Sexuality Issues Spur Church Soul-Searching

By Wayne Holst
Western Catholic Reporter [Canada]
November 17, 2003

Sexuality issues are engaging the American churches in general and the Catholic Church in particular in unprecedented soul-searching. Each of the following three books presents a mature response to the crisis in its assessment of human sexuality and ministry.

"(Sex) is not a problem to be fixed," says G. Lloyd Rediger. "Organized religion needs to be fixed."

The crisis is serious. Twenty years ago when the first clergy scandals made headline news many wondered whether this issue was pervasive or simply a case of a few abnormal priests, ministers and rabbis. Now we know that 25 per cent of clergy were or are currently involved in sexual misconduct of some sort.

The issue is more pervasive than pedophilia. The search is on for the causative factors and a way to explain why leaders in all religious communities, both male and female, violate moral standards in significant numbers.

Rediger, a respected Presbyterian Church (USA) pastoral counsellor, workshop-leader, speaker and writer offers a wise book, Beyond the Scandals. He describes how the ecumenical Church can move beyond sexual notoriety to healing and health.

The author claims that for far too long, organized religion has treated human sexuality negatively rather than as a positive and creative gift from God. Centuries of institutionalization have emasculated and defeminized sex and tried to get rid of it.

But sex doesn't go away. "It is a natural, hormonal, and relational dynamic of our lives and even of our spirituality," writes the author.

Rediger clinically describes the nature of our current problems by providing background and context to the scandal. He introduces a variety of case studies. These expose the dark side of sexual abusers and the naive, defensive hierarchies that neglected victim-survivors and dismayed people in the pews. Finally, he explores and celebrates healthy sexuality and its possibilities. An appendix provides a helpful inventory for spiritual/sexual self-assessment.

While Rediger assesses scientific data that bring new perspectives to many of the issues and his approach to sexuality is in many ways freeing and commendable, there are places in his book where he differs from official Church teachings.

"Truly effective ministry leaders have the capacity for envisioning a better future and preventing past mistakes."

- Len Sperry

For example, Catholic readers should be aware that his take on gay and lesbian sexuality (page 180ff) is that it is not a choice, but a recognition. He believes that a committed gay sexual relationship can be a healthy one.

Len Sperry is a professor of psychiatry, whose previous books have probed spirituality and sexual dysfunction. In Sex, Priestly Ministry and the Church he claims there is still relatively little known about sexuality and the priesthood. But the stakes are now far too high to base weighty decisions on limited knowledge. This book is a concise, timely source of needed clinical information which will help any reader understand the current controversies and make reasoned, responsible decisions.

Sperry focuses on the meanings of the abuse scandals and on institutional factors unwittingly contributing to it. He proposes the necessity of systemic and structural change.

Part one walks us through the entire process of human psychosexual development; offers a working vocabulary of 51 essential definitions and provides extensive information on intimacy and celibacy.

Part two describes the causes of priestly sexual misconduct and abuse involving children, adolescents and adults. He offers case histories depicting several distinct dysfunctional sexual trajectories.

Part three deals with a number of other key issues such as selecting suitable candidates for ministry; homosexuality; the removal of priests from active service and the prevention of sexual misconduct.

Sperry is hopeful that, from this, a revitalized priesthood and new Church model will emerge.

"Truly effective ministry leaders have the capacity for envisioning a better future and preventing past mistakes," he says. "They can continue in a crisis management mode, or they can choose to act with visionary leadership and implement the various suggested preventive measures."

Married to the Church, by Raymond Hedin was originally published in 1995 and now appears in an updated edition. "If you want to understand priests in our culture, the author states, "this is a good place to start."

The book does not deal directly with issues of sexual abuse, even though the new edition contains re-interviews to learn the reaction of formerly interviewed priests to the scandal and its impact on their lives. Precisely because Hedin aims at the larger picture, this book provides a useful context for understanding this crucial issue.

Originally, this was a study of the midlife struggles of seminarians attending St. Francis Seminary, Milwaukee during the unsettled '60s. Primarily, the book provides an encounter, for those who are not priests, with humans who are in the priesthood.

These have always been men of ideals and moral conviction. Many continue to live lives of self-giving and compassion. Yet their world has changed profoundly, since, in the springtime of their youth, they felt called by God to a special vocation and acted upon that conviction by becoming priests. In the decades that have ensued, however, they have not been protected from vocational crisis within and beyond the institutional Church.

The recent abuse revelations have been deeply troubling for many of these men as they have sought, in their more mature years, to come to terms with personal loneliness, celibacy, financial security, diminished personal self esteem and professional status.

"Priests," Hedin concludes, "long considered the ultimate 'other' by believers and skeptics alike . . . are a good deal like the rest of us." The cultural assumption that priests are fundamentally 'other' damages us as much as it damages them.

Why do seemingly upright spiritual leaders violate professional boundaries? Perhaps that question needs to be addressed, ultimately, to us all.

Archbishop Michael Sheehan of Santa Fe sums up a much too common phenomenon rather succinctly when he suggests: "They lose their prayer life . . . (and) their deep spiritual disciplines."

(Wayne Holst is a parish educator who has taught religion and culture at the University of Calgary.)


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