him—I know the feeling—and I'm sure he would be happy to help us. Thomas said that every negation is based on an affirmation. Stretching that a bit, if people are obsessed with denouncing something they are usually up to something else. What the bishops are up to is power. The bishops want power. They want control. They want to influence political elections, and do so from "tax exempt" properties. The bishops want to exercise thought control in universities and the press; they want to control all Catholic pulpits lest prophetic freedom find a home there. And they want to control the sexual and reproductive lives of people, Catholic or not. All of that is a tad arrogant.


Here is the good news. The bishops have a problem, but there is a cure. Education. It won't be easy. Students who think they are divinely inspired are a challenge to any teacher. Still, it is worth trying and here's why. For better or for worse, bishops have more clout in society than most other religious leaders. When they use it well, it is lovely. When Congress was moving toward a particularly vicious piece of anti-immigrant legislation, Cardinal Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles spoke out against it saying he would tell his priests to disobey that law if it passed. Congress blinked and returned to its inhospitable ruminations.There is a reason for that social power. Compare the arrival of a bishop to a Catholic diocese with the arrival of a new Presbyterian church leader. I love Presbyterians but their inauguration liturgies are just plain dull. When a bishop comes to take over a diocese the event is operatic. He arrives dressed in medieval garb with a gilded crown and a large glistening staff in hand. The doors of the cathedral are barred to him. He knocks and knocks again and then with the blare of trumpets the doors open, he is received into the church, and the medieval pageantry unfolds. Presbyterians, eat your heart out.

People notice things like that. Theater speaks with a booming voice where feeble texts and iconoclastic ceremonies wither into boredom. We are liturgical animals and Catholicism is liturgically rich. Hence
my controversial conclusion: bishops are worth educating.

Since bishops like to listen to bishops, we can work with that. It will seem less presumptuous. We don't want to be presumptuous; we want to be nice and we want to help them. The old canon law spoke the obvious when it said that "the bishops, whether teaching individually or gathered in particular councils, are not endowed with infallibility" (Canon 1326,cic 1917). It's good to know that. The Second Vatican Council echoed that wisdom. There the bishops spoke (at times) with a noble humility. In The Church in the Modern World they write: "Let the laity not imagine that pastors are always such experts, that to every problem which arises, however complicated, they can readily give a concrete solution, or even that such is their mission." That is a refreshingly beautiful statement.

Moral matters are complicated. As Thomas Aquinas said moral matters involve "an infinity of diverse circumstances" (quasi infinitae diversitates). Take abortion, for example. Now there is a complicated issue full of "diverse circumstances" and it is wise as the bishops say not to imagine that bishops are experts on all such matters or "even that it is their mission." Playing at being infallible is not in the bishops' job description.

Just take these cases from real, complicated life, and see how wise it would be not to pretend to be infallible.

Case 1: A woman is happily pregnant, two months pregnant. She is diagnosed with cancer requiring immediate chemotherapy treatment which also attacks the fetus. She aborts.

Case 2: In spite of her best contraceptive efforts a woman gets pregnant. She has a heart condition which would put her at high risk of dying if she stayed pregnant. She aborts.

Case 3: A young woman is bi-polar, manic depressive and her psychotic condition pregnant in spite of her best efforts. Lithium would devastate the cardiovascular system of the fetus and probably already has. She aborts.

Case 4: A nine-year-old Nicaraguan girl is raped and impregnated. She cannot bear a child at her age without disastrous effects on her body as well as on her mind. An abortion is arranged.

Case 5: A case was once brought to the attention of Fr. Bernard Haring, the distinguished Redemptorist moral theologian. After removing a tumor from the uterus of a pregnant woman, a surgeon in Germany could not stop the bleeding. He removed the non-viable fetus so that the uterus would contract. It did and the woman survived and a Catholic surgeon had performed a direct abortion. A priest told the surgeon he had acted wrongly. The surgeon appealed to Fr. Haring. Fr. Haring disagreed, saying the surgeon acted morally and properly. He had saved as much life as was possible. Fr. Haring asked: by what thinking could the fetus have such a right to life that it could kill both itself and the woman by exercising it? Such rights, he said, do not exist.

Case 6. Alicja Tysiac, in 2000, was advised that her pregnancy, if carried to term, would cause blindness. She was forbidden to abort and lost nearly all her eyesight. The European Court of Human Rights ruled in her favor saying she should have been allowed to abort.

Case 7: In 2005, the UN Human Rights Committee ruled that Peru violated the rights of a 17-year-old girl who was forced to carry to term an anencephalitic fetus, missing most of its forebrain and unable to survive outside the womb. The International Covenant on Civil and Political rights ordered Peru to pay reparations and establish a framework for women to access therapeutic abortions.

Case 8: In 2006 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights made Mexico pay a 13-year-old rape victim who was forced to give birth $40,000, plus a stipend for her son's education. Few ethicists in any of the world's religions would argue that abortion is immoral in those cases. Recognizing complexity is the beginning of wisdom on abortion or any other moral issue.


