Category Archives: Sexual Ethics

Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church

© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Reprinted with permission.)

For those who hoped that the Catholic church had begun to appropriately handle its systemic sexual abuses from the 1980s and 1990s, the recent Pennsylvania Grand Jury report is deeply disturbing. The report indicates that in the state of Pennsylvania alone, over a period of 70 years, more than 300 priests were accused of the systemic sexual abuse of over 1000 individuals and the systematic cover-up of this abuse. This report comes just weeks after the resignation of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the Archbishop of Washington, who had been accused of sexual abuse of children and adults over decades, and after recent revelations of systemic clerical sexual abuse in Chile and Australia.

With a focus on the Pennsylvania report the New York Times reports:

“Despite some institutional reform, individual leaders of the church have largely escaped public accountability,” the grand jury wrote. “Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all. For decades.”

Though one might hope for internal church reforms — and perhaps that this will spur a new conversation about the possibility of women and married priests, including openly gay married priests — the report shows that the time has passed for waiting on such internal reforms.  A legal investigation of such systemic abuse, accompanied by other means of law enforcement, is the only likely way to adequately address these abuses. The church-directed efforts have shown too clearly the risk of such studies being overseen by individuals who have conflicting interests in the results.

The background for this tragic state of affairs — regarding why the church has ended up in this situation in the first place — also still needs to be more clearly articulated. The church hierarchy, unfortunately, has been as inept at these reflections as at self-reform. Various factors — both cultural and structural — have created an institution that is dogmatic, authoritarian, sexually repressed, and unable to muster the self-criticism and self-monitoring needed.

Fundamental to the culture is a belief common among Catholics that those with power in the church are those who God has blessed and chosen. There is an assumption that the Holy Spirit guides the church in its decisions on the election of the Pope and the appointment of the hierarchy, and that those in the priesthood have been called. Consequently, not only is it presumed that all of these clerics are due respect and honor, but it is very often assumed that to question them is to question God’s providence. It is really a very strange mental knot to tie. But many have tied it, and those benefitting from it, just pull the knot tighter and tighter.

Add to this the fact that the culture of the priesthood is enormously gay, but of a self-loathing, repressed variety and, as should be clear now, also too often tainted by sexual tastes of a quite sinister variety. As a gay former priest told me years ago: He and his generation of Catholics grew up thinking that you would either get married or become a priest. Many like him, who had sexual orientations outside the norm, thought the priesthood was their calling since marriage clearly wasn’t. Given the prevalence of thinking like this, the fact that the institution of the church has ended up in its mess should hardly be surprising.

It is against this backdrop, of course, that not only the clergy generally, but the hierarchy as well, has been filled with people very uncomfortable with their own sexuality, very often with individuals who feel that their own sexual inclinations are morally wrong. But unfortunately, their own moral sensibilities have not given them the ability to control their sexual drives. Twisting themselves ever more tightly into their own emotional knots generally did not work to make them well and whole. Quite the opposite.

Structurally, it is of course a problem that very often the fates of those in the hierarchy who make the most important decisions on this issue are tied up with those who have been involved in the most heinous of crimes at the local parishes, or have been involved in abuse power relationships at the countries Catholic seminaries, or have been sexually abused at the nation’s minor seminaries, with the 14 to 18 year olds, under the tutelage of their loving mentors. It’s as unsavory as you would think, as we should all be aware now.

All bishops passed through some of these institutions. Some of them passed through all of them. And their decision-making on the sexual abuse cases can hardly be thought to be non-self-interested. In many cases, some of these young men were clearly exploring their own sexuality, sometimes failing in their own eyes to live up to their aspirations. Tied to this is the further structural issue that the promotions within the church come top-down. Those who cooperate with the authorities of the institution are those who move into the hierarchy of the institution.

