The Catholic Moral Rope Ladder
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The past several years have been perplexing for any layman such as myself. I’m a married man, with seven children. My wife and I have tried to faithfully live the teachings of the Church, and the results are obvious to anyone who sees us walking down the street. I wouldn’t describe myself as an aggressively Catholic person. By that, I don’t mean to suggest I’m not serious about my faith: I am. What I mean is that I’m not the type of Catholic who is interested in being a part of every (or even any) parish committee, or who frets about Church politics, policies, programs, outreach, etc. Nor am I one of those enthusiasts whose zeal thrives on swashbuckling apologetics. I’m a jazz musician and writer who regularly plays spirituals on gigs (because they’re a foundational part of my musical life) and who sometimes talks about his faith (because it happens to come up organically). I’m writing this post simply because I was invited to, and because it gives me a platform to talk about a problem I sense growing in the Church at this point.
The Papacy of Francis, from the very start, has been bracing, invigorating (even for those whose feathers have been ruffled), but also unsettling and confusing, particularly concerning what the role of Catholic moral teaching should be in the life of the Church. I’m not going to parse the Holy Father’s words for ultimate meaning or context at this point: plenty of other pundits do that daily (some of them even get paid for it), and as far as I’m concerned everyone is welcome to their own opinion. But let’s just say the critical mass of such quotes as “we don’t have to breed like rabbits” or “who am I to judge”, combined with the general ambiance that we should move away from discussing morality as a dominant issue, have had a major impact upon the direction (or lack of direction) many of us have sensed. Recently, in an interview with Crux, the President of Catholic University of America, John H. Garvey, summarized the zeitgeist in the Age of Pope Francis:
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First, Garvey said, Francis is driving home the point that when you’re trying to draw people back into the faith, the Church’s moral rules probably aren’t the right place to start.
“He’s not saying that the rules about abortion, the rules about marriage, the rules about divorce are out the window, we’ve moved on,” Garvey said.“He’s saying, ‘If you are trying to get people to fall in love with the faith, you probably don’t want to begin by saying don’t do this, don’t do that, and that’s why we are Catholic.’ You start with, ‘Here’s what we like about the Church, the rest of this goes along with it but it follows naturally once you buy into it’.”
I think Garvey has touched upon the general attitude well. I also think this attitude itself—perhaps even widely held among priests and laity, theologians and bishops—fundamentally misunderstands what Catholic morality actually is. Or, at the very least, so separates Catholic morality from the rest of reality that we dare not think of it or compare it to other lists of rules that we easily accept.
Is Catholic morality a list of do’s and don’ts that prevents people from falling in love with the Faith? Let me suggest that this is not the most accurate way to think about it.
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Research conducted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that approximately one in six boys and one in four girls are sexually abused before the age of 18 (Source: US Dept. of Justice website). Call this, if you want, the darkest side of our culture of sexual permissiveness. These molested people are your friends and neighbors, your family, the sports hero you might admire, the pop star whose music you listen to, or maybe that homeless person with all the tattoos and the wild eyes—the one you cross the street to avoid. I was among those one in six boys, though you’d probably never guess if I didn’t tell you. I look and act reasonably enough, get along with others, love my family, and go about my business like everyone else. And while much of society recoils when it hears stories like mine—if they can stomach them—they also hide from the causes, effects, and reality that people like me live with daily.
We tend to think of the sexually abused primarily as victims. I don’t choose to identify myself that way, but it’s certainly true enough if you want to press the point. When we don’t think of the abused in that way, and if we’re trying to be supportive, we might call them ‘survivors.’ Others might use the terms ‘broken’, ‘scarred’, or ‘damaged.’ I once heard a sports radio talk show host passionately denounce Jerry Sandusky of Penn State, saying that he had completely ruined the lives of the children he’d molested. There was a finality to this host’s thought, indicative of how strongly we feel about the crime: We are so horrified by this crime that some actually believe those who have suffered it can never be healed, never be ‘normal’ again (whatever ‘normal’ might mean in a culture that holds so many self-contradictory opinions about sex). In recent years, the Church has had to face the reality that many of those chosen to shepherd the flock have actually been sexual wolves, and while progress has certainly been made, all too often diocesan programs can seem to be acts of virtue promoted for the cause of legal and financial protection, rather than a deepening of our understanding of human sexuality and the beauty of our Catholic faith.
This is where the abused might be referred to in a different way, but I have yet to see it done. It requires radically different thinking than our society, or even our Church, has considered. What fails to be recognized, in all of this mess, is simply this: The abused are the only ones who have very specific, actual life experience–even wisdom–concerning our most pressing problems of sexual abuse. If anyone has a right to be heard on the issues of sexuality in our society today, it’s the abused. Yet we are generally the first ones sidelined: first by our abusers, who lie about us, discredit our voices, poison the wells of family and public opinion concerning us; then second, quite often, by those sympathetic but horrified: people who think we are too damaged to speak coherently about the problem. It can seem as though everyone wants us to just…please…quietly…go away. Conversely, I find it remarkable, that those of us who have been abused and are yet living the Church’s teachings on morality and sexuality aren’t routinely asked our opinions by priests, deacons, bishops. Sadly, most of us aren’t asked at all.