Of course not. They have freedom of speech and like all of us they have an obligation to use it well and to display an appropriate modesty when addressing truly complicated moral issues on which good and wise people can and do disagree. Where do we go for an example of that?

Back to the bishops.

In November of 1966, the American bishops spoke out on the morality of the American war in Vietnam. They spoke with modesty and sincerity, which is good, since they were dead wrong. Still, their manner of teaching was exemplary and could provide them now with a paradigm for addressing other complicated issues. Here is the admirable way they began:

We realize that citizens of all faiths and of differing political loyalties honestly differ among themselves over the moral issues involved in this tragic conflict. While we do not claim to be able to resolve these issues authoritatively, in the light of the facts as they are known to us, it is reasonable to argue….

What a marvelous way to teach. What a model that offers today's bishops when they move into those pelvic zone issues that so consume them. Using their own example, here is how bishops should teach on same-sex marriages.

We realize that citizens of all faiths and of differing political loyalties honestly differ among themselves over the moral issues involved in same-sex marriages. While we do not claim to be able to resolve those issues authoritatively, in the light of the facts as they are known to us, it is reasonable to argue….

Who could object to that, even if we judge them wrong, as they were in defending the Vietnam War?

We don't want the bishops to be accused of a double standard: total rigor and absoluteness on sexual and reproductive matters, modesty on little things like state-sponsored slaughter, that is, war. That's not what we want from the bishops. That would make them look silly and lopsided in their moral judgment, and we don't want that. We don't want them squandering their moral authority on issues where they have no privileged expertise. That hamstrings any good they might do in advocating prophetically on basic issues of justice and peace.

Keeping to our theme of "bishops educating bishops," I turn next to the words of Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, in his younger and saner period. In his commentary on the Second Vatican Council, he said: Over the pope as the expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority there still stands one's own conscience, which must be obeyed before all else, if necessary even against therequirement of ecclesiastical authority. This emphasis on confronts him with a supreme and ultimate tribunal, and one which in the last resort is beyond the claim of external social groups, even of the official Church, also establishes a principle in opposition to increasing totalitarianism. (Herbert Vorgrimler, ed., Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II. Vol. 5, 1976.) What the cardinal, some day to be pope, was saying is that bishops and popes who try to usurp the sacred prerogatives of conscience are totalitarian and need lessons humble of heart." This reflects the wisdom of Cardinal John Henry Newman when he famously said he would toast the pope, only after toasting his own conscience. Only in cults are religious leaders taken to be a substitute for conscience.

My next cardinal in this primer for educating bishops is Cardinal Avery Dulles, of somewhat happy memory. Though theologian Dulles, like theologian Ratzinger, did not age well he spoke with brilliance in his presidential address to the Catholic Theological Society of America. He was addressing the question of hierarchical authority over conscience and the proper response to hierarchical teaching. He said that the Second Vatican Council "implicitly taught the legitimacy and even the value of dissent." The Council, Dulles said, conceded "that the ordinary magisterium of the Roman Pontiff had fallen into error, and had unjustly harmed the careers of loyal and able theologians."

He mentioned John Courtney Murray, Teilhard de Chardin, Henri de Lubac and Yves Congar. Dulles said that certain teachings of the hierarchy "seem to evade in a calculated way the findings of modern scholarship. They are drawn up without broad consultation with the theological community. Instead, a few carefully selected theologians are asked to defend a pre-established position....

" He concludes: "We shall insist on the right, where we think it important for the good of the Church, to urge positionsat variance with those that are presently official." Office holders who are being harassed by conservative bishops, the likes of Burke, Tobin and Morlino, take heart and stand your ground. You can disagree with these fellows; and when they are wrong, it is a good idea to do so.

On another occasion, speaking at the Catholic University of America, Dulles wondered whether Thomas Aquinas "if he were alive today…would be welcome at the Catholic University of America." Dulles did not limit the term "magisterium" to the bishops and popes and he insisted that the "magisterium of the professors" relies "not on formal authority but rather on the force of reason." He aligned himself with St. Thomas Aquinas' view that "with the growth of the great universities the bishops could no longer exercise direct control over the content of theological teaching." Their role, Dulles insisted, "was primarily pastoral, rather than academic."

To assume power you do not have is the very definition of despotism. This is the kind of power the bishops use when they plow into debatable issues of morality and politics and use every weapon in their power to impose their control, including sacramental sanctions. And they don't do this consistently.

They assume the authority to say who should and who should not receive sacramental Communion. Sacramental sanctions are out of order. There may be, I concede, a certain attractiveness to the idea of denying Communion to those of another political hue, but even that would be wrong. An informed conscience is the only guide to the Communion rail. No bishop has a right to block the aisle. It is interesting in a pathetic sort of way that the bishops who use the sacrament as weapon do not use it on poverty mongers, war makers and earth wreckers, but only on those who support sexual and reproductive rights. It is here they try to marshal their power and impose their will. It is not for me but for their therapists to help them understand this preferential option for pelvic zone issues as the expression of episcopal power.