Unfortunately, dark chapters probably remain to be written about how many in the hierarchy have put in words for their own lovers. But that aside, when it comes to the issue of how to handle sexual abuse issues within the church, those in power have very much rewarded “discretion” — in this case, that means, there has been an interest in covering up enormous injustices because of a fear of how the exposure of those injustices would affect the church, financially and culturally.

Of course, the cover-up always has a background moral justification. The good of the church (keeping up the morale of the majority of congregants and ensuring their continued participation in the church, as well as ensuring the financial viability of the institution) trumps the good of the altar boy molested, or the good of the minor seminarian, often enough viewed as just discovering what he really likes anyway. And add a bit of earlier mentioned theology to that: Remember, God has chosen those in power. To question them is to question God.

The congregants themselves want to trust the authority of those who have spiritually advised them, who have been their confessors and accompanied them on their life journeys in some of the most pivotal moments, from birth and baptism, through growth into adulthood, with confirmation, to marriage and funerals — all moments where the church officials, including many of those guilty of the crimes, have played a key role in helping congregants make sense of questions of meaning, overcome emotional travails, deal with life’s difficulties and celebrate its joys.

The abusers clearly abused this trust, but so did the bishops, even those who were not themselves the abusers, but who were involved in the cover-up. How many of them sent reassuring emails or had reassuring phone calls in which they communicated their remorse at the tragedy of the situation but affirmed the abused and their families that the church was handling this internally, that appropriate steps would be taken, and of course, that those who wrote would be in the prayers of the church?

Part of the problem is that the church has supported authoritarian beliefs, playing on the eagerness of the congregants to accept the decisions of authorities. Part of it has to do with a clerical system that is bound to attract people ill at ease with their own sexuality. Affecting Catholic culture in a deep enough way to address this authoritarianism would be quite a feat. But addressing some structural issues could help. Isn’t it time that the church rethink celibacy? Isn’t it time that it rethink women in the priesthood? Isn’t it time it rethinks its disdain for homosexuality and allows priests who are open about their homosexuality? These moves would mean that many different kinds of individuals would be attracted to the clergy than have been in the past. These would be slow steps that might begin to correct the sexual sickness of the institution. They would also bring the Catholic church into alignment with decisions of other mainline Christian churches.

But the resistance is strong — and it comes in the form of old, and dated, theological arguments, arguments based on authority, but offered with the pretense that they flow from pure reason. Jesus, the more Orthodox theologians will say, did not have female apostles. And so, the church may not have female priests. Rather than analyzing such decisions against the background of the unique culture in the Middle East of the time of Jesus, as the church does on an array of issues (from slavery to views toward hierarchical rule in politics), those making the arguments pretend that static gender roles exude from pure rationality.

Yet, their arguments are willful, not rational. They resonate in our own culture only with a very small minority of basically quite conservative churchmen, largely also politically and personally invested in the false assumptions of the argument. When evaluating whether the argument is really rational, it is informative to consider how many outside of this system actually find the argument compelling. Virtually none of those in non-Catholic Christian denominations do. Only a small percentage of American and European Catholics do. But the church’s Orthodox will argue that the fact that only the few see the reason doesn’t make it less rational. That is true enough in theory. But in the case at hand, it merely unveils a lack of ability for self-questioning and modernization.

Even these changes in the requirements for the priesthood, which would in principle just bring Catholics into sync with mainline Protestant understanding of the role of women and gays in the contemporary world, would go some way in beginning to redress the systemic sexual abuse within the church. In the Pennsylvania case, seven percent of the priests were involved in such abuse and its cover-up. This is far beyond the norm.

My own experience within Catholic institutions — while perhaps anecdotal — also provides some evidence of the severity of the problem.  Among my decades of background at Catholic institutions, I was a seminarian at a Benedictine monastery for two years in the mid-1980s. There, of the eight clergy who were faculty members there, five had believable allegations of sexual misconduct brought against them. Two were brought to court for pedophilia charges against children under 12. Three had allegations brought against them for misconduct with young seminarians. That’s 62.5%. You’d be hard-pressed to find another organization with similar levels of such problems. Changes have occurred since I was there. But as the Pennsylvania report indicates, the Catholic church is still enormously sick. Unfortunately, it seems to have little capacity for understanding its own sickness, let alone for making the changes needed to appropriately address it.

