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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