Church in Crisis
Sexuality sets stage for church’s next reformation, expert predicts

Jan 10, 2003 By ARTHUR JONES
La Jolla, Calif.

A.W. Richard Sipe has a huge and quite haughty cat, Gwendoline. She only reluctantly relinquished the spare chair in Sipe’s study.

Martin Luther (1483-1546) was more into dogs -- and much on Sipe’s mind as he weighed the question: Given the uproar over the clerical sexual abuse scandal, and its mishandling, where is the Catholic church now?

Sipe, a Benedictine monk for 18 years, then a married man for 32, in 1990 wrote The Secret World, an account of his 1960-85 research on celibacy.

The former monk of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minn., was trained by the Benedictines to deal with the mental health problems of Roman Catholic priests and religious. He continued to do that after he left, and to teach in major Catholic seminaries until, in 1984, a Vatican visitation of U.S. seminaries declared ex-priests could not be on seminary faculties.

He has been called as an expert witness in more than 95 civil suits over sex abuse.

The cat, miffed, wandered off into the hall.

“In what form I don’t know, but in 10 years there’ll be a reformation,” he said, “a reformation in the sense that fundamental issues of human sexuality will have to be brought to the fore.

“In terms of human sexuality, the church is at a pre-Copernican stage of understanding” -- a reference to 15th century Catholic priest and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, who resurrected, despite church opposition, the scientific theory of the sun rather than the Earth as the center of the solar system

“The church has not come to understand the nature of sex,” he said. “And it’s not easily understood -- we have to struggle along with the neurological, the genetic, the psychological, the evolutionary basis of it.”

The church has not done that, Sipe said, and is frightened of doing it.

“I’ve gone back and been trying to read as much as I can about the Galileo [astronomer Galileo Galilei, 1564-1642] controversy,” he said, “for it has a relevance to all this. When a pope comes out 400 years later and says, ‘Oh well, the sun -- rather than the Earth -- is the center of the universe, and Galileo wasn’t wrong, or at least it’s not an anathema to believe it,’ you see the relevance to today.

“In the [Galileo] controversy they were dealing with the core of cosmology. And got it wrong. Now, though the church won’t face it, the real sexual controversy is not the pedophilia crisis. The real controversy is in the core of the being human, in human sexuality,” he said. “And if the [lay] people do not validate the church’s teaching, the teaching is in question. This controversy -- this reformation -- will be played out in the court of popular opinion, the court of sensus fidelium,” the understanding or sense of the faithful.

“So, I think about Luther,” he said, “I think about this young, pious monk, quite a scrupulous young monk, who in 1510 went to Rome to see things and, I think, be inspired. Inspired of what the authentic teaching and practice of the church was.”

He left Rome, said Sipe, “terribly disillusioned. He saw the essence of the theology of Eucharist being laughed about in the streets. As I read the history, he saw the bishops and cardinals and priests with their little boy companions, with their women companions. I think he went back and then, in the light of that dichotomy between the teaching and the practice -- call it corruption, hypocrisy -- he re-evaluated all of his stances. In 1517, he put up his theses on the Wittenberg door, the challenge that was the real opening of the Reformation.

“Today,” said Sipe, “I’d say that we are at 1515.”

Four weeks after that October interview, the U.S. Catholic bishops met in Washington.

Interviewed again, Sipe said the bishops did what they had to: listened to the Vatican and dealt with the rights of accused priests. They disbanded after their meeting slightly buoyed in the hope that the worst of the crisis was behind them.

Sipe disagrees with their view.

He offers a four-part demurral: “the Vatican’s regressive ‘solution’ ”; the U.S. bishops’ misidentification of the crisis; the bishops’ self-deception that they’ve been mired in a media-propelled problem; and the U.S. laity’s self-detachment from Vatican views on human sexuality.

Vatican ‘solution’

The Vatican has returned the church, “to a mode of secrecy, and to a procedure (for priests’ appeals) which in my mind is terribly regressive. I say that because I have reviewed current documents of how the church has handled some of these appeals.

“An appeal is submitted to the Congregation for the Clergy and then, if it proceeds, it goes on to the Signatura [the church’s Supreme Court],” he said, and after that “it can be batted back and forth. Some of these cases take 10 years,” he said, “and even then are not settled, and oftentimes because of some procedural mistakes. The Vatican says [to the bishop], ‘Oops, you didn’t dot a canon law i, or cross a t. Therefore the priest’s appeal holds and you pay the penalty.’ ”

Among Sipe’s examples was Msgr. Robert Trupia of Tucson, Ariz., who in 1991 admitted to Tucson Bishop Manuel Moreno he had sexually abused a minor. The bishop remanded him to counseling, which Trupia refused and still refuses.

Trupia went to Rome with this, said Sipe, and the Congregation of the Clergy made a judgment against Moreno, who then appealed to the Signatura. “The Signatura has not answered. Its last communication was in 1998. Here is a man, Trupia, part of the $14 million judgment in Tucson, driving around Washington, D.C., living on his Tucson diocese pension.

