The explanations in the post-Boston Globe early 2000s came fast and furious. We were quick to quote statistics based on pre- and post-pubescent minors. The problem was clear, wasn’t it? “It’s a homosexuality problem.” As a self-righteously devout teenager, I was quick to say it too, and with gusto. After all, didn’t we need an explanation for a world that would call our entire Church corrupt? As Caiaphas said, “it is better for you that one man should die instead of the people, so that the whole nation may not perish” (John 11:49-50).
But my explanations were a bit too fast. A bit too high-pitched and rushed. Because even as I said the words, a thought nagged in my mind. “You like girls, you know. Maybe you’re the one with the homosexuality problem." But that couldn't be true, could it? Not like they were saying on TV. But could anyone be asked to clarify? Was it safe to tell someone?
As a teenager, did you carry the fear that people might think you’re a pedophile?
TRAGEDY IS EASIER WITH A SCAPEGOAT
When a tragic crisis occurs, it’s natural to look for reasons why. If only a single cause linked all of the problems and lead to an "easy" - or at least recognizable - fix! For the biblical Hebrews and other ancient cultures, animal sacrifice was a means to this end. The death of cattle, sheep, or even birds would atone for the sins of the people. Historically, it’s from this practice that the term “scapegoat” developed.
Scapegoating becomes easier when there’s a correlation. A look at the wave of scandals that have recently rocked the Catholic Church throughout the world disproportionately skew towards males preying upon other males. Ireland. Chile. Pennsylvania. The list goes on. Despite the recent grand jury report’s focus on disturbed men preying upon minors, the 2002 cry has been taken up again in some circles. “Pedophilia? It’s a homosexuality problem.” That the report came on the heels of the disturbing sins of Cardinal McCarrick no doubt fans that flame.
Of course, we cannot downplay the proclivities and sexual preferences displayed in the majority of crimes. We can’t ignore the rumors of activities in seminaries or among the ordained. But the commonality is more than arousal by someone of the same sex. It’s grooming, it’s abuse, it’s manipulation. It’s willfully chosen sin. We should be wary of letting the conversation degenerate dangerously into syllogism. It goes something like this. “(Nearly) every abuse case involved same sex sexual contact. Same sex sexual contact is the outflow of a homosexual orientation. Homosexual orientations cause abuse cases.”
As someone who experiences same sex attraction and has never abused anyone - and, from many conversations over the years, I don’t believe I’m a strange anomaly - I have serious reservations with this line of reasoning, both personally and pastorally. “Homosexuality” is a term typically describing the attraction towards or sexual desire for an adult (or perhaps peer, in the case of the young) of the same sex. In our current crisis, is the issue attraction per se? Or was it unchastity? Habitual sin? Lack of authenticity before God and others? Deep psychological issues relating to attachment, childhood abuse, or mental illness? Disturbed men with sexual perversions towards children, both male and female? Poor human formation and oversight in seminaries?
After the news of Cardinal McCarrick broke, Bishop Barron warned against scapegoating in the search for answers. America Magazine and other bloggers have recently echoed his concerns with frustration. In the complexity of human life and institutions, many factors contribute to sin and their structures. This reality is reflected in the John Jay Report, a third-party report commissioned by the USCCB to investigate causes and context for abuse. You can read the entire report here. Notably, it shies away from a “silver bullet” answer to causation.
“Although a vulnerability or predisposition may exist in general, this situation does not imply that it is possible to either identity specific ‘causes’ of abusive behavior or identify specific individuals who will commit acts of abuse. Rather, it means that some factors may be correlated…though these are often multifaceted and complex in that they interact and lead to a greater level of vulnerability in some.”
To simply accept the narrative of “it’s a homosexuality problem” ignores the complexity of broken, fallen human nature. It blurs the line between inclination and action. It also neglects the compounding issues that caused our current clerical nightmare.
STRUCTURES OF SIN
To move towards justice, we need to be honest about the facts of the matter. But the facts of the matter go beyond “lust of the flesh” (cf. 1 John 2:16). The current crisis is bound up in lust for power, prestige, and control. It’s shot through with fear for the loss of reputation or the status quo. These are desires born out of concupiscence. The scandal is not only the sexual acts themselves, but the treatment of the issue among people who ought to know better.
Catholic Social Teaching has a principle known as “structural sin,” individual sins that are repeated so as to become ingrained and systematized. St. John Paul II writes of it in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis.
“It is not out of place to speak of ‘structures of sin,’ which…are rooted in personal sin, and thus always linked to the concrete acts of individuals who introduce these structures, consolidate them and make them difficult to remove. And thus they grow stronger, spread, and become the source of other sins, and so influence people’s behavior.” (36)
The issue at hand in the Catholic Church is not merely one of sexual misconduct. It is a system that allowed sexual misconduct to flourish, even encouraged it at the highest levels of the hierarchy. There are similar stories of clerical abuse and organizational neglect towards religious women throughout the global Church. This is not merely an issue of attraction to a person of the same sex. This is an issue of structural sin to a very grave degree. It demands the attention of universal Church. It does not demand a scapegoat.