We can, unfortunately, expect little movement on the issues I’ve mentioned. So the time has come for more external controls. More investigations are needed. Statutes of limitations need to be extended. Some of those involved need to go to prison. Maybe external controls will help move the recalcitrant institution to make needed changes. Let’s hope so — for the good of the children.

A note about the author:

My particular interest in this issue is related to my background having grown up Catholic and having studied philosophy and theology and taught philosophy in Catholic institutions. I attended Catholic grade school and spent some time in a Catholic high school. Besides having studied at the mentioned Benedictine monastery as a Catholic seminarian, I completed my bachelor’s degree at an archdiocesan university and finished my master’s degree in philosophy at a Jesuit university, where I was also briefly enrolled in their master’s program in theology, before going to Germany where I did my doctorate in non-Catholic university. From 2010 until August of 2018 I was a philosophy professor at an archdiocesan university in Florida (where I also served one year as an Interim Dean). I am now in the midst of a transfer to a Florida state college.

Summary of Alan Goldman’s “Plain Sex”

Here is an outline of Alan Goldman’s influential article, “Plain Sex.”

Two Lessons about Ethical Thinking

(1) Many ethical disagreements hinge upon disagreements about facts, not about moral principles.

(2) Being a moral objectivist needn’t mean being morally conservative.

Both lessons help limit the appeal of moral relativism. Let us consider each in turn.

1) Many ethical disagreements hinge upon disagreements about facts, not about moral principles.

Goldman claims that views about immoral sexual behaviour are rooted in our definition of sexual behaviour & desire.

Goldman criticizes ‘Means-End’ Analyses

i. The end (i.e., purpose) of sex is reproduction.
ii. The end is the expression of love
iii. The end is communication
iv. The end is interpersonal awareness.

Why?  Should we reject these analyses?

Goldman’s reason for rejecting those analyses:

Theory (i) mistakes nature’s ‘purpose’ for reproduction for our own.  First of all, why should we think that nature really has any purposes at all?  Only conscious things can have purposes, but nature isn’t a conscious thing.  Secondly, even if nature does have purposes, why should consider them our purposes?  For example, if nature has purposes then probably the purpose of eating (from nature’s point of view) is nutrition, but we often think of eating differently.  To us, the purpose is not just nutrition but also enjoyment.

Theories (ii) – (iv) mistake things that may, in particular cases, be associated with sex for things that are essential to sex.  For example, Goldman thinks that sex may in particular cases be a way of expressing love, but it doesn’t have to be.

Are these convincing reasons for rejecting the these analyses?

Goldman’s Analysis:  “sexual desire is desire for contact with another person’s body and for the pleasure which such contact produces; sexual activity is activity which tends to fulfill such desire of the agent.” (268)

Sex is ‘plain sex’ and nothing more.

Is this the right account?

How will the account you endorse affect your position on sexual morality?

Consider:  once you define the purpose of sex, then it makes sense to consider sex that doesn’t serve that purpose as perverted, immoral sex.

Think about the implications of each of the above analyses of sex for what counts as immoral sex.

Notice how disagreements about something as seemingly uninteresting as the definition of sex can lead to substantial moral disagreements.

(2) Being a moral objectivist needn’t mean being morally conservative.

Goldman considers both Deontological (i.e., Kantian) & Consequentialist (i.e., Utilitarian) ways of considering sexual morality.

(a) Utilitarianism

The moral rightness and wrongness of an action is determined by how much happiness it produces in total.

Thus, the rightness or wrongness of a sexual act is a function of how much happiness is produced by the act.

