Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger of Albany put his finger on the root of the present crisis caused by the McCarrick affair. It is, he said, “sin and a retreat from holiness, specifically the holiness of an integral, truly human sexuality.” He adds immediately: “In negative terms, and as clearly and directly as I can repeat our Church teaching, it is a grave sin to be ‘sexually active’ outside of a real marriage covenant.”
What a relief to hear such plain speaking from a bishop!
This clear teaching of the Church has been, at best, obfuscated for some 50 years, as indicated by the way the term “sin” has almost vanished from normal ecclesiastical discourse and holiness is rarely seen as the goal of morality. That obfuscation, it seems to this writer, is not only at the root of the phenomenon of aberrant sexual behaviour among clergy, as others have pointed out.  My thesis is that the same obfuscation is also at the root of failure of religious superiors to face up to such sinful behaviour and to deal with it decisively.
It is not insignificant that the Pandora’s Box opened up by the McCarrick scandal should occur during the very year the Church is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the promulgation Humanae Vitae. In the midst of all the celebrations, however, little attention has been given to fact that the Church’s teaching on the central principles of Catholic sexual morality newly articulated by Pope Paul VI was almost immediately rejected by dissenting theologians within days of its promulgation. Before the text of the papal document could have reached Washington, DC in the pre-fax-machine (and pre-email) era, Professor Charles E. Curran of Catholic University of America whipped up some 87 signatories to a letter that publicly rejected its teaching. Soon the list of signatories reached some 300, when, as Cardinal Stafford once testified, huge pressure was put on theologians and priests to sign, even though few if any could have actually read the document. Similar dissent was expressed in other countries throughout the world, though perhaps not as aggressively as in the USA or Germany.
For the first time in the history of the Church, leading theologians openly dissented from the Magisterium. And this happened even though Pope Paul VI expressly affirmed his authority as Successor of St. Peter to interpret the natural moral law as clarified by Divine Revelation in order to answer to the grave issues raised by demographic and cultural developments in the modern world (cf. HV 4). It was rejected as “non-infallible,” as though what is be accepted as authoritatively binding in conscience was limited to (rare) infallible ex cathedra pronouncements.
Three years after the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, which was broadly perceived as having upturned the traditional teaching and praxis in many areas, the appeal to the Church’s teaching authority no longer carried much weight. It was effectively replaced by the newly found weight of the magisterium of the theologians—to which many bishops were also in thrall. The result was that a number of prominent episcopal conferences—most remarkably that of West Germany (unlike that of East Germany)—came out with ambiguous statements on their reception of the encyclical. Their carefully crafted messages amounted to instructing the faithful to take note of the beautiful official papal teaching, but then judge for themselves as to whether it applied to them in their situation. This was proposed under the rubric of “following one’s conscience,” a seriously mistaken understanding of the meaning of conscience that characterized (and still characterizes) the dominant school of moral theology.
Humanae Vitae was promulgated in the fateful year 1968, the height of the sexual revolution. Soon the influence of that revolution began to seep into theology—and so into the seminaries, which at the time were full of young men susceptible to the seductive appeal of a more “liberating” approach to sexual morality. That new approach surfaced almost immediately after the rejection of Humanae Vitae. Thus, for example, in 1974, the Dominican theologian Donald J. Goergen published The Sexual Celibate. In it, he asserts, among other things, that “being celibate does not mean being asexual”; “chastity is not intended to lead one into a ‘no-touch’ style of life”; “when affectionate and genital feelings enter homosexual friendship, one should recognize and accept their presence. This does not mean the relationship is unhealthy.” It became “the reference book” on sexuality in the seminaries in the 1970s. One reviewer of Goergen’s book concludes that, though quite controversial when first written (in the previous year), “Goergen has seemed much more ‘mainstream’ since this book…was published.
How mainstream such ideas had become can be gleaned from the book Human Sexuality: New Directions in Catholic Thought, edited by A. Kosnik and others (1977—incidentally, this was the year one Theodore Edgar McCarrick was appointed auxiliary bishop in New York). The 322-page “Kosnik Report,” as it came to be known, was the product of a study commissioned by the Catholic Theological Society of America. It reflects the extensive literature on the subject that was part of the response to Vatican II’s call to moral theologians to renew their discipline. The theological views (and especially the “pastoral guidelines”) of the report became a standard approach to the teaching of moral theology and to pastoral practice. The authors claimed that contemporary theology was moving beyond the earlier, traditional approach based on outdated notions of morality and sexuality. “The book made excuses for masturbation, cohabitation, swinging, adultery, homosexuality, and even bestiality.” The criticism by the Doctrinal Commission of the American Episcopal Conference (1977) fell on deaf ears, as, indeed, did the 1979 Declaration by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the book.
