As Fr. Thomas Berg recently explained, the issue is sexually active priests and bishops. In the main, the persistent problem is with homosexually active priests. Fr. Roger Landry argues—rightly, I think—that most priests who persist in infidelity with women eventually leave the priesthood, but priests who cheat on their vocation with men often continue to live a double life. Most of the issues stem from this kind of duplicity. Networks of active homosexual priests have developed: They protect and promote their own and others who will tolerate them. They become a major problem when they insinuate themselves into positions of power (in a seminary, in a chancery or diocese, in a religious order, in the Roman curia)—as occurred in the case of Theodore McCarrick.
The sins here are more grave than adultery or homosexual acts because they besmirch what is holy. Properly speaking, this is sacrilege, the perversion of Holy Orders, and the defilement of a person solemnly and publicly consecrated to God in chastity. The sin is even more serious when a bishop, a seminary formator, or a priest uses the authority of his office—an office instituted by Christ for the sanctification of the faithful—in a perverse way, in the service of shameful and selfish passions. The higher the abuse of authority in the Church, the more grave is the sacrilege. These are not private sins of individual Christians, and the victims suffer more because they are abused not by “private individuals,” but by priests. These crimes dishonor and offend God, and they wound the Church in a unique way.
Focusing on sacrilege is important because it helps us remember that we are dealing with something holy: the holiness of the priesthood, of the episcopacy, and of the Church. We must not give up on this call to holiness. Bishops and priests should be holy, they must pray for it, and with the help of grace, strive for it. (And some really do become holy—something we should not overlook.) When priests habitually commit mortal sins, they lose their zeal for the gospel, they become numb to the truth of the Eucharist’s holiness, and they water down the doctrines of the faith. This leads to many other infidelities, and to a kind of pastoral despair.
What, then, can be done to fix this problem? We should begin by articulating clearly what remedies are needed. (Getting the bishops and the Vatican to adopt these reforms is another question, but first we need to know what reforms are needed.) Here are five bullet points.
First, we need to investigate the past and have a transparent accounting of the failures. How were known networks of active homosexual priests (and bishops) allowed to continue? What structures of accountability were missing? This investigation won’t fix the future, but it will begin to identify where the biggest problems are.
Second, every diocese and religious order needs to implement an affirmative program to screen out vocations applicants with a history of deep-seated same-sex attraction—and certainly those who have engaged in homosexual activity. Applicants should not be allowed to apply for the seminary unless they are already able to live as habitually chaste single men, without recurring falls into unchastity. Candidates in seminaries who act out sexually should be dismissed. This policy is not homophobic in any way. It is simply non-hypocritical: The Church has to cultivate vocations of men who live and practice what the Church professes.
Third, American bishops should enact, as “particular law,” the canonical norms from the 1917 Code of Canon Law (they were mostly dropped from the current Code of Canon Law when it was revised in 1983) dealing with the sexual acts of clerics (whether homosexual or heterosexual, and whether with minors or with adults). Those provisions made sexual activity by clerics, even with other adults, a canonical crime. The punishments included “being deprived of office, benefice, dignity, responsibility, if they have such, whatsoever, and in more serious cases, they are to be deposed.”
Fourth, there should be an apostolic visitation of all provinces of religious orders, diocesan chanceries, seminaries, the offices of vocation directors, and of the USCCB, to investigate whether they have networks of active homosexual priests, structures of manipulation, or other such misconduct.
Fifth, there needs to be a system for reporting clerical sexual infidelity—even infidelity with “consenting adults”—akin to the system that currently exists for reporting clerical abuse of minors. The reports should not just go to the bishop or religious superior; they need to involve a review board and other lay outsiders. Allegations should be investigated, using fair and just procedures, and should be concluded with a report of findings recommending canonical charges where warranted. This process needs to be instituted for both religious orders and dioceses alike.
These prescriptions are actually rather straightforward and simple. The hierarchy needs help from laity and investigators from outside the dioceses, religious orders, and seminaries to expose the corruption and begin the process of dismissing the wrongdoers. Let us cleanse the sacrilege, so that the Church will again be holy.
Hand-wringing and pious platitudes won’t fix things. It is time to confront the real problem with courage and sobriety.
Dominic Legge, O.P., is a Dominican priest and a professor of theology at the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.