Sex, the Church, and the Cardinal

Oh dear. Yet again the Roman Catholic Church has managed to bring itself into disrepute over sex. One feels the need to mangle Oscar Wilde: that to make a right royal sexual cock-up once might be considered a misfortune, but to do it repeatedly, indeed constantly, looks like carelessness. Not that carelessness even begins to cover it. The Church has managed, at every turn, to substitute rules for principles, obfuscation for clarity, and lies for truthfulness.

Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s catastrophic fall from grace, in a display every bit as spectacular as that of any unannounced meteor over Russia, seems almost to have been designed to concentrate all the Church’s confusions and dishonesties over sex – and gay sex in particular – into one super-saturated droplet of self-destructive poison.

Christianity’s moral principles could, at root, be distilled into two precepts: that we should consider others’ needs before our own; and that what we want is frequently not good for us, and even less good for others. Or, to put it more biblically, we should love our neighbour as much as we love ourselves, and love God even more than we love ourselves. When applied to our sexual behaviour this means simply that we are not at liberty to indulge our sexual desires merely for our self-gratification, and that to do so is to put at risk our own health (in a holistic sense, not merely in the sense of disease) and that of our sexual partners. This is, in itself, quite a sufficiently counter-cultural position to take in a society that seems increasingly to want to sexualise everything, and to idolise (in its literal sense) the obtaining of sexual pleasure and satisfaction. It was never necessary for the Church to over-egg that pudding by adding prohibitions on particular sexual acts, or particular couplings – still less for it to relegate sexual activity itself to some sort of barely permissible pastime that can only be justified by the procreation of children.

But the Church has got itself into a right old mess. It’s created a male-only environment, and then been gobsmacked to discover that it has attracted a lot of gay men. It’s demonised homosexuality, and then looked aghast as its gay priests have found themselves obliged to conduct their sexual lives undercover and clothe their public lives in layers of hypocrisy. Having created a sexual underworld, it now discovers that its secrecy and denial have permitted it to be colonised by paedophiles and all kinds of other purveyors of sexual deviancy.

Seen in this light it’s hard to know if Cardinal O’Brien is more victim or more perpetrator. His hypocrisy in speaking out so vehemently against homosexuality whilst, apparently, indulging in that very activity in his private life, is indeed breathtaking. But at the same time, it seems to me, he has been as it were entrapped by an institution that has simultaneously both created a homosexual culture, and also denied the validity of homosexual expression. It can surely be no surprise that such contradictions have produced so much damage and human tragedy.

The cardinal’s sin isn’t really his hypocrisy, still less his homosexuality. It’s his lack of moral courage. Ultimately, I can’t condemn him. He is a victim, no less than those priests who so belatedly exposed him. Indeed, they are all victims of a Church that has got it all wrong about sex. And until it starts to get it right, there will be more sexual scandals, more cardinals exposed, more priests abused, and more victims in the pews.

Oh, what a tangled web we weave

“I was playing in the local park when I was a little girl, probably about 5 or 6 years old. An old wino was in the park, and when I got close to him I saw he’d got his willy out and was masturbating, not that I knew what that meant at the time. I thought this was funny. The man didn’t really take much notice of me, or of my giggling. To me this was not really any different from any of the other hundreds of things I was seeing for the first time. I went home and told my mum about the funny man, and what he was doing. All hell broke loose. Suddenly something which was funny became something wrong, and very scary. The police were called. I was dragged off to the park to identify the man. I was confused, and couldn’t understand why everyone was so angry. I was much more damaged by the aftermath than I’d been by the incident. I learnt that there are some things that you shouldn’t tell people about if you want to stay safe.”

So ran the story a friend of mine told me several years ago. This was before our even more heightened sensitivity to children, sex, abuse and the like over the last 20 years or so. My friend’s experience might well have been even more troubling had it happened today. One can imagine the plethora of professionals that would nowadays be marshalled in such a case. Just in case you are in any doubt, I am not suggesting that masturbating alcoholics in public parks within sight of little girls are something to be encouraged, nor that a different child might not have reacted with the amused curiosity that my friend did, and might instead have been troubled and scared. But I am saying that our reaction to children and sex, and the “professionalisation” of our response, are problematic in themselves, and maybe more so than the incidents they purport to protect children from.

On the Today programme on Radio 4 this morning a father recounted the terrible consequences of his 12-year old son’s “inappropriate sexual activity” with an 8-year old girl. Once again, let me make it clear that 12-year olds fumbling in the knickers of 8-year olds is not something that we should be entirely sanguine about, or treat as purely matter-of-fact. But just as in my friend’s case, the consequences that this father described seemed as if they were at least as damaging, and probably very much more so, than the incident which sparked it all off. They were certainly longer lasting for the young boy concerned, who clearly had no idea what forces he was unleashing.

What’s happening here? I firmly believe that our society is totally fucked up about sex. We are a mass of contradictions. On the one hand we have sexualised almost everything that moves, from selling perfume to shifting newspapers devoid of any actual news. On the other, we are more censorious about sex than ever before, and nowhere more so than when it comes to our kids. But even there, the contradictions are manifold and extreme. We have almost pre-pubescent models; we sell bras to little girls who have nothing to put in them; we have make-up for 6-year olds; and at the same time children who are fascinated – as they always have been – with each others’ bodies are no longer exploring the world, but abusing each other. Adults comforting young children who’ve fallen over in the street had better have been through an enhanced CRB check before they offer to “rub it better”. This is madness.

We’ve arrived in a place where simultaneously sex has permeated every pore of our society, and yet where our guilt about it has reached alpine proportions. We want to sex-up our children, and yet pretend that children are pristine asexual beings cocooned in a sentimental innocence. I think that this is wonderfully and ironically captured by the weasel words we use to describe those things that lie at the heart of our dissembling and self-deception about sex, and especially about sex and children. The boy whose father spoke so eloquently on the radio this morning was accused of “inappropriate” sexual activity. What the hell is that? What would be the “appropriate” sexual activity in such circumstances? Is a child fumbling in the knickers of another child “sexual activity” at all? I’m not at all sure that it is. Words like projection come to mind.

We’re weaving this tangled web because we’ve practised to deceive. To deceive ourselves about children. To deceive ourselves about sex. To deceive ourselves about the sexualised society that we’ve created. And above all, to deceive ourselves that we now have a modern, open, and mature attitude to sex. We do not.