Sixteen years ago, Mary Eberstadt wrote an article for The Weekly Standard about the unfolding sex abuse scandal that was roiling Roman Catholicism then. The title of the article, “The Elephant in the Sacristy,” referred to the homosexual aspect of the sex abuse scandal that was being downplayed, ignored, and even covered up by some for various political and ideological reasons. After rehearsing the unseemly details of one example of the widespread sexual abuse in Roman Catholicism, Eberstadt wrote back in 2002,
“What even this brief recitation makes clear is a cluster of facts too enormous to ignore, though many labor mightily to avert their eyes. Call it the elephant in the sacristy. One fact is that the offender was himself molested as a child or adolescent. Another is that some seminaries seem to have had more future molesters among their students than others. A third fact is that this crisis involving minors–this ongoing institutionalized horror–is almost entirely about man-boy sex. There is no outbreak of heterosexual child molestation in the American church. In the words of the late Rev. Michael Peterson, who co-founded the well-known clergy-treating St. Luke Institute, “We don’t see heterosexual pedophiles at all.” Put differently, it would be profoundly misleading to tell the tale of Rudolph Kos–what he was and what he did–without reference to the words ‘homosexual’ and ‘gay.'”
This week, in light of the current unfolding sex abuse crisis implicating every level of the Roman Catholic hierarchy all the way to the top, Eberstadt returns to this theme for The Weekly Standard with an article titled, “The Elephant in the Sacristy, Revisited.” In the article, Eberstadt reflects on the similarities and differences between the two sex abuse crises and what they might mean for change. While it may be surprising to some, she is generally more optimistic about the prospects of real change within Catholicism in 2018 than she was back in 2002, and she goes on to offer several ways Catholic laymen and clergy could improve the chances for such real change.
The first area of improvement Eberstadt highlights is particularly noteworthy, as it has to do with the language and terms that are typically used to discuss homosexuality in the church. Language matters, according to Eberstadt, and how terms like “gay,” “LGBTQ,” and even “homophobe” are used often reflects more about the secular framework some have unconsciously or consciously adopted than an explicitly Christian accounting of reality. Her comments from this section are excerpted below, but the whole article is worth reading.
“The first area of improvement concerns the language we use in speaking about the scandals. If we’re going to clean up the church, we must first sharpen the vocabulary that we use to chip away the dirt.
“What’s more obvious now than 16 years ago, for example, is that anyone who cares about accuracy should use the word gay with the greatest caution, if at all. There may be instances when gay is unavoidable as an adjective, a necessary shorthand. But as a noun, it is a word that Christians qua Christians should avoid.
“Why? The label is spiritually vague and antagonizes people unnecessarily. The phrase “gays in the priesthood,” for example, fails to distinguish between those who remain celibate and those who do not. It also inadvertently gives rise to the incorrect accusation, “You’re saying all gays are pedophiles!” which no one is claiming. In the interest of removing unnecessary red flags wherever possible, we shouldn’t use it.
“The word gay and related terms like LGBTQ should be avoided for a deeper reason. They are insufficiently respectful of the human beings who are described in this way. Such identifiers sell humanity short by suggesting that sexual desire amounts to the most important fact about an individual. However well-intentioned (or not), these terms advance a reductionist view of men and women incommensurate with the reality that we are infinitely rich and complicated beings, created in the image of God.
“It is bad enough when the wider culture, interested in exploiting carnal desires for commercial or prurient reasons, objectifies human beings in this way. When religious authorities do the same, the damage is worse. I’m reminded of Fr. Arne Panula, a prominent Washington, D.C., priest of manifest goodness and wisdom who died last year. In one of our last conversations, he mentioned meeting a friend-of-a-friend in Italy. This friend felt compelled to tell him, ‘Fr. Arne, I’m gay.’ To which the priest replied, ‘No, you’re not. You’re a child of God.’ Fr. Arne was making the point that the most important fact about this man was not his erotic leanings.
“Another word that continues to cloud rather than illuminate is homophobe, and its related variants, homophobia and homophobic. Inside parts of the church, and ubiquitously outside it, homophobe has become an automatic smear deployed for partisan purposes. We see this clearly by observing that related teachings of the church are not similarly made into epithets. Do people speak of contracept-ophobes, to criticize church teaching against contraception? Do they decry klepto-phobes or forni-phobes?
“The fact that those other words aren’t in circulation shows that homophobe is meant to shame, intimidate, and sideline apologists for the magisterium. Homophobe, like gay, has become a political term, not a spiritual one. It’s an epithet, not an argument.
“Words are never a matter of indifference. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn insisted, we aren’t obliged to participate or even to acquiesce in false accounts of reality. If we can’t speak clearly and plainly, we can’t think clearly and plainly. And if we can’t think clearly and plainly, we will never be able to reduce the damage being done in the house of God by the pachyderm trying to wreck it from within.
“Some critics might object that people should call themselves whatever they like; what’s the harm in using this noun or that one? But as Daniel Mattson argued in Why I Don’t Call Myself Gay, identities and proclivities are different, and efforts to prove that sexuality belongs in the former category are problematic. Taken to its logical conclusion, labeling ourselves whatever we like can be subversive of reality itself. We have to start calling things by their proper names, beginning with refusing to participate in the dominant ideology of secularism, which celebrates what the catechism calls sin and reduces the human person to evanescent erotic desires in defiance of Christian teaching.”
Readers of CBMW’s Nashville Statement will likely recognize a resonance in these paragraphs with Article VII, which states:
“WE AFFIRM that self-conception as male or female should be defined by God’s holy purposes in creation and redemption as revealed in Scripture.
“WE DENY that adopting a homosexual or transgender self-conception is consistent with God’s holy purposes in creation and redemption.”
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