The Catholic Way Forward
The abuse that has come to light in the Catholic church over the past few weeks is hard to stomach, and the more articles come out detailing the extent of rampant sexual immorality among Catholic clergy members, the harder it is to wrap your mind around. There’s one thing consistently missing in most of the press coverage. For all of the condemnation leveled against the church in the New York Times or The Washington Post, I have not read a single column that even touches the lack of self-control over sexual desires. Of course, molestation and sexual abuse are still culturally prohibited, but what about sexual desire itself?
This is the catch-22 for secular coverage of sex scandals. The condemnation centers on charges of molestation, but the problem is far bigger than that. In addition to the horrendous fact that there have been hundreds of children abused, there is an even more numerically daunting problem of sexually active clergy members. The whole idea of religious celibacy is foolish to secular commentators, and you don’t see any of them condemning the extensive networks of gay priests coming to light. This is because a condemnation of that kind, without the ability to empathetically ethicize (something long ago lost in our public discourse), is a contradiction in terms for the sexual revolution. It will be impossible to call the Catholic clergy to account for the full extent of their sexual sin when it is taboo to tell any group of people to restrain themselves.
If you’re writing for the NYT, the best argument you can make is that these findings are morally abhorrent, or if you’re really gutsy, blatantly hypocritical. Both true. What you will not be able to do is offer a path forward. In the face of sexual expressivism, all of the Catholic church's sexual ethics look arbitrary, and the path forward looks very bleak. We should expect the mainstream media to make the argument that this is why it’s a bad idea to have an entire group of people pledging lifelong celibacy. But if they do, they’ve stepped into their own trap. In the secular world, sexual desire is an unalienable right, as long as the person you desire is consenting and over 18. But the path forward may be elusive to a culture currently waging war against self-denial of any kind.
For the Catholic church, the options are also limited. I see three possible paths in the coming months.
First, the Catholic church will purge the dioceses racked with scandal and investigate the clergy in America, but they will ultimately allow gay bishops to stay in their posts. Pope Francis may never openly condone the ordination of gay bishops, but everything he’s done to this point would lead you to believe that he won’t end up excommunicating outed bishops either. Consider what he did with the issue of divorce. He didn’t change official church doctrine, which prohibits bishops and priests from administering the Eucharist to those who have been divorced. Instead, he allowed local bishops to decide as a matter of conscience. In cases like these, his preferred method has been to leave matters of doctrine that run contrary to popular opinion up to local leadership. Then again, look at what he did with the death penalty…
It is becoming increasingly unlikely that the Pope will want to weather the storm that will come if he oversees a removal of openly gay clergy. When it comes to contentious progressive social issues, Francis has subtly sided with the culture over the historic opinions of the church. Why would the issue of gay clergymen be any different?
Second, the church will allow married men to be ordained to the priesthood. There has been discussion recently that Pope Francis may allow married men to be ordained as priests. These discussions should accelerate in the near future and by this time next year, I would be very surprised if this new allowance weren’t rolled out universally. As a pragmatic consideration, the Catholic Church has a major population problem. The number of seminary graduates has been on the decline for some time, and after the investigations that will occur in the coming months, that problem is bound to get worse. There simply won’t be enough men available to run the church. Allowing married men to be ordained solves two problems, it opens up a large pool of possible priests and it aligns the clergy with a biblical sexual ethic.
Third, the church will stand firm on biblical sexual ethics. The major problem in the Catholic Church is that they have failed to hold their leaders accountable to biblical sexuality. The obvious proof of this trend is being revealed on every newspaper in the world. But there is a more subtle problem the church needs to address, and this is a problem that only the church can solve.
In Matthew 19, Jesus says there are those who chose to be celibate for the kingdom of Heaven, but it is clear from the context that this is not the norm. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul counsels those who burn with sexual passion to marry a godly woman. Across the Bible, this is the sexual norm. Sexual desires are made to be expressed and satisfied in the covenant of marriage.
What the Catholic Church has done is collapse the call to celibacy into the call to ministry. These are not the same. In fact, there is no place in Scripture where leaders are called to celibacy. It’s no wonder they’re reaping disaster.
Now, I’m not arguing that these men are somehow less responsible because they’ve taken a vow of chastity when many of them never had any intention of keeping it. They should have kept their vow, and by the Holy Spirit, they could have. The Bible does not teach that you have a right to act on your sexual desires. What is remarkable is that it teaches the exact opposite. The church has always taught that there are two ways to deal with sexual desires, in a marriage between a man and a woman and in self-denial through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Whether or not the church requires priests to continue to take a vow of chastity is a secondary issue. Those men who do should be expected to keep it. When Paul wrote Galatians, one of the most contentious and unpopular issues in the church was sexual ethics. Yet, he warned the Galatians that the fruit of the flesh is sexual immorality, but the fruit of the Spirit is self-control.
We can’t expect this call to come from the world. The sexual revolution has made it impossible for us to see eye to eye about the root of the problem. The call for reform must come from Christians. We must rise up and speak a fresh and invigorating word into the rubble. It’s likely that the Catholic church will pursue some combination of the first two options, and that will be a shame. Biblical Catholics are calling the church back to her roots. Public sin should lead to public repentance, and not just in sound and fury, but in a sorrowful return to the Lord - trusting only in his Word and falling only on his grace.
Cole Feix is the founder of So We Speak and a regular writer. Follow him on Twitter, @cfeix7.
Like the content? Support the site and get more at patreon.com/sowespeak!