“That’s very regressive,” said Sipe. “I don’t know that we should trust a system and a procedure that handled the Galileo trial and Trupia’s appeal and hasn’t changed its procedure in between.”

And yet, in 2002, he said, “it seems Rome has a presumption that the problem that was documented in the clergy in 306 A.D. at the Council of Elvira, and throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, has somehow been addressed. Thirty-eight of Elvira’s 81 canons dealt with sexuality, canons that made it very clear that some priests, at least, were having sex with minors, and having mistresses.

“I think the [sexual abuse] victims are very well attuned to this presumption and feel betrayed again,” Sipe said. “The victims, rightly, don’t feel the pastoral element has triumphed, but that the Roman legalistic system has triumphed.”

“My contention,” said Sipe, “is that pedophilia is not the crisis but a symptom of the human sexuality crisis, including the celibate sexual crisis, in the church.”

While there may be a hiatus, he said, pedophilia in the church will not go away because human nature is still going on, and the system is still going on. “When I published my 1990 book, everyone said, ‘Oh, that’s far too high an estimate of sexual abusers in the church, etc.’ And of course, now, as the documents and cases come out, you find the majority of cases dealt with occurred between 1960 and ’85.”

“But that’s not the end of it,” continued Sipe, “when Sylvia Demarest [plaintiff’s lawyer in the Dallas sexual abuse suit] faced this question of whether there’ll be more pedophilia cases in the church, she answered, “in 10 years you’ll see them.”

The bishops have previously presumed before that the issue would go away. He said, “Their 1994-95 effort, Restoring Trust, focused on the problem in general and not specifically. I think they used some of the same mechanisms of denial then still in operation today.”

Meanwhile, the beneficial process, said Sipe, is education “Parents are alerted and can protect and instruct their children in a different way. I don’t think the general populace in the U.S. has ever been alerted to this degree to sexual abuse of minors. And that’s to the good of everybody,” he said.

Who creates ‘problems’?

Sipe said those who see the pedophilia scandal “as a ‘press’ [media] problem,” rely on the long view that “the press is interested in a hot topic and when it cools, even if pretty significant things happen, they don’t get much press.

“But I don’t think this is a ‘press’ problem,” he said. “I think this is a structural problem of the church. For instance, the new question of homosexuality and the priesthood wasn’t brought up by the press, but by the Vatican. I think with that issue the Vatican has a very huge tiger by the tail.”

He said that as the Vatican raises the question of homosexuality in the priesthood, it will lead in turn “to the broader question of the clergy having mistresses, whether in Spain or Italy or South America or the United States.

“Add in the questions the people have solved for themselves,” said Sipe, “say contraception, or masturbation, or sex after divorce, and I think this is at the start rather than at the end of a cycle of an understanding.”

Most of all, continued Sipe, “don’t underestimate the laity’s role on questions of either sexuality or accountability.” In terms of money, he said, “look at what the Catholic-institution supporting philanthropists are doing: withholding. They’re saying, ‘We want accountability.’ That will have great force. That wasn’t a crisis brought up by the press.”

The laity’s understanding

What the laity has begun to realize, he said, is that the reason the scandal is so destabilizing to the church is because it goes to the fundamentals of the doctrine. The laity wants all these questions re-examined and rediscussed -- from contraception, homosexuality, masturbation, sex before marriage to sex after divorce, even abortion. The laity is beginning to ask the church on questions of human sexuality, “On what basis are you saying this is natural and this is unnatural? The laity is questioning the church’s reasoning on what is natural and how it’s natural and demanding it be rethought. This questioning is so compelling that nothing can turn it back,” he said.

“If you put it in religious terms, where we are today,” said Sipe, “concerns the obvious step from the hypocritical to an actual reformation. Historically, corruption comes from the top and reform comes from the bottom. I mean why does reformation come about? Reformation comes about because, my God, you’re teaching this and you’re practicing that. And people say: Either change what you’re practicing, or change what you’re teaching.

“The laity is the force,” he said. “Articles say, ‘Oh, it’ll be different when we get a new pope.’ It may or may not. That’s not the real force in this. The real force of this is in the sensus fidelium, because, if the people don’t believe it, it’s not true.”

In effect, Sipe was saying there’s a simple parting of the ways between the sensus fidelium, the beliefs of the people, and the magisterium, the official teaching of the church. And it is this: The Vatican sees sexual behavior as central to belief. The Western Catholic people see sexual behavior as central to life and perhaps peripheral to belief.

The interview ended. The cat came back. Instinctively, Gwendoline had returned to reclaim her chair.

Martin Luther said that the ultimate measure of a person is not where he stands in moments of comfort but where he stands in time of challenge and controversy. Gwendoline, who probably knew that Luther had written favorably about dogs, settled for comfort.

Sipe, by contrast, stood up ready for the next challenge. The interviews, court appearances and controversies ahead.

Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, January 10, 2003



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