More persuasive sexual ethic for young people badly needed


Lessons for the church in the present crisis extend well beyond clerical child abuse, writes GARRET FitzGERALD

FOR THE Catholic Church in Ireland, much will depend upon the manner in which Pope Benedict XVI responds to our current crisis. His decision to take the exceptional step of addressing a pastoral letter to the Irish people is encouraging, for it indicates an appreciation of the gravity of the situation. But it is not clear that Rome understands the extent to which the resolution of some of the problems of the Irish church would require a review of policies in Rome itself.

Thus, there is a clear need for Rome to reflect further on the criteria that have in recent times been applied in the selection by the papacy of nominees for bishoprics. Latterly, these criteria appear to have been narrowed down to two: first, acceptance of what many see as a counter- revolution against aspects of Vatican II, and, second, loyalty to Humanae Vitae, the 1968 encyclical which reaffirmed traditional teaching on abortion, contraception, and other issues pertaining to human life.

Over-emphasis on these two requirements is seen by many as having militated against the intellectual quality, theological capacity, and even administrative competence of such appointees. Nomination to bishoprics by the Curia seems to have effectively replaced the original process by which bishops were nominated by the clergy (or, earlier, clergy and people) of each diocese.

Moreover, if the 2001 requirement to report all cases of clerical child abuse to Rome can be seen as reflecting a sense of the horrific character of such clerical abuse, the accompanying requirement that secrecy be maintained about these crimes showed an equally horrific disregard for the interests of the children. Our bishops clearly saw this secrecy provision as precluding them from reporting such cases to the Garda.

Fr Vincent Twomey’s attempts last week to argue that reporting such cases to the Garda would not have breached Rome’s secrecy requirement was totally unconvincing.

Two final points on this issue. At least 95 per cent of our Catholic clergy are innocent of any involvement in clerical child abuse – and are as horrified as the rest of us. They deserve our sympathy. In addition, recent research has shown that only 3 per cent of Irish children who have been sexually abused say they were victims of members of the Catholic clergy. Should we not, therefore, be directing much more of our concern at the other 97 per cent of the abusers – most of whom appear to be family members, or family friends?

Let me turn now, briefly, to another quite different aspect of the Catholic Church’s role on sexual issues, about which I have in recent years addressed several meetings of teachers organised by secondary school principals.

Much discussion about sexual morality is quite unhistorical, for that morality is not a particular product of Roman Catholic teaching – as many ill-informed “liberals” seem to believe. It is instead an inheritance from pre-Christian civilisations such as those of Rome and of Judaism, and based on a rational recognition that, at least outside tropical climates, the exceptionally prolonged upbringing required by human children is normally best provided within a stable two-parent nuclear family.

Towards this end it was usual for marriage to follow shortly after puberty: a situation in which it did not seem unreasonable, or unduly repressive, to propose as a norm abstention from sexual activity before marriage.

The scale of the biological and social changes in western society in the second half of the 20th century is still not fully realised. The age of puberty declined, while simultaneously the proportion of women engaged in paid work rose over 10-fold, from 5 per cent in 1966 to about 55 per cent by 2006. This in turn led to a massive postponement of marriage. Whereas 30 years ago over four-fifths of women were married by the age of 27, in 2006 two-thirds were still unmarried at that age. The consequent sudden drastic increase in the gap between the age of puberty and the typical age of marriage – now close to 30 – has created a totally new situation with respect to traditional sexual morality. For it is now clearly totally unrealistic to propose as a norm pre-marital sexual abstinence for a period as long as 15 or more years.

In these circumstances, discouragement of sexual promiscuity requires the emergence of a new ethic – one that encourages responsibility in pre-marital sexual activity as a part of close human relationships that will lead eventually to marriage and the formation of a nuclear family.

The need for guidance of young people along these lines is particularly acute in Ireland, because our teenage pregnancy rate is higher than in any part of western Europe – except Britain.

I believe that a real problem in this area may be the Catholic “ethos” of some – although certainly not all – of our Catholic secondary, and perhaps also primary, schools.

To the extent that the ethos of some of these religious schools may still be requiring traditional Catholic sexual teaching, this may be inhibiting practical guidance to teenagers of a credible kind that would help them to avoid some of the pitfalls of premature sexual experience.

So, in addition to the argument for reviewing the overwhelmingly religious character of our schools system in the light of the problem of clerical child abuse, there may also be a further case for such a review in order to facilitate the presentation to the young of a more persuasive sexual ethic than the no longer relevant traditional teaching, to which for the time being the church remains committed.

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