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McCarrick, the bishops, and the deepening confusion about sex

There is a serious failure among current ecclesiastical leadership to respect the special signification of human sexual acts in themselves.

Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington concelebrates the April 6 closing Mass for a symposium marking the 50th anniversary of Blessed Paul VI's encyclical "Humanae Vitae." The Mass was celebrated in the Crypt Church at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. (CNS photo/Rui Barros, courtesy The Catholic University of America)

The sexual offenses alleged against (and, it seems to me, essentially conceded by) former Cardinal, now Archbishop—and if things go as they might go, the future Mister—Theodore McCarrick hold center stage in virtue of the disgust generated by contemplating such conduct and the rage engendered by learning that Uncle Ted’s conduct was apparently ignored by many of his peers and protégés for decades. Pending the publication elsewhere of my initial canonical observations on those points, however, here I raise a different issue.

In an excellent essay over at Wall Street Journal, William McGurn writes:

In our day … the real fight has to do with who’s right about the reality of the human person—those who posit him as but a physical combination of matter and energy or those who believe him, as the Eighth Psalm puts it, only “a little lower than the angels.” … From this assumption all sorts of understandings flow: about human rights, about human sexuality, about human flourishing and so on. Today, alas, traditional understandings once taken for granted are yielding to the prevailing notion that science has rendered all moral judgments subjective—and that so long as sex is consensual and no one gets pregnant, it has no higher meaning. [I]n our day, [Christian sexual] teachings are literally incomprehensible to increasing numbers of people …

McGurn’s key point here is, I think, that in the West now, “sex … has no higher meaning”;  the increasing numbers of people he sees swallowing this lie include, I suggest, many in ecclesiastical leadership. Several examples of this ‘institutional myopia’ regarding the signification of human sexual acts are at hand but I will limit myself to two and preface them briefly.

Preliminarily, faithful Catholics can easily see how the virtual abandonment of Humanae vitae by mid-level ecclesiastical leadership (many bishops, most priests, and nearly all marriage formators) over the last five decades has wrought incalculable damage on domestic life and civil society. No more evidence of this disaster among laity is needed than is already available to open-minded observers. But this same myopic ‘sex-has-no-intrinsic-signification’ thinking among laity (at least, beyond their observing some extrinsic and largely practical guidance against certain kinds of sexual acts) has, I suggest, infiltrated clerical and consecrated life as well.

Consider, a bishop’s use of his body to achieve venereal pleasure is not simply a grave sin against chastity (as it would be for any single man), it is also the grave sin of sacrilege against his very person as a man wholly set aside for the service of the Lord.

The Pio-Benedictine Code of Canon Law knew this (see, e.g., 1917 CIC 132 and 1114) and pre-conciliar moral theologians said it (see, e.g., Davis, Moral and Pastoral Theology II: 34-35). But, while the 1983 Code and, as far I have seen, most post-conciliar moral treatises, have not expressly repudiated the special (here, negative) signification of sexual activity by clergy, neither have they taught on it for moderns sorely in need of reminding about such meaning. Not surprisingly, therefore, if nevertheless disappointingly, none of the early statements from those ecclesiastical figures likely to deal with the McCarrick mess have so much as mentioned the possibility of sacrilege in his regard; frankly, few have even mentioned “sin”.

A second example of the failure among current ecclesiastical leadership to respect the special signification of human sexual acts in themselves is found, I think, in Rome’s recent instruction on consecrated virginity, Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago, a document that, for the first time in Church history, directly asserts that virginity (as in, freedom from ever having voluntarily engaged in sexual intercourse) is not required for a woman’s consecration to the Lord precisely as a virgin! I have dealt with this startling dicasterial, but papally-approved, claim elsewhere; here, I simply suggest it as another key example of not seeing human sexual acts as carrying meaning in themselves.

Still other examples of this inability, or refusal, by many in Church leadership to recognize the higher significations of human sexual acts come to mind, but if one is not persuaded by the two above examples (ignoring the sacrilegious character of clerical sexual misconduct and endorsing the consecration of non-virginal virgins) that, at the very least, some serious confusion has taken hold regarding the higher meaning of human sexual acts, then additional examples, ones requiring more subtle investigation, are not likely to convince.

