Pointing out the window without looking in the mirror

Last summer, the Commission for Doctrine of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops released a document on “Pastoral Ministry to Young People with Same-Sex Attraction” (pdf).

Various positive things could be said about the document. However, I want to draw attention to a fairly serious problem with the document itself, which reflects a much broader problem in the Church’s response to the sexual revolution in general. (To be clear, I am addressing only the manner in which the Bishops present the Church’s teaching: am not questioning the content of the teaching itself.)

The Commission writes (§8):

All young people, whether or not they experience an inclination to same-sex attraction, strive to understand and appropriate their sexual identity. The progressive maturing of a person’s freedom is a long-term process that can be encumbered by numerous obstacles. These include pressures from the media (particularly on the internet), a widespread moral relativism, and the hedonism propagated by secular society itself.

The document goes on to say (§10):

The moral and spiritual relativism of our society can make the Church’s teaching on sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular appear bizarre, out of touch, and even intolerant. Yet when people cease to base their moral judgments on objective truth, confusion results. All too often they fall victim to lies about the meaning of true freedom and authentic self-expression. True Christian freedom is not first of all an acceptance of one’s own desire to do what one wants, but an acceptance of the truth which sets us free (cf. Jn 8.32).

Nothing to argue with here, of course. All of these things do make it difficult for young people to understand and appropriate their sexuality in light of the Gospel.

But there is another factor to consider: in many parishes, there hasn’t been a sermon on sexual ethics in approximately 40 years. This is, in part, due to the fact that the overwhelming majority of Catholics do not want to hear the Church’s teaching on chastity, because they do not practice it. But the fact that most Catholics do not practice the Church’s teaching on chastity is not disconnected from the fact that they have not heard the teaching defended because their shepherds have been afraid to preach it.

In other words, young people are not only confused by sexuality because of Hollywood, Madison Avenue, Moral Relativism, the Liberal Media, and the other Usual Suspects. They are also confused because, for most of them, their Catholic parents do not follow the teaching and their Catholic pastors do not teach it.

The Church’s teaching on homosexuality is not just “bizarre, out of touch, and even intolerant” by the standards of the surrounding secular culture. It is also “bizarre, out of touch, and even intolerant” by the standards embraced by most Catholics in the pews and tolerated by most priests in most pulpits.

The problem with Church leadership with regard to sexuality goes much deeper, however. In some parishes, young people have been molested by their priest.

I did not grow up Catholic: I grew up Southern Baptist. But in the Catholic parish in my hometown, several young men my age were molested in their early teens, and I saw first-hand the devastating effects this had and continues to have on some of my friends’ faith.

In many of the abuse cases that have come to light in recent years, the bishop knew that the priest had molested children in other parishes, and reassigned him to a new parish.

Germain Grisez, Flynn Professor of Christian Ethics at Mount Saint Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland, and one of the strongest supporters of the magisterial teaching of the Church wrote (in an open letter to the Legionaries of Christ and Regnum Christi):

Sex-abuse involving diocesan clerics and members of religious institutes has been dealt with up to now solely by sanctions against those guilty of abusive activities and by measures to prevent such activities. The bishops, religious superiors, and others who were guilty—of complicity in such wrongdoing, lying about it, irresponsibility toward victims, and so on—have in general not honestly admitted, much less rectified, what they did and failed to do. For that reason, the injury to the Church continues to fester.

While the media has undoubtedly exploited the scandal in an effort to discredit the Church, the failure of the bishops to adequately address their own fault in this scandal has significantly undermined their moral credibility at a crucial time.

Notwithstanding all this, it is good that the Canadian Catholic Bishops are making more of an effort to address sexual ethics. But it’s not entirely clear that the teaching they are defending is actually Christian. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said:

Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:3-5)

If Christians want to make any serious effort to promote Christian teaching about sexuality in contemporary Western culture, they will need to begin by recognizing that the sexual revolution is not just a problem out there, caused by secularists, hedonists, tax collectors, and sinners. It is caused, at least in part, by us. We have to remove the log from our own eye before we can help others.

In The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote:

It was granted to me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and how good. In the intoxication of youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhlemed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil.

It is easy to blame others for the confusion about sex in contemporary western society. It is very difficult to actually conform our own desires and actions to Christ. But if we want to be credible witnesses to the Gospel (rather than, say, Pharisees who bind heavy burdens but do not raise a finger to help bear them), we need to start by acknowledging that we have ourselves failed to live up to the Gospel. If we start by removing the log from our own eye, we will have some useful insight to offer others in clearing the debris from their eye.

