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Forsaking Chastity

August 27, 2018 (1,951 words)

The Catholic Church’s dark night of the soul continues. Earlier this month Pennsylvania’s attorney general issued a scathing report on a handful of dioceses across the state, going back some 70 years, which detailed an alarming 1,000 cases where minors had been sexually abused at the hands of some 300 different priests.

We would expect the ordained men responsible for this abuse to be brought to justice and punished. If the statute of limitations prevents that from happening via the civil authorities, certainly we should receive a full accounting from the respective dioceses involved, at the very least.

Meanwhile our hearts go out to the victims, as we ponder the deep hurt inflicted on the innocents, and pray for their eventual healing

…outrage emanating from all sides

Outrage at this latest report has emanated from all sides, and is completely warranted. Many Catholics have called for dramatic changes in the hierarchical structure of the Church, to allow for more transparency and accountability. Some have called for women to play a more prominent role in exercising authority within the Church. Others have suggested we must do away with the expectation our priests hue to a vow of celibacy. I will leave these hot-button issues for others to debate.

Beyond any administrative or procedural changes that may be suggested and considered, we should also confront and acknowledge how this terrible clerical sex abuse crisis is merely part and parcel of a Church-wide forsaking of chastity.

For a priest to forsake his vow of celibacy – the highest and most demanding form of chastity – is always a personal tragedy. But to do so while using a young boy to indulge his wonton lust – besides being a crime against nature and the faith – is repugnant. While nothing can mitigate the violation of trust such vile actions represent, it is nevertheless worth noting these deeply flawed priests were not operating in a vacuum.

So far the focus has been on how some members of the clergy have let us down. And they surely have. But we are all in this together. The laity has also, to a very real extent, let the clergy down.

… this ongoing crisis cuts both ways

That is to say, while it is right and just to call these wayward priests to account for their deplorable actions, let’s not inadvertently make the mistake of thinking that we – the faithful, the Church Militant – have all been fine, upstanding Catholics on the subject of sexual morality for lo these last 70 years.

Of course nothing is morally equivalent to having sex with a minor, let alone a minor of one’s acquaintance who looks up to you as an authority figure. Not to mention an authority figure presumed to be “holy” and a representative of Christ on earth.

We certainly need to expose the ugly history of clerical sex abuse, once and for all. Appropriate action needs to be taken against the men who did it, and the men who failed to stop it. And steps must be followed to assure this sort of thing no longer happens.

But in my view we would also benefit from understanding how these unhinged priests – a small, infinitesimal minority, by all accounts – were merely answering the exact same siren call of illicit and unsanctioned sex that has enveloped our entire culture, and undermined our commitment to chastity, over the course of the last 70 years.

… consider the wreckage created by those who went rogue

Yes, we certainly expect a priest to hold to a higher standard – meaning celibacy and not just chastity – and the overwhelming majority has done so and continues to do so. But look at the wreckage created by the few priests who went rogue.

So it is with those of us who did not choose to enter the seminary and become a priest. Choosing the vocation of marriage does not constrain us to celibacy, but we are nevertheless expected to live out the virtue of chastity. Yes, that’s correct, even married people. To do otherwise is to fall victim to treating one’s covenantal spouse as little more than a sex doll.

But that’s not the message that has been transmitted to us by the culture over the last 70 years, is it? More alarming is the fact that we haven’t heard much about this concept of chastity-within-marriage from the Church herself. Whose fault is that?

Yes, some of the blame can be laid on our schools, for spending too much time focusing on “creating the leaders of tomorrow” instead of instilling the important virtues that should define our existence. And we can maybe also blame our priests to some extent for a less-than-ardent commitment to preach on this counter-cultural virtue, still expected of all married people, from the pulpit.

But at a certain point we – the faithful, the Church Militant – have to step up and shoulder our fair share of the blame. We have allowed ourselves to become lax. Church teaching on such important matters as sexual morality remains as profound as it has always been. But it requires an obedient and receptive congregation prepared to give such teaching the careful consideration it deserves.

… sexual license has been advocated in every age

Sexual license has been advocated in every age. The Church’s point of view regarding chastity has always run counter to popular opinion. Given their druthers most people would prefer to do what feels good right away, even if that feeling doesn’t last and proves to be corrosive in the long run.