Everyone deals with their abuse in a highly personal way, and I can only speak for myself, but to me, when I finally encountered it, Catholic moral teaching was anything but a list of dry rules or prohibitions. Instead, Catholic moral teaching was a shield, a beacon, a flaming angelic sword guarding the innocent from predatory darkness. The Church’s teaching shouts that there is a way people can love each other, fully: spiritually, physically, emotionally, beyond selfishness: consciously, conscientiously, engaging every aspect of the human person. Catholic teaching set me free from the lies that had been taught me as a boy—about my body, my soul, my emotions. It forcefully denounced the crimes that had been committed against me, and showed me a path by which I might love my beautiful wife fully, without succumbing to the selfishness of merely using another person for my own gratification.
For those who see Catholic sexual morality only as a list of prohibitions, dry rules meant to stop them from having fun, perhaps a different image might be helpful. Try thinking of the beautiful teachings of Holy Mother Church as a rope ladder for the body and soul, which is lowered down into a well-like prison. That prison is ourselves, held captive to our own selfishness. We are given a choice: we can stay in that prison and claim we’re happy, or we can take the rope ladder to freedom. We can cover the walls, decorate it with porn (“man cave” style) or rainbows, but none of the decorations will change the fact that we’re trapped there. The rope ladder can seem dangerous, it can seem there really is no way out—that the promised freedom is too far away, or too high for the likes of us. We can refuse to look up and see the light. We can deny there is an exit. But if we have the courage to take the first steps on that rope ladder, soon the light gets brighter, the air gets fresher, and we’ll find there is a world above our own selfish desires, in the daylight of freedom. Catholic moral teaching proclaims liberty to the captives.
I’ve sometimes talked to young priests or seminarians in passing, encouraging them to preach and teach Catholic morality. Too often their answer is to sidestep the issue, or oppose the idea outright. One seminarian (since ordained) told me that it was a bad idea to give hellfire and brimstone homilies. Setting aside the fact that I’m 45 years old and have literally never heard such a homily, who’s talking about hellfire and brimstone? If we neglect to talk about reality—that a culture of sexual permissiveness leads inevitably to massive collateral damage calculated in terms like “one in four girls” and “one in six boys”, and if the very ‘rules’ themselves are nothing less than road signs towards the freedom found in a true, fulfilling expression of love, why are we so timid?
At this moment in our history, when sexuality has been so divorced from reproductive nature, and marriage has been legally equivocated; when children are made in petri dishes or by sperm donors or surrogates, where the age of consent is being lowered or challenged, is it really a good idea to say that we need to focus on different things and leave this issue to the background, after we’ve gotten folks to “buy into” some other part of the Faith? How many more children will grow up thinking there is no answer? Are we really going to ignore the greatest crisis of our time because it feels uncomfortable, or we might not be popular to point things out?
I, for one, am grateful. I’m grateful that I stumbled across the Catechism of the Catholic Church in an Indiana bookstore back in 1999, when no one else would explain things to me. I’m further grateful that I heard a Catholic priest actually preach on Humanae Vitae back in the early 2000s. I’m grateful that someone showed me the rope ladder out of my own prison, and said, unequivocally, that what had been done to me as a boy was evil and wrong. I’m saddened that so many seem to miss what this is all about. It’s shocking to think that baseball fans can revere the rules of a mere game, never seeking to throw them away, but maintaining the ‘integrity’ of the sport by carefully considering them in all circumstances; while so many Catholics (at all levels) ignore and disparage the very rules that both protect and set people truly free in real life. My prayer is that all priests, deacons, bishops, and indeed the entire communion of the faithful, be awakened to the realization that Catholic moral teaching constitutes a light, a rope ladder, an angelic sword—a hope for the future, rather than an uncomfortable topic to breach.
My wish is to encourage and strengthen—perhaps even challenge—all bishops, priests, and deacons who are squeamish of preaching or teaching this topic. If someone like myself can have whatever amount of courage is necessary to publish this and speak openly about what happened to me, knowing full well that I’ll lose some friends, be scorned by some, rejected by others, and lied about by several in my own family, who are you to be afraid of the consequences of telling everyone the truth? Would it help if I told you it was unmanly to be so timid? It is, you know—so consider yourselves told. Take the risk. There are more dimensions to this than you might realize. There are men and women in your pews afraid to speak of what happened to them—this Sunday they will be there again, and chances are you don’t know which ones they are. There are boys and girls in your pews who are currently being molested. In your timidity, or fear of offending someone (the abusers, perhaps) will you neglect to speak for them? Who will tell them the truth if you don’t? Dear Fathers, there is a great thing about telling the truth: it will set you free, too. Be not afraid.
Eric Seddon is a guest author for Catholic-Link. We commend him for sharing his testimony and thank him for defending the fullness and beauty of Catholic moral teaching.
A few resources on Catholic moral teaching and healing:
Dawn Eden has published a book on healing: My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints, from Ave Maria Press.