We should build prayer into our reeducation project for the bishops. Praying to saints is a very Catholic thing. The bishops may already do that but it seems they leave out some of the greatest saints in Christian history. My suggestion, humbly proffered, is this: The bishops should stop their lobbying in congressional offices and kneel for a moment to say a prayer to Saints Sergius and Bacchus, fourth-century male saints, whose marriage to one another is depicted in a seventh-century icon housed in the Kiev Museum of Eastern and Western Art. Jesus is in the picture as the pronubus, or "best man," the official witness of the same-sex union. For a long time in Christian early history, same-sex unions were liturgically performed as John Boswell pointed out in his book Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe. Perhaps in the illumination that prayer to these two gay saints may provide, the bishops would realize that marriage is not an award for being heterosexual. It is a human good and an epic of interpersonal love and commitment.

While in a prayerful mood, the bishops should then pray to Saint Antoninus, Archbishop of Florence, canonized in 1523, and the premier theologian of marriage in his day. Regarding abortion, this saintly bishop was prochoice for early abortions when necessary to save the woman's life, a large category involving many abortions in the medical conditions of that day. A prayer to this saintly prochoice fellow bishop could help to illuminate the minds of theologically challenged bishops.


My plan to educate bishops would seem zany and hopeless were there not examples of bishops behaving wonderfully. The current bishop of Killaloe in Ireland spoke recently with Dublin journalists, including the BBC. Bishop Willie Walsh said he wanted to see "another Pope John xxiii." (That was hardly a compliment to the current papal incumbent.) Such a new pope, said Bishop Walsh, would open up discussion about critical issues in the church, particularly the exclusion of women from the priesthood as well as optional celibacy. Bishop Walsh also expressed sadness about the Catholic hierarchy's attitudes to homosexuality and its policy of refusing the Eucharist to couples who have remarried.He also challenged Vatican skittishness about Protestant Christians receiving the Eucharist, saying that he never suggested to Church of Ireland members that they were not welcome to receive the sacrament in his churches in the Diocese of Killaloe. Now that is an educated bishop. The United States has no comparably educated bishops but that could happen if our plan to educate them succeeds.

A few years ago, the bishop of Maputo, Mozambique, came to say Mass at one of his parishes. Afterwards he took questions from the congregation. The first question was, "What is the church's position on condom use?" The question, posed from an AIDS-ravaged continent related to the Vatican's weird and lethal teaching that condoms cannot be used even if one's partner is HIV positive. "God clearly tells us that we must protect life at all costs. Not to do so is a serious sin against God," the bishop replied. He continued, using the ABC rule: "What does this mean to you and to me? It means that A is for abstinence and looking around at all of you today, many of you cannot live by this advice. Let us be realistic; few if any of you can abstain. Which brings us to B, be faithful. Some of you are faithful…many of you are not. So that leaves us with C, condoms. Now many of you believe that condoms are a crime against God, that wasted semen is a sin, but I am here today to tell you otherwise. You see, if you are hiv positive and you have unprotected sex and infect someone, you have, in the eyes of God committed murder. Or if you are HIV negative and you have unprotected sex with someone who is infected, you have in the eyes of God, committed suicide." He concluded: "So, my children, wearing a condom is not a sin…not wearing one is." The congregation took this advice and ran with it. According to the witness of this liturgy, "Sunday church services will never be the same, as now, every Sunday, part of the celebration is the blessing of the condoms." Now there is a blessing you can believe in.

The South African Catholic bishop Kevin Dowling gives the same message and no thunderbolts from the Vatican have struck him. In 2005, 47 percent of pregnant women in his diocese tested positive for hiv. "The only solution we have at the moment is condoms," said Bishop Dowling.

In the final exam that we give to the bishops they must be able to distinguish between Catholic theology and Vatican theology. Catholic theology is broader, more ecumenical, more professional, more scholarly and better informed by real life experience than Vatican theology.

Once they learn that they will be better Catholics and they will be better prepared to use what power they have to bring "good news to the poor" and peace to this battered earth.

Daniel C. Maguire teaches Moral Theology and Ethics at Marquette University in Milwaukee. He is president of the Religious Consultation on Population, Reproductive Health, and Ethics.

1 comment:

Joe said...

Strong words in opposition to the Bishops Council. I am sympathetic to some of the precepts of the article, but cannot accept all of it carte blance. I do think the Bishops are misguided in their approach, which is effectively political lobbying for changes in civil laws. We have our Catholic rules for living, which each of us must follow from a sense of proper morality. But to impose them as the law of the land I believe is not an appropriate activity for the Church. Their main focus should be on teaching love of God above all else. Stay out of politics.