THE BROKEN, BLEEDING BODY OF CHRIST
Here’s the thing. We already have a scapegoat, a Paschal Lamb who suffers for us and our salvation. We commemorate this reality at every Mass. Sexual sins wound the Body of Christ. But those aren’t the only scars born by our Savior and by our Church.
Sr. Theresa Aletheia Noble, a Daughter of St. Paul, posted these thoughts recently on her public Facebook page:
“Every sin impacts the Body. Can we all say that we take that reality seriously enough? I often do not. And that impacts the Church’s holiness. This scandal urges me to cooperate more with God to become holier. The Church needs our holiness. The Church and the entire world needs each one of us to live out our vocation to holiness. We are One Body and we are each called to enter into Jesus’ death so that we might bring life to the world.”
It’s easier, perhaps, to blame one particular tendency to sin than it is to accept the complex failures of the Church we love…or to accept our own. We are all participants in the Paschal mystery. Our sins bring suffering to the world. We’re called to the slow death of preferences that contradict the Gospel. And through it all we have hope that, by the power of God’s grace, together we’ll rise in the end. This is your call. This is my call. This is the call of every human being, no matter how monstrous their sin or how quietly and heroically they fight for virtue. No matter our temptations, we can likely relate to both.
In a talk on same sex attraction at a Steubenville Youth Conference, Fr. Mike Schmitz summed up this universal reality in a similar manner.
“When it comes to the Church, it is never ‘us’ and ‘them’ … if you experience, or someone you know experiences, same sex attraction in the Church … the truth of the matter is, you belong in the Church. It’s not about ‘us’ and ‘them;’ it’s just about ‘us.’”
OVER-SIMPLIFICATION AND IT'S COLLATERAL DAMAGE
Let’s return, for a moment, to the young person; the faithful Catholic who fervently believes in the beauty of the Church’s teaching on the human person and sexual expression. This person is confused, afraid, and likely guilt-ridden for their feelings of attraction to others of the same sex. They’re in the midst of their personality and relational development. They may be impressionable and desperate for answers about personal identity. Now add in the crippling dread of being one of “them.”
I’ve spoken with other millennial Catholics who came of age during the early 2000s and their concerns were similar to my own. “If I could be described as experiencing homosexuality…am I doomed to be a pedophile? Will people think that of me? Will my attractions lead inevitably to abuse?” After all, if the gigantic complex mess of personal and structural sin can be summed up in homosexual inclinations…then where is the hope for me? Over a decade letter, many of us know better. But what about those who don’t?
What about the questioning teenagers hearing a homily not about victims and justice and mercy, but about “the lavender mafia”? What about those already battling shame or anxiety or despair related to their attractions? What about those who finally want to be vulnerable with their family, but the latest barbecue featured a tirade on how “the gays are ruining the Church”? Who sees them? Who walks with them?
And even if I believe that holiness is possible for me, do you? There are devout Catholics striving for virtue who wonder, “Is it safe for me in this climate? If I open up with the wrong person, will I 'cause scandal' to the Church, my parish, my ministry job?” Or how about the chaste, same-sex attracted men who feel a tug to the priesthood wondering, “Is criminality what my vocation director sees when he looks at me? Have I ceased to be a person and become a liability?”
Jesus weeps for the victims, for the contorted inner lives of the victimizers, for the knowing negligence, for the discarding of the vulnerable. These crimes can and must pierce our own hearts. So let’s not heap another injustice upon the pile. When we over-simplify and scapegoat, we create a particular environment. At it’s dubious “best,” the questions go unanswered. At it’s worst, the answers come with cold or impassioned finality. “No, it’s not safe. Yes, there is a problem. Unless you fix something soon, you won’t belong.”
These concerns aren’t negligible. It is imperative that they are answered with truth and love. There are a few important things we can believe ourselves and communicate to others.
Remember Who You Are: Every person is created “very good” in the image and likeness of God. Our sexual desires don’t define us or our destiny.
You Have Choices: A temptation to sin isn’t an inevitability. Each of us have a reason and will. We also have access to God’s grace to animate our lives and move us towards Him. The sins of others are not a sign of what will happen in our own lives
Live in Hope: Tendencies to sin exist in all of us, but so too does the possibility for virtue. We are all invited to chaste sexual integration. God doesn’t call us to something without providing the grace to make it possible.
Mutual Support: People who understand your experience - or at least empathize with it - are out there. Talk to people who genuinely want to listen to your fears and frustrations; people who will offer encouragement and sound advice. If someone is coming to you, avoid quick advice or minimizing their experience. Offer Christlike support to those who need it.
Scapegoating has collateral damage. Let's be prudent and thorough. Let's be repentant, merciful, just, and holy. Let’s not inflict another wound on the already suffering Body of Christ. After all, this isn’t “a homosexuality problem." It’s ugly, ugly sin.