What implications does this view have for sexual morality?

(Note: Goldman seems to disapprove of utilitarianism.)

We might suggest it will lead to a fairly liberal view of sexual morality.  With some limitations, if those involved in a sex act fully consent to it, it’s likely to lead to an overall increase in happiness, so the sexual act is morally OK.

What might those limitations be?

(b) Kantian Morality

The Categorical Imperative:  “Act only according to that maxim [i.e., rule] whereby you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.”

An Alternative Formulation of the C.I.:  Always treat others as ends in themselves, not simply as the means to an end, i.e., never just use people.

What implications does this view have for sexual morality?

Again, it might be thought to lead to a liberal view of sexual morality.  With some limitations, so long as people fully consent to a sexual act no one is being treated simply as a means to an end so the act is morally OK.

What might those limitations be?

Here, the thing to notice is that both of these objective moral theories seem able to support quite liberal views about what are morally acceptable ways of behaving.  The lesson is that one can be a moral objectivist and have liberal moral views at the same time.

Summary of Thomas Mappes’ “Sexual Morality and the Concept of Using Another Person”

Here is an outline of Mappes’ “Sexual Morality and the Concept of Using Another Person.”

Mappes develops an essentially Kantian sexual ethic by appealing to the idea that in our dealings with others, we ought never to treat someone as a mere means to our own ends.

Mappes defines using someone as intentionally treating them in a way that violates the requirement that our involvement with others be based on their voluntary and informed consent.

According to a fundamental Kantian principle

1) it is morally wrong for A to use B merely as a means to achieve A’s ends
2) Using someone as a means is okay, but using them merely as a means is incompatible with respect to their personhood

We use people as mere means

1) when we undermine the voluntary or informed character of their consent to interact with us in some desired way
2) Hence, using another person can arise in at least two important ways
a) coercion – which undermines voluntary consent
b) deception – which undermines informed consent

Coercion can be occurrent or dispositional

1) Occurrent coercion involves the use of physical force
2) Dispositional coercion involves the threat of harm
3) The victim of dispositional coercion does intentionally choose a certain course of action; however, one’s choice, in the face of the threat of harm, is less than fully voluntary

Deception and Sexual Morality

1) Even if a child “consents” to sexual interaction, he or she is, strictly speaking, incapable of informed consent
2) We can also visualize the case of an otherwise fully competent adult temporarily disordered by drugs or alcohol. To the extent that such a person is rightly regarded as temporarily incompetent, winning his or her “consent” to sexual interaction could culminate in the sexual using of that person

Lying is not the only form of deception

1) Under certain circumstances, the simple withholding of information can be considered a form of deception
2) Mr. A, knowing that it is very unlikely that Ms. B will consent to sexual interaction if she becomes aware of Mr. A’s involvement with her sister, decides not to disclose this information. This is deception.

Coercion and Sexual Morality

1) Rape that employs dispositional coercion is surely just as wrong as rape that employs occurrent coercion
2) With dispositional coercion, the victim’s consent is not bypassed; it is coerced
3) There are numerous ways in which one person can effectively harm, and thus effectively, threaten, another

Consider four cases

1) Mr. Supervisor makes sexual overtures to Ms. Employee, which are rejected. Eventually, Mr. Supervisor makes it clear that sexual favors is a condition of employment

2) Ms. Debtor borrowed a substantial sum of money from Mr. Creditor. Ms. Debtor is sexually attracted to Mr. Creditor, but he doesn’t share her interest. When the debt comes due, she says she’ll pay if he consents to sex

3) Mr. Theatergoer has two tickets to the most talked about play. He finds a woman sexually attractive, and who would love to see the play. Mr. Theatergoer offers to take her to the play on condition she have sex with him

4) Ms. Jetsetter is planning a trip to Europe. She would like to have sex with a man whom she knows would love to go to Europe. Ms. Jetsetter proposes that he accompany her, all expenses paid, understanding that sex is expected

