Doctrine Precedes Morality

Trying to look at the bright side of things, I console myself, while contemplating priestly sex abuse of minors and the great sympathy many priests and bishops have for the vice of homosexuality, with the thought that I have the inestimable privilege of being a ringside spectator of one of the great, catastrophic moments in Church history.

I was born too late for the Crucifixion; and for the persecutions of Nero and Diocletian; and for the Muslim conquest of Christian Syria, Egypt, North Africa, and Spain; and for the rupture between the Latin and Greek halves of the Church; and for the fall of Constantinople; and for the Protestant Reformation; and for the French Revolution.

But – lucky me! – I was born in time to see the leaders of the Church, our priests and bishops and cardinals (and perhaps even our pope – I’m reserving judgment on that), wreck the Church by an extraordinary combination of stupidity and immorality.

What a privilege to be present at one of history’s great bad moments.  Before these moments actually happen, it’s hard to imagine that they are even possible. Apart from the conspirators, who in Rome imagined that Julius Caesar, recently honored with the title Perpetual Dictator, would suddenly be cut down?  And who, ninety years ago, could imagine that Germany, arguably the world’s most cultured country, would soon throw itself into the hands of a sadistic megalomaniac?

And who, at the time of the Second Vatican Council, when the Catholic Church appeared to be in robust good health, could have imagined that the Church would soon be sent reeling, not by external enemies, but by clerics with a proneness to the unnatural vice?


I suppose the Catholic Church will eventually recover, just as it recovered from all its previous catastrophes.  But there will be territorial losses.  Just as there were territorial losses to Islam and to Eastern Orthodoxy and to Protestantism.

So, it is likely, there will be losses in those regions of the globe (e.g., Europe and North America) where secular humanism (aka atheism) is now socially and culturally dominant.  A century or two from now, Catholicism may be, not a Euro-American religion, but a religion of India and Africa.

In the meantime, we have to try to understand the true nature of the catastrophe we are living through.

Some say it’s a child abuse crisis – and stop there. They deny that the priestly sex abuse of minors has anything much to do, or anything at all to do, with homosexuality. This is the attitude of pro-LGBT Catholics, such as the editors of America, the Jesuit magazine.  The editor-at-large of America is Fr. James Martin SJ, author of the notorious little book, Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity.

But this attitude is nonsensical.  What honest person in his or her right mind can deny that much – or most – of the sex abuse of minors is a spillover from the culture of homosexuality that has been for decades rather widespread among priests?

Others, more correct and more honest, argue that the fundamental problem is exactly that culture of homosexuality so widespread in the priesthood for many decades now.  This culture has led to the emergence in many dioceses of a “lavender mafia,” that is, a semi-organized network of gay priests who protect one another, help one another to advance, and effectively prevent bishops from taking a strong stand against homosexuality and other sexual vices.

Rumors of such networks have been floating in the air for decades.  Recent revelations about Cardinal Theodore McCarrick have made it impossible to dismiss these rumors as fictional.

While I agree with the argument described in the preceding paragraph, I think there is a more basic problem still that lies at the bottom of this great catastrophe.  Before any seminarian or priest or bishop could have engaged, not just once but habitually, in homosexual activity, he must have believed, or at least half-believed, that such activity is morally permissible.  Or to put this the other way around, he must have disbelieved the Catholic teaching on this subject.

Catholicism is a high-doctrine religion.  This sharply distinguishes it from religions that are low-doctrine or no-doctrine, e.g., the pagan religions of the ancient Greeks and Romans, or the religion of liberal Protestantism.

Catholic doctrines fall into three categories: (1) Historical-miraculous, e.g., that Jesus was born of a virgin and rose from the dead;  (2) Metaphysical, e.g., the Trinity, the Divinity of Christ; (3) Moral, e.g,, that abortion and adultery and homosexual conduct are seriously sinful.  Catholics who knowingly and deliberately reject any Catholic dogma are heretics.

It is likely, then, that our homosexually active priests were, in addition to their homosexual sins, also guilty of moral heresy.  It is further likely that such moral heretics have been guilty of other kinds of heresy too. Although I can’t prove it, I bet that not many priests who think homosexuality is okay nonetheless continue to believe, for example, in the Virgin Birth.

At the bottom of the whole disaster, I suggest, is a lack of belief in the fundamental doctrines of Catholicism.  We live in a modern society in which very few people (apart from Mormons and very conservative Protestants) take Christian dogma seriously.  Most Americans are either not Christian at all; or are only a little bit Christian, their religion being more nominal than real; or, while being seriously Christian, are convinced that the essence of Christianity is morality, doctrine being inessential.

Who can be surprised that the social environment of doctrinal skepticism may have infected many of our priests? Or that the infection has had an impact on behavior?


*Image: The Garden of Earthly Delights (right panel, depicting hell) by Hieronymus Bosch, c. 1500 [Museo del Prado, Madrid]

David Carlin is a retired professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America and, most recently, Three Sexual Revolutions: Catholic, Protestant, Atheist.