The recent meetings in Rome about pedophilia and child abuse are crucial to the Catholic Church’s image – and its future. But the topic, tragic as it is, was not broad enough to address the root problem in vetting and educating those called to a life of service and sacrifice in its ministry. Does the Church realize that? Can it acknowledge the larger problem it needs to face, namely its attitude toward sexuality itself?
Thus far there has been little follow-up from those meetings, just words that seem to be going nowhere despite ceaseless headlines in the media. The Church has to realize that mere words and “mea culpas” cannot fix what has been broken for centuries regarding matters sexual.
Rome needs to recognize and teach that one’s sexuality is essential to one’s wholeness. God’s gifts are not meant to be feared or weighted with guilt but accepted with awe and gratitude. Providing clear and positive information about the gift of one’s sexuality, its precious power, its breadth of choices and all its responsibilities needs to be part of forming those in the Church’s ministry.
In 1949 I entered a minor seminary at age 13, (I learned much later that I was actually running away from home), overflowing with ideals for fixing a war-broken world, believing that the teachings of the Church were essential. I bought into a system that in many ways enriched my mind, solidified my spirit and created relationships that still nurture me today. At the same time, I lived in ignorance and fear and confusing shame about my awakening sexuality.
During those crucial adolescent years I struggled to squelch sexual urges, banish impure thoughts, constantly feeling guilty because of that awakening within. My eventual commitment to religious vows and a celibate life may have elevated my resolve but did nothing to quiet my nature. Ten years into priesthood, I left, married, fathered a son and two daughters (one an adopted infant girl), honoring my sexuality and sating my desire for family.
Admittedly, I am describing my own experience. But those years of formation, I believe, are part of the backstory of today’s headlines. I have to weep for the price the Church is paying for its neglect back then by not talking straight and positively about such matters. Censorship of incoming/outgoing mail, of movies and television, newspapers and magazines was meant to shape a celibate mindset and to protect one’s purity. But for some, me included, that bluntly repressed an essential dimension of self.
Throughout those seminary years psychology was never a part of our curriculum. The focus on self was more negative than positive, shaping us into “other Christs” by getting self out of the way, i.e., sex and sexuality; they were the enemy, the major threats to “vocation,” that call from Jesus to “Come, follow me.”
As tragic headlines continue to drill into the very foundations of the Church and as endless lawsuits drain its resources, Rome is moving much too slowly to solve a problem Catholics everywhere need solved. The focus on victims is essential, though no amount of monetary compensation can heal their wounds. The larger problem has a history and deep roots in the Church’s attitude toward sexuality. But by its refusal to admit and address that problem in order to protect its image, the Church has created its worst nightmare.
I have no answers, but I have a vision. The Church needs to model and teach sexuality not as a sin factory but as a gift with responsibilities. To teach and encourage those who serve its cause to be whole as well as holy in their ministry. Celibacy can be an aspect of that, but so can married love and, especially, mature and responsible caring for all God’s children.