Almost All Sex Is Sin?

Carolina Austria

With a very limited and negative view of sexuality, the Catholic Church's attention always seems inordinately focused on what it views as "unnatural sex acts" -- and it doesn't bother distinguishing between consensual acts and abuse.

Addressing the United Nations, Pope Benedict XVI invoked "human rights" in the context of geopolitical inequality and emphasized responsibility and community between nations:

"Multilateral consensus continues to be in crisis because it is still subordinated to the decisions of a few; whereas the world's problems call for interventions in the form of collective action…International rules must be binding."

He received accolades for his skilled use of diplomacy as he tackled the thorny issues of the Iraq war, immigration and religious diversity, but when he met with some of the victims of clergy sexual abuse, he got mixed reviews. Some said they were impressed that he actually met with some of the victims, while others said he really didn't do much because it was all talk and no action.

Saying that he was "deeply ashamed" at the breakdown in US values, the Pontiff acknowledged at last that the situation was "sometimes very badly handled."

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Peter Isely, a National Board member of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) and himself a victim of clergy sexual abuse, demanded a clear course of action from the Vatican, namely the amendment of canon law to ensure that every priest who has assaulted a child anywhere in the world will be removed from ministry and disciplinary action against any bishop who has been involved in covering up an assault.

David Clohessy, another victim and member of the network added: "If the pope would clearly, publicly and severely discipline even a handful of complicit bishops, bishops who knew or suspected abuse and ignored it or concealed it, that's the easiest and most effective step."

A Pope able to talk about "human rights" on the level of global community and responsibility on one hand but only able to acknowledge the pain, harm and suffering by victims of the clergy's sexual abuse with "sense of shame," shouldn't be surprising. For years, the Catholic Church has been dealing with debates regarding social teaching and indeed, a number of the issues consistently coming to fore have been about sexuality and human rights.

When the Pope invoked "human rights" as a collective responsibility among nations, his position reflected one of many changes in the ways we now think about human rights. By no longer drawing a division between the civil and political on one hand and economic, social and cultural on the other, he went outside the traditional understanding of rights that confines it to a relationship exclusively between the state and its legal citizens. But while the Pope can speak on behalf of "the marginalized" in addressing the world's most powerful nation with ease, how is it that he is unable to take action on members of the clergy who both perpetrated sexual abuse and concealed it?

The answer isn't simple (and I don't want to oversimplify it) but neither is it rocket science. A huge part of it is sex — that all sex (outside marriage and procreation) is sin. From a human rights perspective, what usually matters in a case like sexual abuse is the violation of the person; in this case, many victims were children when they underwent the ordeal.

He said that: "It is a great suffering for the church in the United States and for the church in general and for me personally that this could happen. It is difficult for me to understand how it was possible that priests betray in this way their mission."

While the Church is able to acknowledge the harm that was inflicted, it isn't always clear what it imagines that harm is. Is it pedophilia or the violation of priestly vows of celibacy? Is it the mishandling of cases by American Bishops?

For the victims, this means that their own sense of justice still plays no part in the Catholic Church's policy on sexual abuse. Anne Barrett Doyle co-director of Bishop Accountability, a Web site that documents the sexual abuse scandal, astutely pointed out that:

"Rather than shifting attention to pedophile priests, he needs to focus on the culpability of bishops. The crisis occurred because many U.S. bishops were willing to hide their priests' crimes from the police with lies."

With a very limited and negative view of sexuality, the Catholic Church's attention always seems inordinately focused on what it views as "unnatural sex acts" that it doesn't bother distinguishing between consensual acts and abuse. But Papal policy of "keeping pedophiles out of the ministry," has not meant justice for those who were abused by priests. Instead it has meant banning "homosexuals" from the church. Within the first five months of his reign, Pope Benedict made it clear that his position is based on the church's position issued in 1961 which equates homosexuality with pederasty.

Moreover, exclusion doesn't only happen on the basis of sexual orientation or non-conforming gender behaviors. Clearly, even married people can "sin" in sex when they use modern family planning methods. Rosemary Radford Ruether, a feminist theologian recalls how the 1968 affirmation of teaching against modern contraception in the Humanae Vitae was rejected by over 600 theologians when the encyclical was adopted.

Sadly the Pope's inclusive message of human rights and community in the context of geopolitical inequality gets lost when its archaic views on sexuality makes it very clear that there are groups of people who remain excluded.

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