The Magazine

The Elephant in the Sacristy

Beneath the scandals now consuming the Catholic church is a cluster of facts too enormous to ignore.

Jun 17, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 39 • By MARY EBERSTADT
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Such strenuous, willful, and perverse denial of the obvious, repeated unceasingly on paper and airwaves and websites these last several months, has been injurious to the greater good on at least two critical counts. First, the insistence on false definitions has deflected attention from where it ought to be--i.e., on who, exactly, has been injured in all this, who has done the injuring, and how restitution might be made. Second, and what is even more dangerous, this widespread repudiation of sheer fact has been inimical to the most important mission facing the bishops and, indeed, all other Catholics. That is the responsibility of doing everything in one's power to prevent this current history, meaning the rape and abuse of innocents by Catholic priests, from ever being repeated. Insisting that things are not what they appear subverts that end, to say the least.

In what follows, therefore, I propose that we tunnel down through the diverting abstractions in which the debate has been shrouded, and then reason back upward from the level of simple fact. For in focusing precisely on the uncontested facts of cases, we do learn something potentially useful not only to the bishops as they hammer out policies for the future, but also to the victims, and possibly even the perpetrators, of this evil. In order to get there, however, we must be able to call the elephant by its name. The real problem facing the American Catholic church is that a great many boys have been seduced or forced into homosexual acts by certain priests; that these offenders appear to have been disproportionately represented in certain seminaries; and that their case histories open questions about sexuality that--verboten though they may have become--demand to be reexamined.

I

That the Catholic church is an institution sustained of, by, and for sinners is not exactly news to anyone acquainted with human history, let alone to any Catholic or other reader of today's papers. Even so, there is something surpassingly wicked about the scandal now exploded in North America. Of all that Christianity has represented since its inception, there has been one teaching in which believers could take particular historical pride. That was the notion, virtually unique to Christianity (and Judaism), that not only were sexual relations between adults and children wrong--a proscription that puzzled and irritated the ancient pagans, as it does the pagans of today--but that this particular exploitation of innocents was an especially grievous sin. Accordingly, from the earliest Church histories to the present, penalties for the seduction of boys by men have abounded. Anyone who doubts the historical consistency of the Church's teaching here should know that the advocates of pedophilia in the world today--the outright public enthusiasts for man-boy sex--vociferously deplore the Church specifically on account of its millennia-old condemnation of the sexual exploitation of the young.

It has therefore been perverse in the extreme, at least for many ordinary Catholics, to see that one prominent public reaction to the scandals has been to blame matters not on the molesters, but--incredibly--on the non-molesting rest of the Church. This is, after all, the meaning of the widespread attack on priestly celibacy. As one writer asked in Slate with apparent hopefulness, "Does the celibacy rule turn priests into child molesters?"

There was, to put the matter delicately, more than a touch of schadenfreude in this reaction to the scandals--even some humor, albeit very, very dark. After all, it is not as if all those dissenting Catholics, lapsed Catholics, and outright anti-Catholics chastising the Church these many months had hitherto shown much enthusiasm for its teachings about sexual morality. In its way, the fact that just such critics took out after celibacy did make perfect, if surreal, sense. As First Things editor Richard John Neuhaus shrewdly observed, "The celibacy rule is so offensive to many of today's commentators, Catholic and otherwise, because it so frontally challenges the culturally entrenched dogma that human fulfillment and authenticity are impossible without sexual intercourse of one kind or another."