If, in any case, the McCarrick catastrophe helps to underscore the importance of Church leaders re-articulating the higher meanings associated with the use and abuse of human sexual faculties, then perhaps some good will have come of it, after all.

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About Edward N. Peters 120 Articles
Edward N. Peters, JD, JCD has doctoral degrees in canon and common law. Since 2005 he has held the Edmund Cardinal Szoka Chair at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. His personal blog on canon law issues in the news may be accessed at the "In the Light of the Law" site.


  1. Law especially canon law specifies moral right from moral wrong. W McGurn alludes to a cultural shift from morality inherent in Natural Law and Revelation to subjective conscience. The determinant for a good conscience naturally begins with Man’s inherent desires and inclinations which ordained by God are good (Aquinas). Man has a natural attraction toward Woman. The intellect is such that we can deviate from what is inherent. “Doing this, he [the homosexual] suppresses his reason and conscience, for the inner perception that homosexual activities are contra naturam is inborn and universal. Starting thus to lie to himself, he must suppress his awareness of the normality of man-woman love and of normal marriage with its fertility, and is forced to cling desperately to rationalizations that justify his choice to see himself as normal, healthy, and morally good. Thus he alienates himself from reality” (Dr Gerard van den Aardweg member of The John Paul II Academy for Human Life and the Family in The Nature of Gay Ideology). Deviate sexual behavior is predominantly elective and studies show virtually no one except for extremely rare instances ‘is born that way’. The self deception is that this deviation of direction to a due end is natural and a matter of conscience. Our Catholic dilemma is a shift toward individual conscience as the rule rather than the measure of moral behavior. The networking and wide practice of homosexuality by clergy including hierarchy many who themselves are gay or at least sympathetic is based on that conviction that such behavior if illicit according to canon law is licit according to nature. The false presumption is that previous canons, Church morality based on Apostolic Tradition did not present a complete picture of human sexuality. This is the current trend, a modern heresy advocated by Fr James Martin [the related heresy is clerics are only obliged to practice celibacy not chastity] and supported at least tacitly by the Vatican that’s destroying the Church within. The Roman Pontiff is positioned to cleanse the Church. If not we are obliged to remedy it within the means God has given us.

    • Thank you for your true and brave words. Is it possible to reason with a person who denies a reality that is so basic? We are all deceived about so many things, but isn’t homosexuality the most obvious failure to detect reality? How much more is disordered in such a deceived person? We must all bravely assert these truths, since we must also assert our God like image, otherwise we dishonor God.

    • AAD1 Dr Peters makes a significant observation. Since the Church distanced itself from the Pio-Benedictine code of canon law that addressed sexual discrepancy by Hierarchy – when Cardinal McCarrick and other prominent cases of hierarchy clerical and seminarian sexual misconduct such as Honduras and Chile are discussed “by ecclesiastical figures sacrilege is not mentioned and few have even mentioned sin”. The Catechism calls homosexual behavior a “disorder”. Actually homosexual acts are in defiance of the Natural Order and intrinsically evil and are in every instance mortal sin.

  2. Thank you for your good and sobering article. Yes, sacrilege is the proper word. In an extended sense, all sexual sins involve sacrilege because our bodies are meant to be temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19). The sacrilege is all the greater when those in Holy Orders violate the bodies of others (and their own bodies). At least McCarrick’s resignation from the College of Cardinals has been accepted.
    You might be correct that n. 88 of Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago suggests that non-virgins are now eligible to be consecrated virgins. The text, though, does not explicitly say this. As I’ve noted before, the issue hinges on how one understands keeping one’s body in perfect continence (perfetta continenza). St. John Paul II, in Familiaris consortio, 84 describes “complete continence” as “abstinence from the acts proper to married couples.” There are, though, acts of sexual intimacy proper only to married couples that lead up to sexual intercourse. It’s possible that some women have engaged in such acts but stopped short of voluntary sexual intercourse. They would have failed in perfect continence but still have remained virgins in the technical sense. It’s unfortunate that Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago does not give a clear definition of who is a virgin. Here is an article that cites Jenna Cooper, a canonist and a consecrated virgin: // As can be seen, Miss Cooper does not believe that Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago says that non-virgins can now be consecrated virgins: There seem to be different readings of Instruction on this issue. I hope the Holy See will provide a clarification.