That the Canadian bishops’ document focuses on problems in society, and fails to recognize any fault within the Church, is not trivial. It cuts to the very heart of our self-understanding (or lack thereof) as Christians.

Unless we begin with the recognition of our own failures, there is a very real danger that whatever we are teaching will not really be Christian sexual ethics, in any meaningful sense.

7 thoughts on “Pointing out the window without looking in the mirror

  1. Hi, Ron–thanks for your thoughts on this. I do have to say that, while I believe the bishops have recently shown strong evidence of moral credibility, I accept your point regarding motes and beams. I would say, though, that as horrible and devastating as the clergy abuse crisis has been, if you really want to locate the reason why there is an *epidemic* of failure regarding Catholic sexual teaching, the abuse crisis is a slender thread in the tapestry in comparison to the broad swath of failure existing in the embrace of *contraception* by Catholics everywhere. This is the smoking gun, as far as I’m concerned–the “divorce” of sex and procreation. One who accepts contraception, ipso facto, has no moral credibility to object to virtually any aspect of the issue of homosexual behavior….and this has been the “school” in which our children (and many of us) have grown up in over the last four decades…

    God bless you!

    Deacon JR

  2. I really didn’t expect you to go into the clergy sexual abuse crisis. When we think about what happened 40 years ago that made it difficult to preach on sexual ethics, I think pharmaceutical contraception is a much bigger cultural factor.

    In my opinion, this lack of preaching on sexual ethics has also been jolting in the health care debates. To the best of my knowledge, the Catholic Church is not opposed to a woman seeking health care for endometriosis, dysmenorrhea, or any other medical disorder of the reproductive system. But I think the Catholic Church tries to make up for the lack of preaching on sexual ethics in some pretty surprising areas.

  3. First, I agree that contraception is a bigger factor than the abuse crisis. That is why I spent several paragraphs addressing the fact that the laity does not practice the Church’s sexual teaching—by which I meant not only that the vast majority use contraception, but also that most ignore the teaching on premarital sex and many embrace divorce and remarriage.

    I spent a little more space addressing the abuse crisis because the issue I was picking out here was more specific. I do not think that the fact that children have been abused in Catholic parishes constitutes any significant challenge to the moral authority of the Church; this happens in every institution. It is not possible to construct a system that would eliminate every risk from the system.

    My point was a point specifically about the bishops’ handling of the crisis. Some bishops did a better job of this than others. However, as Germain Grisez pointed out:

    The bishops, religious superiors, and others who were guilty—of complicity in such wrongdoing, lying about it, irresponsibility toward victims, and so on—have in general not honestly admitted, much less rectified, what they did and failed to do. For that reason, the injury to the Church continues to fester.

    That is not a problem from 40 years ago. That is a problem that persists into the present.

    But that point—which is the point both comments so far on this post have focused on—is not the central point of this post. The central point is that if Christians do not start by focusing on the failures within their own house, they will not only lack credibility when they try to speak to the world about its failures: they will also be directly disobedient to Christ, who instructs us to remove the speck from our own eye.

    As I said at the beginning of this post, there is a great deal that I agree with in the Canadian Bishops’ document. However, the main point of the post has nothing to do with the relative weight of different failures within the Church. The central point is that the document badly misdiagnoses the reasons that the Church’s teaching seems “bizarre, out of touch, and even intolerant,” and does so in a way that deflects attention from the Church’s failures and puts the blame on the world.

    The sex abuse crisis is only a small part of that failure. The failure of priests and bishops to teach about chastity, and the failure of the laity to practice it, is a much more serious aspect of the failure.

    The abuse crisis is a very sore point for many Catholics, and so I suppose it’s not a surprise that comments have leapt onto what I said about that crisis, even though I addressed the other, more widespread problems first.

    I also agree that the failure to preach on sexual ethics has had a big effect on the health care debates. But it seems to me that making that point would have wandered fairly far afield from the Canadian Bishops’ statement.

  4. Thanks for the clarification, Ron. I guess I didn’t make the connection with the Canadian Bishops’ statement and the sexual abuse cases because I’m not aware of why or how the Canadian Bishops might be handling sexual abuse scandals. Canada has been markedly absent from much of the news coverage, which has focused mostly on the United States and Europe.

  5. Hi, Ron–one other slightly tongue-in-cheek comment would be that the Canadian Bishops owe us all some kind of “payback” for the astonishingly wishy-washy “Canadian Bishops’ Statement” they wrote when Humanae Vitae was promulgated–that statement was particularly inept! I hope the more recent statement you are referencing at least moves us in the right direction! 🙂

    God bless you, and Happy Pentecost!

    Deacon JR

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