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Some reactions to Mary Eberstadt’s essay

September 17, 2018

In an excellent essay on the sacerdotal sexual abuse catastrophe Mary Eberstadt makes some canonically interesting comments. My thoughts on them follow.

Eberstadt writes: “[1] Individual cases and secular studies have shown that childhood sexual abuse increases the risk of becoming an abuser. [2] Whether that causal connection rises to the level of a ‘perpetual impediment’ to ordination, to use the language of Canon 1040, is for lawyers to decide. [3] For the rest of us, it is enough to know that if seminaries had screened for a history of childhood sexual abuse, the ledger of the past several decades might have been radically different.”

Sentence 1 is true; sentence 3, though tentatively phrased and something of a post hoc  fallacy, works at the rhetorical level to suggest that something needs to change; but sentence 2 is of concern.

Preliminarily, whatever one makes of Eberstadt’s substantive idea below, placing it in the Code is not something “for lawyers to decide”; it is wholly and solely something for popes to decide.

Substantively, Eberstadt seems open to the idea that one’s status as a victim of some circumstance (here, having been sexually abused) should impact one’s right to be considered for holy orders. I also am open to considering that proposition but we should be clear that that is where Eberstadt’s idea leads.

Until recently canon law recognized that some circumstances over which one had no control could nevertheless impact one’s eligibility for orders. Thus—besides those whose personal actions barred them from later pursuing orders (e.g., those committing acts of heresy or self-mutilation)—the Pio-Benedictine Code of 1917 also declared “irregular” for orders those who, for example, were born out of wedlock or suffered certain genetic or adventitious deformities. 1917 CIC 984-985. Dispensations from irregularities were available and granted often-enough, but the point was that canon law treated certain aspects of one’s background, including some circumstances over which one had no control, as negatively impacting one’s suitability for orders. Canonists developed good arguments defending these ‘circumstance-based’ irregularities but their arguments faced the obvious rejoinder that at least some of these exclusions smacked of unfairness.

The Johanno-Pauline Code of 1983—while retaining most of the traditional, ‘act-based’ obstacles to orders (e.g., heresy and self-mutilation)—removed basically all ‘circumstance-based’ obstacles to pursuing orders such that today bishops focus mainly on whether a candidate for orders “is endowed … with the necessary qualities” (1983 CIC 1025 § 1) and “is suitable to receive orders” (1983 CIC 1052 § 3). Eberstadt simply invites us to consider whether the law should establish at least one ‘circumstance-based’ factor (to wit, having been sexually abused) as an irregularity for orders.

Maybe Eberstadt is on to something. Maybe one’s having been sexually abused should bar one from seeking holy orders. We should trust the Church’s pastoral wisdom (recalling Paul VI’s famous description of the Church as “an expert in humanity”) to illuminate the answer.

But toward finding that answer I suggest we clarify whether the claim is that: (A) childhood sexual abuse experiences make males more likely to abuse others sexually; or (B) childhood sexual abuse experiences make males more likely to develop homosexual tendencies which tendencies make them more likely to abuse others sexually. In other words, we should ask whether there might be a step or a status between one’s victimization and one’s likelihood of abusing others, namely, the development of a homosexual orientation (whether it arises from earlier victimization or from some other cause). If there is such an intermediate status, and if that status is statistically distinguishable from victimization status, and if that status is discernable by those in formation work, canon law—which is supposed to make the Church’s pursuit of her mission more efficient—should focus not so much on whether a seminarian was a victim of sexual abuse but on whether he is homosexually-oriented.

Of course, looking at homosexual orientation (not to a victim’s history) is the direction that a few Church directives already point. See Cong. for Catholic Education (Grocholewski), instr. In continuità (04 nov 2005), Eng. on-line here, passim, discouraging the ordination of those men (indeed, their admission into seminary) with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies”, and Cong. for the Clergy (Stella), Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis (08 dec 2016), Eng. on-line here, esp. nn. 199-200, making the same suggestion.

But, as I pointed out here, neither dicastery document suffices to establish a canonical obstacle (an “irregularity”) to orders on par with, say, certain mental disorders or the canonically criminous acts mentioned earlier. Why Rome has not used the authority of codified canon law to support the efforts of a dicastery or two toward preventing the ordination of men with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies”, I do not know.

I only know that Rome hasn’t done so.


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