THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IN AMERICA was long on a collision course with sex. No more: The train has wrecked. There’s blood on the tracks and smoke pouring from the engine, with the engineers called to Rome to account for their mistakes.
Michael Rose asserts in his burgeoning best-seller, Goodbye, Good Men, that for 30 years, seminaries across the country have accepted men who are openly, actively gayand thereby run off thousands of straight men intent on chastity. I’ve known quite a few such men. Many now are the fathers of five or six, running home-schools or scraping up tuition, hoping that one of their sons may someday mount the altar in their stead.
Homosexuality poses a real and present danger to Catholic clergy in America. But it’s not gay activists who threaten the Church, or conscious conspirators trying to undermine a Church that forbids them to act on their desires. While a few such men have snuck through, and some may have risen to prominencethe coddled pervert Paul Shanley’s sick tale comes to mindmost gay clergy are men who meant well, who stuck with the Church through adolescence and young adulthood, accepting a tragic fact: The God they adore let them carry a sexual cross, a psychosexual makeup incompatible with marriage. Like every single Catholic, they must be celibate. So why not put that celibacy to use? Hear confessions, say Mass, marry couples, baptize babies, care for the sickand live in a community of like-minded men who support your celibate lifestyle. It makes sense on the face of things. It sounds like a plan.
But common sense and history tell us that no single-sex organizationespecially one that requires celibacycan survive many years of gay predominance without becoming a gay institution. Put large numbers of gay people together in single-sex buildings and you end with…lots of gay sex. The Church has faced this problem beforein the Italian Renaissance, whose history glitters with scandal-tales of preening cardinals and their "favorites." The results back then were mixed: A century of exquisite statues, Caravaggios, castrati, basilicasthen the icon-smashing and bonfires of the Protestant Reformation. The Church of the 1970s and 1980s has no such artistic or musical accomplishments to boast. Instead, we got folk hymns, clown masses, android saints and felt banners that scream, "Rejoice!" (I guess all the tasteful gays went to Broadway and Hollywood, while the rest went to seminaries.) Our Michaelangelo writes columns attacking the Church.
We straight Catholics are by no means innocent. Laymen have every right to be enraged that bishops kept pedophiles on the payroll, and allowed gay priests to seduce post-adolescent boys, in the dunderheaded hope that addictive sex would turn out to be a curable moral failing.
But lay Catholics in America should not throw stones. No less than our clergy, we have failed as a group, to live up to the stern requirements that the Church teaches come to us from God, which entwine the bloom of sex like a bed of thorns.
Surveys tell us that 90 percent of married Catholics practice artificial birth control; that U.S. Catholics bed-hop just like non-believers, and have abortions at much the same rate. American Catholics no longer reject divorce, and only the pious look into annulments, hoping that their first marriages might be deemed retroactively invalid. (The Vatican has repeatedly intervened with American bishops who hand out these annulments like phony green cards.) Of course, since so many of us go into marriage thinking as Americans, rather than Catholics"What the heck, if it doesn’t work, we can always get divorced,"such marriages may very well be null. Priests are not supposed to wed anyone who displays that attitude. It’s called an "impediment to the bond."
To the media, of course, all these stats mean that the Church is out of touch, behind the times, wedded to an ideal impossible to live in modern times. It’s tempting to believe that they’re right. But really, how easy was it ever to avoid lusting after strangers, coveting married women, sowing oats as a teenager, or dabbling with porn? (How would the pious medieval peasant have handled unfiltered Internet access, I wonder?)
Christiansand Jews before themhave always held up a standard of sexual behavior that challenged the average man. Jesus did not speak in a moral vacuum, but rather took the most elevated moral code yet in existencethe Jewish Lawand made it universal. He demanded that we internalize it. He took the "beast with two backs" and raised to the sky.
Jesus made marriage a sacrament of God, inviolable and unbreakable. He demanded right thought to accompany right action, forbidding "adultery in the heart." He even denied us the consolation prize of condemning sinners: "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone."
And the Church Christ founded changed the way sexuality was seen throughout the West. A Roman world that practiced easy-going promiscuityon the backs of sexually victimized slave girls and boysnow faced the God of Sinai, whose thunderbolts were real. Roman nobles found their daughters refusing lucrative marriages, to honor private vows they’d made to the God of the Jews. Pagans who exposed unwanted infants found them adopted by Christian families, then saw them later dying in the Colosseum for their faith. Young men by the thousands willingly took up chastity, poverty and obedience, and wandered the Roman world spreading a Hebrew gospel. The polygamous Slavs and Celts, the plundering Goths and the Vikings as each tribe accepted the Gospel, it produced within a generation convents and monasteries, islands of civility in a crumbling world. These fruits of chastity still stand today at Monte Cassino and Mont St. Michel, at Chartres and Assisi.
But no Catholic ever banished the enemy within. The sexual appetite is part of man’s unchanging natureand it’s still a lawless rebel. Each human heart is its battleground. We grow up with urgent desires, nearly as insistent as the need to eat or sleep. Their object is not a plate of food but a conscious being, our moral equal, a sacred personcomplete with fragile emotions, unspoken needs, and weaknesses we can exploit. Jean Paul Sartre took the logic of atheist sex to its proper conclusion, depicting relationships as a dance between sadist and masochist, victor and victim. And that was true in his own love life. But then, as he famously observed, "Hell is other (French) people."
And sex makes children. Write this down, in case you’ve forgotten. (Our culture would like to.) Each heedless roll in the shag rug, fueled by hormones and tequila shots, can produce another human being, just like us. The real failure of rate of birth control approaches 10 percent, which means that millions of "simple" acts of sexual release will cause unwanted pregnanciesthat millions of women will either bear children they’re not ready for, or destroy them in the womb. That’s some plate of food we’re wolfing down…
It isn’t only Catholics, or priests, who hold to an elevated moral code. Men of every faith, and many of no faith, strive to regulate their desires according to ethics. And none of them succeedat least, not all the time. No moral code worthy of the name is ever easy. But just now, as our culture twitches and grunts and chafes at the harness laid upon it by Jesus of Nazareth, the Catholics and the priests bear a special burden. They’re the first on the beach at Normandy, and they’re dropping in waves. (Let’s film it: Saving Fr. Ryan.) But the true ones pass on the Good News, and try to live it, winging it on a prayer.