Cases 1 and 2 involve attempts to sexually use

1) another person, whereas cases 3 and 4 do not
2) We need to distinguish threats from offers
3) Threat: If you do not do what I am proposing you do, I will bring about an undesirable consequence for you
4) Offer: If you do what I am proposing you do, I will bring about a desirable consequence for you

The person who makes a threat attempts to coerce consent

1) The person who makes an offer attempts not to coerce but to induce consent
2) It is not uncommon for threats to be advanced in the language of offers

If it’s unclear whether a proposal is a threat or an offer

1) ask this question: Does the proposal have the effect of making a person worse off upon noncompliance?
2) The recipient of an offer, upon noncompliance, is not worse off than he or she was before the offer. In contrast, the recipient of a threat, upon noncompliance, is worse off than he or she was before the threat

A person can be effectively coerced by being threatened

1) with the withholding of something (a benefit) to which the person is entitled
2) Consider an example: B says I’ll help you, A, out of the quicksand if you pay me $1 Million”

This is a threat

1) because B is morally obligated to help A when such help involves no significant sacrifice of time, or risk, or resources. Before B’s proposal, A legitimately expected assistance from B “no strings attached.” In attaching a very unwelcome string, B’s proposal effectively renders A worse off
2) B threatens A with the withholding of something (assistance) that A is entitled to have from B

Cases 1 and 2 involve threats; 3 and 4, offers

1) Consider cases 5 and 6 in which Prof. Highstatus is sexually attracted to a student. Ms. Student, confused and unsettled, has begun to practice avoidance behavior

Case 5

1) Prof. Highstatus tells Ms. Student, though she deserves a B, she will be assigned a D unless she agrees to sex

Case 6

1) Prof. Highstatus tells Ms. Student, though she deserves a B, she will be assigned an A if she agrees to sex

It is clear that case 5 involves an attempt to use Ms. Student

1) Case 6, at least at face value, does not. In this case, Prof. Highstatus is undoubtedly acting in a morally reprehensible way. He is abusing his institutional authority.
2) There is however a suspicion that case 6 might involve a threat. Might not Ms. Student feel threatened? Is he not likely to retaliate should she turn him down?

Is Prof. Highstatus naïve to the threat

1) that Ms. Student may find implicit in the situation? Perhaps. In such a case, if she reluctantly agrees to sex, we may be inclined to say that he has unwittingly used her.
2) More likely, Prof. Highstatus is well aware of the way in which Ms. Student will perceive his proposal. Indeed, it may even be the case that he exploits his underground reputation for retaliation
3) To the extent, then, that he intends to convey a threat, he is attempting coercion

The Idea of a Coercive Offer – Case 7

1) Ms. Starlet, a glamorous and wealthy model, wants to be a movie superstar. Mr. Moviemogul invites her for a screen test in his office. After the test, he tells her he’ll make her a star on condition she agree to sex. She’s not at all attracted to him. With great reluctance, she agrees

Mr. Moviemogul has not used Ms. Starlet

1) She accepted his offer. The situation would be different if it were plausible to believe that, before accepting the proposal, she was entitled to his efforts to make her a star

The more general claim at issue is that offers are coercive

1) precisely inasmuch as they are extremely enticing or seductive
2) Though there is an important reality associated with this claim, we must not agree that an offer is coercive merely because it is extremely enticing or seductive

(It should not surprise readers to know that Mappes is a Christian thinker.)

Is Monogamy Natural?

Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart): A man takes a drop too much once in a while, it’s only human nature.
Rose Sayer (Katherine Hepburn): Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above. ~ The African Queen (1951)

Which is more natural for human beings, monogamy1 or polygamy? If one is more natural, does that make it preferable?

