Watching the Church Deal with Its Sex Problems

It’s been haunting the church for decades. It’s an issue the Roman Catholic Church is currently dealing with in the way any international corporation would.

What we’re seeing in the current discussions of priestly abuse of their positions sexually and the standard institutional cover-up, is consistent with the long history of those not so strange bedfellows: religion and sex. There’s no surprise here, except to those who have preferred denial.

This is more than just the Church’s defenders arguing that it’s the media in this case, not the Church, on a witch-hunt. But who is surprised that those who have so much stake in the Truth of the Church to which they’ve tethered themselves are lashing out at their accusers – even at times acting as if it’s a valid argument to put down the cries of those abused because it’s “old news?”

It’s more than watching the Church’s defenders invoke their biases by blaming homosexuality again. That’s a trope that will find numerous defenders among those who blame LGBT people for everything from the problems with their own marriages to the fall of Rome.

It’s more than just the realization that the Church’s old argument that this is just an American matter is bogus as its victims surface all over Europe. Appearance of the universality of the phenomena was just a matter of time. Wait till we hear of it in Africa and Asia.

It’s more than just priests abusing males. Female victims are abundant as a visit to the website of the Survivors’ Network of Those Abused by Priests makes clear.

And it’s more than just a dragging out of the usual defenses to protect Church leadership. As if following a manual for damage control of any large corporation’s brand, it went from denial, to claiming it’s just a few bad apples, to demonization of its critics, to defense of its CEOs, to well-guarded admissions.

All of this is tired because all of this is not new. It’s not new for the Roman Catholic Church, and it’s not new for the Protestant churches that are just thankful they’re not in the news about sexual abuse and harassment.

There’s a long history of problems with sexuality in Christian communities, and the evidence is that it’s about the same percentage among non-Catholic as among Catholic clergy – all Protestant fundamentalist, anti-Catholic finger-pointing aside.

A consistent obsession of religious leaders, East and West, is human sexuality. One of the most taboo-laden areas of human life in religions worldwide has been their lists of rules to control people’s sex lives.

As Christian traditions developed, sex and the erotic were feared, used, controlled, suppressed, condemned, and punished. Historians have fully documented what at times they’ve labeled eroto-phobia.

There’s nothing new in all of this history. Liberal Christians have been trying to dig themselves out of this legacy for generations now.

But what this underlines again, is that the Church as an institution is, and many other churches are, suffering from sexual addiction. This is not to excuse anything, as critics of the concept of sexual addiction maintain.

It’s not to label sexual freedom or the varieties of sexual orientation as evidence of sexual addiction so as to control sex scientifically.

It’s to understand how sexual addiction leads to religious addiction in those people who flee to religion and its feelings of righteousness to cover their unwillingness to deal in a healthy manner with how they use sex to feel better about damaged self-concepts.

Sexual orientation is not the issue except that the sexuality of LGBT people is likely to be further damaged by the oppressive culture around us. Sexual addiction is using sex to alter ones mood so that one does not confront, face, and heal the emotional and psychological issues that drive someone to any addiction, ingestive or process.

Obsession with sex, not just wanting to indulge, but obsession with controlling the sexuality of others, is a mark of the addiction. And, as Patrick Carnes argues, the cause of sexual addiction is often a sexual self-hatred.

The concept of sexual addiction isn’t motivated by a puritanical desire to condemn sex, for the addiction is just as likely to manifest itself in just that. Hence the subtitle of one of Carnes’ books: Sexual Anorexia: Overcoming Sexual Self-Hatred (1997).

“Sexual anorexia is an obsessive state in which the physical, mental, and emotional task of avoiding sex dominates one’s life. Like self-starvation with food or compulsive debting or hoarding with money, deprivation with sex can make one feel powerful and defended against all hurts,” Carnes writes.

“In this case, sex becomes the furtive enemy to be continually kept at bay, even at the price of annihilating a part of oneself.” Carnes actually places much of the blame on our sex-negative culture reflected in that advice dished out by a number of churches: “Sex is dirty, save it for the one you love.”

When a religious institution is sexually addicted, it bristles at statements such as M. Scott Peck’s in his popular The Road Less Traveled: “I distrust any religious conversion which does not also involve an intensification of one’s sexuality.”

A popular way not to deal with sexual shame, desires, and self-hatred is to transfer the resulting sexual addiction to religion, as I’ve argued in When Religion Is an Addiction. The more one gets caught up in one’s religious righteousness and its corresponding energetic, judgmental high, the more one can suppress feelings of self-hatred.

But this is to try to become comfortable with what Carnes identifies as the double-life of the addict, in which the real issues don’t get discussed: “On the surface, a sex addict may appear to be living faithfully, but scratch through that veneer and we’ll find he’s maintaining a secret life.”

The problem always surfaces. And addicts’ responses are denial, defensiveness, and blaming.

This is what I see as I watch this on-going saga of the Church and what breaks out regularly among other churches. Sadly, the institutions won’t deal with this.

They’ll continue to major in all of the ways that an addict focuses attention off their addiction and onto others. Even the resignation of a pope won’t fix this.