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False teaching about creation sinks all-male club


I don’t think the issue in the church’s sex scandal is celibacy as such. There are successful celibates in the Western church and in Eastern monastic communities. It is a pity that good priests and monks are being tainted by the abuse perpetrated by some -- and cover-up of that abuse by hierarchy. It is true that celibacy can serve as a candle of allurement to a moth who has unresolved sexual issues.

It appears that a high percentage of pedophiles were themselves sexually abused as children. One psychologist has told me “100 percent.” When that happens, there is often one of two reactions as one reaches puberty: Either an acting out that results in great libertinism or a closing up that registers as a kind of virginal lifestyle. Clearly, a promise of celibacy would appeal to one who is “closing up,” as it seems to solve the problem of one’s sexual dysfunction, lending it high social status as a priest. What is even clearer, however, is that this hiding away from one’s sexuality only lasts so long and then it bursts out as violence against the next generation.

The deeper scandal being exposed by priestly pedophilia, however, concerns centuries of negative teaching about sexuality by the church and the misuse of celibacy as a political device to keep a clique in authoritarian power. This alone explains the incessant cover-ups by Cardinal Bernard Law and other members of the hierarchy over the years.

“A mistake about creation results in a mistake about God,” St. Thomas Aquinas warned seven centuries ago. The church has been involved and is still involved in false teaching about sexuality.

Consider how these priests who were acting out their sexual violence on innocent youth were also, in the name of Catholic dogma, preaching in the pulpit and advising in the confessional that it is wrong to practice birth control even at a time when the human population is swamping the rest of creation; it is wrong to use condoms even at a time when people worldwide are dying from AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases; all masturbation is a “serious sin”; homosexuality is a “disorder” and that all homosexuals must abstain from sex -- that is, be celibate even when these priests, with their vows or promises, were not; and women do not have the “equipment” to be ordained priests.

This false teaching about sexuality goes even deeper than misshaping our morality. Aquinas says false teaching affects our understanding of divinity itself. Our relationship to God, self and nature gets skewed.

Spirituality goes awry. The original blessing of our human nature is turned into original sin. (Augustine identifies original sin with our sexuality.)

Our sexual chakras, instead of being honored as places of power, become scapegoats. Cheap guilt feeds patriarchy. Sexism and homophobia enter the ecclesial bloodstream. Neuroses (including preoccupation with sexuality) become the norm. Creativity is stifled. Theologians get expelled; pedophiles get protected at the highest echelons. And the Inquisition returns.

What all this amounts to is the God of healthy sexuality (a God of creation) is replaced by man-made rules that enforce an authoritarian and patriarchal system of hierarchy that covers up the serious offenses of its all-male caste members in the name of secrecy and not rocking the boat.

Protecting the perpetrator proves to be a higher priority than protecting innocent youth. Everything gets sacrificed to perpetuating the all-male club. (Theologians also get sacrificed to this voracious god of secrecy.) And of course it is verboten to even discuss opening the club up to married clergy or women clergy for fear of tainting the closed system.

Early in the 20th century, a Celtic poet wrote a poem titled “Pater Noster” in which the dominant image was the church as a great sailing vessel that sailed successfully through wild hurricanes and ferocious storms over 19 centuries but then -- in the 20th century -- crashed into a rock, splintered and sank. The rock’s name was “Sex.”

The revelations of sexual misconduct are the chickens coming home to roost for the Roman Catholic church. You cannot teach falsely about creation, that is, sexuality, and rightly about other forms of power. And that is why the revelation of sexual misconduct is opening up revelations of other misuses of power that are in a way worse. Pedophiles are sick (which does not excuse their culpability) -- but what is the excuse of the hierarchy who cover it all up or who want to blame it all on homosexuals in the clergy?

The credibility of the Roman Catholic church and its “infallible” hierarchy will never recover from these revelations. Nor need they. The church is being demythologized. The spiritual revolution that Jesus set loose needs ecclesial structures to play a lesser, not a greater, role in the future when humankind must travel more lightly and must put spirituality ahead of religion and orthopractice ahead of orthodoxies and deep ecumenism ahead of tribalism and protecting of an institution at whatever cost.

The late Cardinal Joseph Bernadin of Chicago used to speak about the “seamless garment” of Catholic morality. One implication of a seamless garment is that when one thread unravels the whole garment does the same. We are currently witnessing the unraveling of the Roman Catholic church as we know it, particularly as regards its secrecy and male-dominated clubbiness.

Speaking from my own story with this papacy, I can now understand better why the recovery of the Creation Spirituality tradition was such a threat to this papacy and why I, along with Leonardo Boff and other theologians, were either silenced or removed from our orders. And why, sad to tell, the Dominican order in its American version did not resist my own purge. The Benedictine sisters last year demonstrated, as they supported Sr. Joan Chittister, that resistance pays off. But women religious are more courageous than men religious as a rule.

My 26-year-old nephew and his wife, residents of Massachusetts, were on their way to baptize their baby when the sex abuse revelation broke in Boston. They asked themselves: Why baptize a baby in a church that expels its priest theologians (not only their uncle, but other theologians, too) but harbors priest pedophiles? Today is not a great time to be Catholic. What parent wants to subject his or her children to such goings-on?

The good news in all this is that this meltdown of Catholicism as we know it clears the way for the Spirit to work more freely in this new century.

Spirituality, yes. Religion, no. The Catholic tradition has a lot to offer in the former. Regarding the latter, it has pretty well struck out.

Former Dominican Matthew Fox is now an Episcopal priest and president of the University of Creation Spirituality in Oakland, Calif.

National Catholic Reporter, May 31, 2002