Its “pastoral guidelines” were based on the dominant school of fundamental moral theology which denied absolute moral norms as proposed by such prominent names as Charles E. Curran, Richard A. McCormick, S.J., Bernard Häring, C.Ss.R., and Josef Fuchs, S.J. Rejecting the Church’s teaching that any acts, such as homosexual acts, are intrinsically wrong, the writers of the report claim that “the objective moral evaluation of a person’s action must take into consideration the context of that person’s moral stance, the circumstances of the action, and the effects that issue from it” (p. 211). This is what became known as proportionalism, the “Catholic” version of situation ethics.
The report’s understanding of sexuality was primarily based on “the empirical sciences”—in effect those inspired by the now-discredited Kinsey Report. The new approach to sexuality found expression in the writings of Charles E. Curran, Donald J. Goegen O.P., Philip S. Keane S.S., and others, which were developed in the wake of public dissent from the teaching of Humanae Vitae. Once fertility is decoupled from the conjugal act, then most sexual acts within or outside marriage can be, if not actually justified, as least excused, the report claims, as long as they “are conducive to creative growth and integration of the human person” (p. 92). Sexuality, it claimed, is the Creator’s ingenious way of calling people constantly out of themselves into relationship with others. Sexual differentiation (male or female) is consequently reduced to an accidental physical condition of no essential significance, since the sexual impulse is simply “biologically tied” to procreation (and thus will be “biased” in the direction of heterosexuality). As a result: “All else being equal, a homosexual engaging in homosexual acts in good conscience has the same rights of conscience and the same rights to the sacraments as a married couple practicing birth control in good conscience” (p.216).
There is no mention of pederasty or pedophilia in the report. The only vague allusion to such criminal behaviour would seem to be in a paragraph dismissing widespread “myths” regarding homosexuals. There the claim is made that “proportional to their numbers in the population, heterosexuals are more prone to child molestation than homosexuals” (p. 212). Whatever about the general population, child molestation by clerics is some 80 percent homosexual. But this fact was generally ignored in earlier outcries over clerical sexual abuse. Why?
Space does not permit me to engage in any detail with the opinions of the Kosnik Report. Leaving aside significant factors such as psychological immaturity, innate proclivities, etc., these views of the theological establishment are mentioned here as contributing significantly to the spread of homosexual behaviour among seminarians and (later in life) clerics. The new approach to sexual morality also gave free reign to those with aberrant proclivities, in particular if they were in positions of authority over seminarians and priests. Even more significant in the wake of McCarrick is the way this very ambiguous attitude to “human sexuality” on the part of “mainstream” (i.e., dissenting) moral theology led in time to bishops and religious superiors effectively turning a blind eye to the sinful behaviour among clerics which they must have known about, even if they disapproved of it. When dealing with deviant sexual behaviour, the report generally recommended counselling. (Tragically, bishops all too readily accepted such advice.) Moral guilt is minimized, if not actually ignored.
Many clerics and bishops now in office would have been trained in (or at least exposed to) this “mainstream” moral theology. And even when their own intact moral instinct disapproved of such behaviour, those in positions of responsibility rarely had the theological means of justifying their better instinct—and so would have felt insecure as to how they should respond. (This, of course, is apart altogether from the role of more “human” factors such as cowardice and careerism on the part of bishops.) The theological uncertainty would also have played into the clerical self-protective tendency to cover-up.
In all likelihood, the uncertainty as to the sinfulness of homosexual behaviour may also be the reason why, as Ralph Martin wrote the following in his recent letter to “troubled Catholics”: “To this day, there are quite a number of ‘gay friendly’ parishes in even ‘good dioceses,’ where those afflicted with homosexual temptation are not encouraged to live chaste lives or offered effective correction, but instead are confirmed in their sexual activity. It seems many bishops are afraid to tackle the local ‘homosexual lobbies’ and choose to turn a blind eye.”
Like the cover-up, turning a blind eye to wrongdoing is also to sin against justice. All sexual sins are by their very nature sins against justice. But the injustice done by religious superiors to the victims of clerical sexual abuse of any kind (and to his or her family, indeed to the wider community) by failing to discipline the perpetrator or, worse still, to cover-up the crime is even graver still. The Church in recent decades has been vocal in its commitment to social justice. But it seems to have given little attention to the virtue of justice: the acquired personal disposition to give to others what is their due. It is part of tough love.