    Regarding the McCarrick scandal, Prof. Peters’ writes: “A bishop’s use of his body to achieve venereal pleasure is not simply a grave sin against chastity (as it would be for any single man), it is also the grave sin of sacrilege against his very person as a man wholly set aside for the service of the Lord,” I was reminded of a superb 2005 article by Patricia Snow in First Things regarding celibacy and the consecrated person:

    “Both the recluse and the priest, by their sacrifices and prayers, knit together the human family. But it is on the renunciations of the priest, especially, that the spiritual life of the laity depends. In the Catholic view, the life of Christ has passed into his sacraments, and only the priest can effect the sacraments that fully bring Christ’s life to Christ’s body. The spiritual health of Catholic people depends in a fundamental way on certain individuals choosing the vertical orientation of celibate priesthood over the horizontal orientation of marriage. Married life in the Church is never equal to priesthood and religious life but always dependent on them, as the horizontal of the cross hangs on the vertical”

  4. This distortion of the nature of the conjugal act by bishops is no more obvious than Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez’ tacit approval of “LGBT”-promoting ministries and their prominence in the annual Archdiocesan Religious Education Congress.

  5. Church teaching on human sexuality presents many sinful obstacles that many cannot adhere to. A practical concept…
    A man with a high libido discovers his sexual powers at a young age. He must, however, remain celibate until he marries. If he never marries he is to remain celibate for life. It is hard to accept a loving God in that situation which is untenable. Not a one-size-fits-all.

    If a married couple enter the marriage act with the express intent of not procreating, that is a church sin unless they use the rhythm method. If the woman gets pregnant it is God’s will? If the sperm is produced out side the womb it is a GRAVE sin. WOW! The Catholic Church’s focus is misplaced. It should be on the inside, not the outside.
    Need I say more?

    • morganB,
      Mr Peters will remind you that celibacy means not being married and that nobody can avoid being celebate before they are married. He will also remind you that what you are taking about is continence, not celibacy.

    • “A man with a high libido discovers his sexual powers at a young age. He must, however, remain celibate until he marries. If he never marries he is to remain celibate for life. It is hard to accept a loving God in that situation which is untenable. Not a one-size-fits-all.”

      What an utterly silly argument. Are men brute beasts, with no will, no self-control, no decency, and not enough grace to pray for continence? And even apart from that: “If he never marries…” Well, then he should marry. There’s nothing to stop him.

      By your theory, if someone reeeeeeeeeeally reeeeeeeeeealy wants his neighbor’s property then it’s terribly unfair for God to put him in such an untenable position.

      “that is a church sin”

      That is a sin. You’re attempting to make it seem like some silly little idea that the Church came up with on a whim.

      That would be “natural family planning,” not the rhythm method, and in any case it should not be used except for just and serious reasons.

      “The Catholic Church’s focus is misplaced.”

      Sez you.

      “Need I say more?”

      On the contrary, please say less.

  6. I have to admit that I was astonished about the history of McCarrick, but then I remembered a series of articles in the Wanderer in the mid-seventies. They described in great detail the moral and doctrinal perversion at the diocesan seminary of Newark, New Jersey. I was in a position to know that in general what the article alleged was true. However, as far as I know, nothing was done to correct the situation and as time passed, I realized this seminary was not an isolated case. The is why I was encouraged when the Vatican later did an investigation of seminaries in America. However, it seems that those investigations failed to discover or correct the situation. Obviously, the truth failed to prevail. I cannot imagine why this failure occurred. Now we see the tragic consequences at the highest levels which are simply the rotten fruits while the roots are presumably still there at least in some places.

  7. We must start teaching that homosexuality is wrong at all times, whether their “married” or just being together. This includes their desires and thoughts. Regarding regular people if God is calling them to single life they cannot have any romantic relionship what so ever.

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