Most documented human societies, about 85%, have been polygamous. This almost always involves polygyny, men having multiple wives. Polyandry, wives having multiple husbands and polyamory, having more than one consensual, intimate relationship at the same time, are far less common. Even in so-called monogamous cultures people have affairs, and they often engage in serial monogamy, the custom of having multiple, consecutive sexual relationships but not more than one at a time. Perhaps humans are naturally polygamous.

Yet there are examples in nature of mostly monogamous relationships: lar gibbons, mute swans, Malagasy giant rats, waved albatrosses, California mouses, black vultures, shingleback skinks, sandhill cranes, prairie voles, convict cichlids, some African antelopes, and … humans. Humans are capable of long-term, happy, monogamous relationships, just as they are capable of having polygamous ones.

So it is hard to say whether monogamy or polygamy is more natural. It might be like asking whether it is more natural to speak English or German. Humans are wired to learn language just as they naturally crave contact with others, but culture largely determines the language they learn and the forms of their relationships.  Nature doesn’t determine which language or relationship is best. And even if one is more natural than the other that doesn’t make it better. Some natural things are good, but some are bad—like smallpox!

Moreover, humans have both long-term and short-term mating strategies. We associate long-term mating strategies with monogamy. These strategies value commitment, gene quality, economic prospects and parenting skills. We associate short-term mating strategies with polygamy. These strategies value physical attractiveness, sex appeal, and sexual experience. But nature doesn’t decree which types of relationships are morally or biologically better.

Regarding the origins of monogamy the situation is straightforward:

The genetic evidence for the evolution of monogamy in humans is more complex but much more straightforward. While female effective population size (the number of individuals successfully producing offspring thus contributing to the gene pool), as indicated by mitochondrial-DNA evidence, increased around the time of human (not hominid) expansion out of Africa about 80,000–100,000 years ago, male effective population size, as indicated by Y-chromosome evidence, did not increase until the advent of agriculture 18,000 years ago. This means that before 18 000 years ago, many females would be reproducing with the same few males.[36]

This strongly suggests that monogamy is a cultural imperative, not a biological one. And the modern world favors monogamy—polygamy is illegal in the entire developed world.  Why the transition from polygamy to monogamy? The main reason is that polygyny is detrimental to society. It creates an incentive for men to take many wives, leaving other men without wives—and men without mates cause problems. In polygynous societies levels of crime, violence, poverty and gender inequality are greater than in monogamous ones as a recent study at the University of British Columbia confirmed:

… monogamy’s main cultural evolutionary advantage over polygyny is the more egalitarian distribution of women, which reduces male competition and social problems. By shifting male efforts from seeking wives to paternal investment, institutionalized monogamy increases long-term planning, economic productivity, savings and child investment …

Monogamous marriage also results in significant improvements in child welfare, including lower rates of child neglect, abuse, accidental death, homicide and intra-household conflict, the study finds. These benefits result from greater levels of parental investment, smaller households, and increased direct “blood relatedness” in monogamous family households …

… By decreasing competition for younger and younger brides, monogamous marriage increases the age of first marriage for females, decreases the spousal age gap and elevates female influence in household decisions which decreases total fertility and increases gender equality.

It seems that we should favor the wisdom of culture over our genetic lease. Still, you might object. “Even if it’s in society’s interests to have stable monogamous unions that doesn’t mean it’s in mine. I like polygamous or polyandrous relationships.” It is hard to give a knockdown argument against this. If all involved parties are happier in such relationships, and the effects on society are limited, then so be it.

I can only speak for myself by echoing the words of that great freethinker Voltaire:

As I had now seen all that was beautiful on earth, I resolved for the future to see nothing but my own home; I took a wife, and soon suspected that she deceived me; but notwithstanding this doubt, I still found that of all conditions of life this was much the happiest.2


1. I am referring to marital monogamy, marriages of two people only, and social monogamy, two partners living together, having sex together, and cooperating in acquiring basic resources.

2. Voltaire, The Travels of Scarmentado.