Attitudes to sexuality and power made for a disastrous cocktail


RITE AND REASON:WHEN PATSY McGarry rang to ask me would I write a few words on the present situation, it didn’t surprise me that most of the people to whom he turned had gone underground. Members of some congregations have been instructed not to speak on child sexual abuse, except to follow the official line – the old cliché that we “must all sing from the same hymn sheet’’ is being followed.

This is not a pleasant time to be a religious or a priest. I will not comment in any detail on the Ryan report since I haven’t read it, but the media accounts make for very disturbing reading. Many young people were abused by priests and religious in the most horrific and perverse manner.

I do know there are some religious who feel their side of the story was not heard. But this is not the time to dwell on that as people are probably not able to hear it. However, it will have to be aired some other time, otherwise we risk repeating the misdeeds of the past – replacing one voiceless group with another.

In this article I will examine some implications of the sexual abuse revelations for the church.

The American writer Phyllis Tickle, in her latest book, How Christianity is changing and Why, takes an interesting angle on the trauma in the Christian churches. Her thesis is that a major upheaval has occurred in Christianity every 500 years, and that this period is the fourth such event in the history of the church. The institution becomes so encrusted that it needs some big event to blow it open again, and make room for a fresh impetus.

She lists the previous upheavals: around AD 500 with the decline of the Roman Empire and the social and religious collapse that came with it; the 11th century split between the East and the West; and the Protestant Reformation.

Each of these big occurrences, according to Tickle, brought a cleaning out of the old, and the birth of a new dynamism in the proclamation of Christ’s message. She identifies what is happening today as the next great upheaval.

The key question underlying all these changes is authority. Who wields authority, and in what way? Her thesis is that we will emerge changed and revitalised. But Donald Cozzens, in his review of her book, does not share her optimism. Rather than seeing a new emerging church he feels that a lot more of the present church has to be done away with.

For me this whole sorry saga of the church and child abuse calls for a fundamental reappraisal of two aspects of Catholic life.

We need to look again at our teaching on sexuality. The Catholic attitudes to sex that my generation grew up with were oppressive and guilt-ridden. The ridiculous idea of associating all sexual thoughts and desires with mortal sin was seriously damaging to the person.

It led to a great deal of sexual repression, and when sexual attitudes and desires are repressed at an early age, they tend to emerge in gravely unhealthy and perverted ways. The soul was good, and the body was evil, most especially in its sexual nature.

People, particularly those of us who entered religious life, became alienated from our physical selves. A young person who entered religious life in his teens and was subjected to a formation further suppressing his individuality by demanding total obedience to the rule, would almost inevitably have his emotional life seriously stunted.

Then he found himself in a role in society where he was looked up to and honoured. Having been deprived of all power over himself, he was in a position to exercise power over children who were voiceless and dependent – a disastrous cocktail.

I know that over the years some Catholic scholars have tried to rectify this teaching, and present a more wholesome view of the human person and of sexuality. But they have been resisted, and many of them banned and driven out by the church authorities.

The second area that calls for change is compulsory celibacy for priests, and even for religious, since it has clearly not worked in many cases. I have no doubt that this imposition on those who worked in these institutions is part of the equation that caused some to act as they did. As long as celibacy is a condition for ministry there will be no real change in our attitude to, and our teaching on, sexuality.

I hope the thesis of Phyllis Tickle may have some truth in it, and that out of this awful time some change may happen in both church and society. We were so sure of everything in the past, pronouncing with certainty and arrogance on good and evil, on God and eternity.

Donald Cozzens concludes: “We are in the midst of change. There is a lot of anxiety. What is upsetting for people is the undermining of their long-held certainties. The challenge they face might not be that of changing one idea for another, but rather that of replacing certainties with uncertainties.”

Apologies are easy. The hard bit is change.

Fr Tony Flannery is a Redemptorist priest