Bishop Accountability
  Sparing Rod

By Andrew Sullivan
March 14, 2002

How to respond to Rod Dreher’s latest attempt to blame all the Church’s current troubles on homosexuals? I should begin by saying I think bringing my sexual life – or Rod’s sexual life – into this discussion is highly unhelpful. I have no desire to know whether Rod is “sexually active” in ways the church doesn’t approve – whether he uses contraception, for example, or has ever masturbated or had pre-marital sex. It’s none of my business and is irrelevant to the discussion. So is my sex life. That said, he homes in on a couple of difficult issues. The first is whether the Church has a single unchanging doctrine on every matter of morals which every Catholic is obliged to assent to and practice at all times. This is a common view among pre-Vatican II Catholics, ex-Catholics and non-Catholics. It’s wrong. The Church is not a democracy, but neither is it a Vatican dictatorship. The Second Vatican Council specifically carved out a larger area for the laity to discuss, reflect upon and debate matters of morals, of the application of broad principles to particular issues, and so on. We – not just the Pope – are also the Church. For example, most Catholics find the complete bar on any birth control to be, not to put too fine a point on it, bizarre. When the Church imposes something by diktat that the faithful cannot square with their own moral sense, experience and prayerful reflection, two things happen. The laity ignores it; and the hierarchy loses credibility. To a lesser extent, the Church’s teachings on re-marriage, the role of women, celibacy, and homosexuality are also so theologically muddled and troubling upon inspection that they have generated considerable debate. Bottom line: I don’t think such debate is faithless or un-Catholic. In fact, I think we have a duty to question our faith in order to understand and fully believe it. Those of us who have stayed in the Church despite finding its teachings about our lives incoherent, cruel and unpersuasive are no less faithful than others. And that goes for the many, good, pastoral priests who when faced with real human beings make accommodations that no distant prelate in Rome can or should second-guess.

One Swish Too Far

I’m as troubled as Rod by the notion that there may be some cliques of gay priests acting out or up or whatever. They need to be reined in, but also to get real – not phony - help, from a hierarchy that can barely manage to acknowledge their existence let alone find ways to understand their unique challenges and difficulties. Unfortunately, the closet that Rod supports makes such help extremely difficult and intensifies the problem. That’s why I want more gay priests to come out – not just for their sakes but for the Church’s. You cannot deal with a problem until you have faced it. And in order for these priests to come out, the Church must stop its systematic discrimination and institutional panic around them. It really is a two-way street. My objection to Rod’s tirades is that they conflate all these issues into one easy demon – gay/pedophile/ephebophile/liberal/faithless priests. There are, in fact, three separate issues here: sex abuse in the clergy, which has far more to do with abuse of power than anyone’s sexual orientation; heterodox priests; and gay priests. I’m for firm treatment of the first; mild tolerance of the second, as long as they don’t openly disrespect Church authority; and acceptance of the third, as long as celibacy is both enforced and enabled by greater counseling and support. The reason I take umbrage at some of Rod’s tone is that the conflation of homosexuality and child or minor abuse is so deeply rooted in the public consciousness and so false that it constitutes a permanent libel against which gay men and women have to contend with every day. Guess what? I object to having my sexual and emotional orientation reduced to child-abuse. Wouldn’t you?

Smear Job

But let’s say most of the priest sex abuse cases are same-sex. Doesn’t that imply some homosexual connection? Well, try another analogy. At Tailhook, all the sexual abuse was opposite sex. Does that mean that heterosexual soldiers are the problem? Or try another. Much incest is committed by fathers against daughters. Does that make fatherhood suspect? Or another. The vast majority of sexual harassment cases in the workplace are of subordinate women by superior men. Does that make male heterosexuality the real problem? In these cases, the answer is obvious: of course not. We distinguish between individuals who do evil things and individuals who do not. The attempt to conflate the two, especially with regard to a tiny and long-persecuted minority, is simply wrong. And the Church’s authentic teaching with regard to same-sex sexual abuse is equally emphatic: of course there is no intrinsic connection between it and homosexual orientation. And the attempt to say so – to target homosexuality as the key problem behind the recent scandals – is an appalling smear-job, designed to deflect attention from the real problem. It works because it manages to press certain buttons in the public mind, buttons that have led to the persecution of gays for centuries. But smearing a whole group of people, peddling stereotypes like “swishy priests” or “lavender mafias” or “effete” clerics is not only unworthy of Rod. It is far more immoral than any non-abusive sexual failing could ever be.

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