A short and by no means comprehensive list of those who actively disparaged chastity and carried the banner of lascivious behavior forward in the first half of the 20th century would include such luminaries as Wilhelm Reich, John B. Watson, Alfred Kinsey, and the great popularizer himself, Hugh Hefner. These people and others like them laid the groundwork and built the scaffolding on which we now stand.

There is no denying a “grand accommodation” took place in the 1960s between the Catholic Church and the modern world. We were all led to believe that things had changed, that we could let it all hang out along with everybody else, and still manage to be good Catholics.

Academic freedom, all the rage at the time, meant we no longer had to concern ourselves with outdated theological concepts such as “sin.” And there was certainly no longer any such thing as “temptation,” since one was encouraged to express oneself by doing whatever one felt like, at any given moment, with whoever happened to be in the vicinity.

Right about now some of you may be thinking, “Wait a minute, I never had any sort of extramarital affair. I never strayed. I have been faithful.” Well, there are sins of omission as well as sins of commission, aren’t there. If we married Catholics had actually been as faithful all these years as we think we’ve been, and lived out the virtue of chastity within our marriages as we should have, the culture never would have drifted in the worrisome way it has.

… lay people need to stand their moral ground

Consider how our advertising and entertainment industries now traffic in soft-core porn as their stock in trade. How all our popular entertainment features tantalizing images of extremely attractive males and females in various stages of undress, if not actually performing intimate acts once reserved for the privacy of the marital bedroom.

None of this would have come to pass if Catholic lay people had stood their ground, refused to buy the suggestively-advertised products or watch the salacious moving images. Such a boycott worked extremely well here in Philadelphia in the 1930s, and would no doubt be just as effective today.

Unfortunately, in order to maintain our bona fides as hip contemporaries with zero hang-ups, we have ceded all moral authority to cultural arbiters whose vision of sexual activity in particular, and virtuous behavior in general, is the polar opposite of what we were taught it should be.

Let’s face it, folks, due to our fallen nature we silently revel in the suggestive advertising and the salacious entertainment. To reference a relatively tame example, Catholics peruse the infamous swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated right along with all the other apostates, every spring.

No one is looking over our shoulder anymore, telling us to mind our p’s and q’s and behave ourselves. Since we are simply going with the flow and following the crowd, we can’t be singled out and accused of helping to undermine public decency or damage the social fabric.

In the process, almost without our realizing what was going on, the very word chastity has been stricken from the vocabulary. It is now a foreign concept from a bygone era.

… a perfectly good word, stricken from the vocabulary

That’s too bad, since chastity remains what is has always been. It’s one of Seven Contrary Virtues which are understood as specific opposites to the Seven Deadly Sins. Chastity is meant to keep us from lust, and should be emulated by every adult who seeks the moderation of sexual desire that forms the basis of moral living.

Though “self-control” is now a frowned upon phrase, the overwhelming sex drive we have been blessed with is an important part of our nature, and is intended for a specific purpose, even if that purpose may be hard to fathom in the heat of passion. It is to be directed toward the unitive and procreative functions that make marriage a unique, life-long union between a man and a woman.

This simple, declarative sentence can take a lifetime to properly comprehend. So don’t despair. Keep plugging away at it. The wisdom will eventually reveal itself to you. Figuring out how chastity is best expressed in a faithful marriage is an involved conversation. But if you are married, you should be having that conversation.

By casting aside their sacred vow of celibacy, certain priests have committed some very grave sins for which they will have to answer at the final judgement. And hurt many vulnerable young people in the process. But the laity should be careful not to let a justifiable indignation dominant their thoughts. The take-away is the Church had it right to begin with, and should never have allowed herself to be compromised in the name of being ecumenical.

We need to step back and realize this compromise has impacted us all, clergy and laity alike. We should take up the cause of the seven virtues, as reliable antidotes to the seven deadly sins, once again. Maybe if we start openly practicing these virtues, our priests will find it easier to preach about them. And if we stop indulging our lust, no matter how small and inconsequential we may consider those improprieties to be, such an example may help keep our priests from indulging theirs.

Yes, any wayward priest – and the prelates who either offered cover or worse, participated in such behavior themselves – is something we should all be concerned with. Let’s eradicate the rot. But let us also acknowledge that scandals will be a part of Church life as long as the church is made up of weak, fallible humans who are too easily led into temptation.

For those who are calling for more lay partition in the leadership of the Church, let’s start with this. Let’s lead by acknowledging how we, the independent laity, have in too many instances chosen to forsake chastity, in what we have done, and what we have failed to do.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.
August 27, 2018

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