The attempt by Pope St. John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor (1993) to overcome the malaise in fundamental moral theology (at the core of which is the denial of intrinsically evil acts) was generally ignored by “mainstream” theologians. Most bishops probably had little idea as to what the Pope was talking about in Veritatis Splendor—an admittedly difficult and dense text. The Pope’s Wednesday audiences on the Theology of the Body, as well as his post-synodal apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio, were part of Rome’s various attempts to correct the mistaken notion of human sexuality as manifested in the Kosnik Report. Mainstream moral theology ignored them, and indeed any of the other similar documents produced by Rome. The CDF’s Instruction on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons, for example, was sharply criticized and rejected by the same theological establishment. Their claim regarding a dual magisterium (that of the theologians and of the Pope) put authoritative papal teaching, at best, on a par with the alternative, progressive views of moral theologians, but usually considered the former as inferior to the latter (since the teaching of the Church’s Magisterium was seen as conservative and rigid), thus encouraging the faithful to choose which opinion he or she preferred. This “choice” was then seen as acting according to one’s conscience.
In the course of the 50 years since leading theologians dissented on the teaching of Humanae Vitae, bishops came more and more to relinquish their own teaching authority. But equally fatally, they tended to turn a blind eye to the sinful behaviour of their clerics—and, it would now appear, of their fellow bishops, though this is yet to be proved.
This tragic development—which, apart from the real scandal it gave and continues to give (scandal understood in the strict sense as causing disbelief [cf. Mt 18:6]), resulted in unspeakable damage to seminarians and clerics at all levels, spiritual, psychological and even physical—can be traced back to the denial of sin, more specifically, the denial of intrinsically immoral acts. In his statement of August 1 (the feast of St. Alphonsus Ligouri, the patron of moral theologians, as it happened), Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo concluded frankly: “Our Church is suffering from a crisis of sexual morality.” That this fact has been publicly acknowledged by the president of USCCB is a real sign of hope.
But the crisis of sexual morality is rooted, as already mentioned, in an even deeper crisis, namely that of fundamental moral theology. This in turn reflects (and contributes to) the moral crisis at the root of modern, post-Enlightenment culture. Solzhenitsyn, in his controversial commencement address at Harvard 40 years ago, identified the source of the modern crisis affecting Western civilization as the humanistic way of thinking that emerged initially with the Renaissance:
This humanistic way of thinking which had proclaimed itself as our guide, did not admit the existence of intrinsic evil in man, nor did it see any task higher than the attainment of happiness on earth. It started modern Western civilization on dangerous trend of worshiping man and his material needs.
The failure to admit the existence of intrinsic evil in man and the search for happiness in this world are interrelated. Both are predicated on the denial of Transcendence (and so the denial of conscience as the antenna of Transcendence, that inner sense of right and wrong) and so the denial of the universal call to holiness as man’s goal in life. Both are materialistic—reducing moral behaviour to a calculus of advantages and disadvantages to the autonomous self. Both constitute the essence of secularism. That secularism has seeped into the very fabric of the contemporary theology.
The road to recovery and renewal will be long and difficult. Opposition can be expected from the theological establishment, those who have effectively lost their authentic Catholic conviction. Writing in 1997, Matthew Lamb noted: “There is no doctoral program in North America with a rigorous ratio studiorum that offers an integral formation in the doctrinal and theoretical traditions of Catholic teaching” (that situation has, in the meantime, been radically changed with the establishment of theology faculties such as those at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ave Maria University, and similar colleges).
The process of renewal must give priority to the state of moral theology. Striving after holiness must become the goal of all moral theology. Recent decades have seen major advances in the development of different schools of moral theology which, rooted in Revelation, are in harmony with Church teaching and are inspired by the recovery of virtue as preferred mode of moral reflection. That approach has been sanctioned by its use in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. And new Catholic universities have been founded to foster such Catholic theology in the full sense of the term. These developments are signs of hope not only for North America. Renewal must evidently be accompanied by prayer and penance (including public penance) by clerics.
It would greatly help to kick-start a more widespread process of theological renewal were Pope Francis to authorize an affirmative answer to the second of the Dubia:
After the publication of the post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (cf. n. 304), does one still need to regard as valid the teaching of St. John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor n. 79, based on Sacred Scripture and on the Tradition of the Church, on the existence of absolute moral norms that prohibit intrinsically evil acts and that are binding without exceptions?
 In the wake of the 2002 scandals, Father Matthew Lamb wrote: “No adequate diagnosis of the contributory causes of the Catholic-priest-abuse scandals can overlook the role of dissent among theologians. I am afraid that we theologians have failed to acknowledge our own failures and the lies, to use St. Augustine’s strong language, which we have been communicating in our teaching and writings,” (Theological Malpractice: The Roots of Scandal, dated October 2, 2002). See also George Weigel, The Courage to be Catholic (New York, 2002).
 Matthew Lamb, Theological Malpractice, op. cit.
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