Sexuality sets stage for church's next reformation,
2003 - La Jolla - 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 82, in 1990 wrote The Secret World, an
account of his 1960-85 research on celibacy.
The former monk of St. John's
Abbey in Collegevine, 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 teachings 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
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.
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
"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
"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 fred the majority
of cases dealt with occurred between 1960 and '85."
"But that's not the end of
it," continued Sipe, "when Sylvia Demarest [plaintiffs lawyer in the
Dallas sexual abuse suit] faced this question of whet,her there'll be
more pedophilia cases in the church, she answered, "in 10 years you'll
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.
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
"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."
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 fedelium, 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
Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large. His e-mail address is email@example.com