An evolving sex scandal involving dozens of Roman Catholic priests and their often young parishioners has the media focusing on sexual predators concealed for decades within religious institutions. Complete with cover-ups by higher-ups, the disturbing stories of sex among the sacred has gained a life of its own in the mainstream media.
Over the past weekend, retiring Roman Catholic Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee “apologized” for having his archdiocese pay $450,000 to a 54-year-old man who said he had been sexually assaulted by the archbishop 22 years ago. On May 28, 2002 while visiting with the Pope in Rome, President George W. Bush said , “I am concerned about the Catholic Church in America.” Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said the sex scandal was mentioned in the context of how it is damaging the influence of the Catholic Church in U.S. society.
On May 28, 2002, Dateline NBC ‘s lead story dealt with allegations of widespread child molestation within the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious organization that has been kept secret. Former Church elder Bill Bowen called the Jehovah’s Witnesses a “pedophile’s paradise.” Mr. Bowen maintains a web site that documents the shocking abuse: http://www.silentlambs.org/.
Here in Columbia, South Carolina on May 26, 2002, The State newspaper revealed that the 5,500 member First Baptist Church is facing a lawsuit alleging a church deacon working as a youth volunteer raped a 12 year-old girl he knew through the church. The suit also alleges that the church’s pastor failed to check the deacon’s past criminal record of such abuse and ignored parent’s complaints about him.
What’s new? Remember Sinclair Lewis’ “Elmer Gantry”, a 1927 novel and 1960 movie that satirized the life of a slick and sleazy preacher who used and abused his congregants as prey for sex, money and power. Gantry, the ever-upwardly-mobile evangelist employed sex to save-the-souls of his young female believers. Throughout human history, religious dogma has distorted the beauty and reality of human sexuality into an ugly aberration of guilt and repression.
When those “closest to God” in the priesthood and higher echelons of the Roman Catholic Church take the vows of celibacy, they purposefully turn away from the “aims and desires of the world.” Turning away from the “aims and desires of the world” is a most unnatural course for those who are the ultimate purveyors of spiritual advice on human sexuality to all the Roman Catholics in the world. Antiquated and unrealistic doctrines about sex like celibacy and chastity were not of the Hebrew tradition. The first words God utters to Adam and Eve are found in Genesis 1:28: “Be fruitful and multiply.” The Christian Church has used a presumption that Jesus never married or engaged in sexual activity, but no biblical or authoritative sources in the early Christian communities affirm his celibacy.
Some contemporary Catholic theologians suggest that behind the image of Jesus-the-celibate-male lies an imbedded sexism that seeks to support a social system affording men dominance and privilege. The thought of a non-celibate Jesus was an anathema to the Church Fathers of the first centuries who established the connection between sex and sin. St. Ambrose wrote that, “The ministerial office must be kept pure and unspoiled and must not be defiled by coitus.” St. Augustine (354-430) became the Church’s greatest advocate for celibacy. He felt sex was always tainted and the “original sin” of Adam could only be passed on by intercourse and conception. Remarkably, St. Augustine said he considered an erect penis a visible sign of man’s inner revolt against God.
Celibacy was used to expand the political power of the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages. It was used to separate every priest from the economic and political ties of family inheritance and local politics and bring them into a powerful international bureaucracy centered in Rome. The Church’s economic power was further enhanced as celibacy was used to discontinue the inheritance of real estate from priest to son. The Church became the owner as celibacy made Rome a power broker in real estate.
Meanwhile, monastic orders gained great power from mandatory celibacy in the 11th and 12th centuries. Catholic scholars describe the phenomena of monastic homosexual activity as reaching proportions that the Church had never known previously. The celibacy-centered monastic movement and its asceticism also found a powerful ally in St. Thomas Aquinas who taught that women were inferior beings whose bodies cause their emotions to rule over reason. Celibacy’s sordid history is based on the pursuit of power. The issues of birth control and women in the clergy lurk behind the ugly revelations of sexual improprieties among the men in the clergy.
Religion’s reactionary role in defining human sexuality from the denial of birth control to the doctrine of celibacy in the priest hood is shameful. President George W. Bush’s order to cut off U.S. financial support for global population control efforts was political pandering to right-wing religious zealots. Using religion to gain a big turnout of your “base” vote by engaging in a political act that allows millions of unwanted and uncared for babies to be born in poor countries is disgraceful. It is wrong to debase your vow as a cleric by having sex with a young parishioner. It is also evil to use narrow, irrational, religious dogma for political purposes.
Tom Turnipseed is an attorney, writer, and civil rights activist in Columbia, South Carolina. http://www.turnipseed.net