Here is a type of person we recognize among Catholics and Christians generally: someone who in an “earlier life” went along with our society’s sexual mores, but then converted and now is intensely strict about sexual purity. About that earlier life we can easily assume: sleeping around in college; use of contraceptives; non-procreative sex acts; also, vulgar language and entertainment; friends who are easy with all those things; and ridicule or worse for the “inflexible” and “serious.”
But then they converted. Who knows what it was? Grace, to be sure, and someone’s prayers, but maybe a book by a saint, or the example of a friend, or a betrothed who was chaste. At first in such conversions, there is usually plain and simple obedience. This is what the Lord commands, and I must do His will: “If you love me, keep my commandments.” But then there is a purging and one begins “to see” – because impurity darkens the soul and blinds our practical intelligence. Recall that Our Lord’s blessing upon the pure was sight.
Everyone who converts in this way goes from not seeing (“what’s wrong with it”) to seeing how utterly disastrous unchaste acts are for the soul. Tellingly, the one who does not see will use legalistic terms, and the one who does see uses “causal” language of health and harm, goodness and corruption.
This is not a game; realities are at stake, more real than bodily weal and woe. Someone who does not see, thinking legalistically, wonders why the law cannot be bent if someone finds it burdensome. Someone who does see looks for deep principles to live by which sum up what he sees: “The body is for the Lord.” (I Cor 6:13) And, “Immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is fitting among saints.” (Eph 5:3).
The seeing leads to passion and anger, as it should, to serve and to protect. Anger is virtuous here, indifference a vice. You and I know examples. The father, for instance, who passionately threw the issues of Playboy and Hustler to the ground when the door-to-door salesman told him to have a look. The good father who angrily insisted his children should not be required to attend the “sex-ed” classes. Or vigilance about Internet filters, bad scenes in movies, and corrupting books.
This is all obvious, then. It is a type we see. The “sexual revolution” claims many victims; some convert away from it; those that do come to see. And those that see are strict about unchastity. When they have fatherly responsibility, it shows in strong teaching, solicitude, and strictness (or, what the non-seeing describe as strictness, because no one would identify as “strict,” say, someone who avoided drinking any amounts of poisoned water).
We’d expect to find the same type among our clerics. But do we find them? And I don’t mean those who say they are angry about “sexual abuse of minors,” but those passionate in guarding their flock against unchastity.
This question came to me when I read the recent testimony of the Latin American homosexual priest and theologian, James Alison, who says that the pope called him personally, told him he was somehow conferring upon him “the power of the keys” (which Alison understood to mean an unrestricted faculty to hear confessions), and told him to carry on with his work, with interior peace.
I do not know whether this story is true. It was published last week in the U.K. Tablet – and has not been denied by the Vatican. But what struck me about it was what Alison says there about chastity. He had struggled for many years with same-sex attraction, he says, and against the Church’s teaching that homosexual acts are “acts of grave depravity” and “intrinsically disordered.” (CCC 2357)
But when he finally rejected that teaching (as the teaching merely of “some Roman Congregations,” he says) his immediate conclusion was that he was no longer bound to chastity: “The frightened boy who had accepted the official line that he was the bearer of something objectively disordered and that therefore celibacy was an obligation, was finally growing up.”
Purely as a matter of logic, of course, it makes sense. If homosexual acts are not intrinsically wrong, then no non-procreative acts are, and then fornication is not, and adultery is wrong only because it is an injustice. Chastity as a separate area of moral striving disappears.
But my thought was: he doesn’t see it, and, moreover, he never did. Chastity for him was never more than an artificial obligation, conditional upon a theory. But where are the priests and bishops who do see? Surely some have converted away from the sexual revolution. Where among them is the type I described above?
Certainly, the outward signs of a conversion to seeing seem lacking. The Amazon Synod suggests rather the opposite, a complacency. Newman showed me this, in a passage I encountered in his novel about the Oxford Movement, Loss and Gain.
The protagonist Charles Reding (rhymes with “eating”) confides in a tutor that he feels drawn to celibacy. Reding in defense of the practice makes it hinge on sorrow for sins, and the wish to do atonement: “You recollect Dr. Johnson’s standing in the rain in the market-place at Lichfield when a man, as a penance for some disobedience to his father when a boy,” he asks, “I certainly fancied that fasting, abstinence, labours, celibacy, might be taken as a make-up for sin.”
Reding says he finds it incredible that someone who “has a whole load of sins, and very heinous ones, all upon him. . .when he turns over a new leaf. . .has nothing more to fear about his past sins.”
Putting Newman together with Alison, I think: To what extent is the confusion and turmoil in our Church a matter of fear among those who see that they are being led by those who do not see?
*Image: Blind Leading the Blind by James B. Janknegt, 2016 [private collection]