A lifetime ago, in the chapel of Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C., the Jesuit retreat master would tell us stories of virtuous young men who had resisted life’s most vivid temptations. The snares in Father Magee’s tales were usually sexual. We were adolescents; Father knew his audience.
Our retreat masters warned us against sins of impurity, of course—against self-abuse. It was the most conspicuous sin that it occurred to us to commit. I pitied the poor priests who had to listen to us during confession on Thursday afternoons in the dusk of the lower church of St. Aloysius Gonzaga. The cure for impure thoughts, the priests told us, was to go out and play basketball. When I saw guys playing basketball, I would wave and say, “I know what you’re up to, you nasty bastards.”
The retreat master never warned us about priestly abuse. At Gonzaga—as far as I knew then or know now—they did not have to. In four years, I never encountered it, not a hint. The Jesuits at Gonzaga were among the finest men I have known: tough, sharply intelligent, kind, funny, disciplined and some a little neurotic in their suppressed intensity. My Greek teacher, a scholastic named McGoldrick, smoked unfiltered Camels down to his yellow-stained knuckles. A couple of the priests drank too much, but I figured they were entitled. I owe everything to those Jesuits. They straightened out my life and taught me Greek in the bargain.
It’s a hell of a note when priests and prelates of the Catholic church become object lessons in sin. Such men embody the very horror stories they ought to be telling, in gaudy detail, in their own retreat sermons to illustrate the monstrous possibilities of human nature. The majesty of the mystical body of Christ has been radically diminished, replaced by a sort of capillary effect of shame. That shame has been encroaching for years now, a cancer making its way to the heart of the church.
The errors that have caused so much mischief and grief in the Catholic church, however, were not particular to the church alone. Changes in the church were part of a larger shift in America and the world in the past 60 years. Most of the abuse by clergy represents collateral damage caused by the sexual upheaval of the 1960s. The damage is continuing—and it isn’t so collateral anymore.
Before the sexual revolution, Catholics and the broader world stressed responsibility, gravity and adult standards of behavior. Men wanted to act like Gary Cooper or Humphrey Bogart. This was the legacy of the Great Depression and World War II, which formed generations with a sense of mortal consequences. Sex was a serious business. It might well involve the profound consequence of engendering another life. Girls knew how to be careful and how to say no—and how not to get to the point where they would no longer be able to say no.
But then came the turning of the lake, the onset of another world. With the advent of the pill, heterosexual intercourse became frequent and casual and usually inconsequential. The ’60s let daylight in upon sexual magic, then and ever after, by detaching sex from its biological consequence. In case of emergency, there would soon be Roe v. Wade. This was either paradise or a very stupid idea.
Homosexuality never involved the possibility of pregnancy. Now heterosexual intercourse was also liberated. Sex was free to become whatever it liked: recreation, entertainment, lifestyle, identity. This, like the pill, was an evolutionary advance. People could embrace new possibilities of love and self-expression in keeping with their deeper natures, emancipated from the tyrannies of the sperm and egg, the blastulablob, the diapers and the upchuck and the school tuitions. Either that, or it reflected a fatal rebellion against the designs of nature—or, as some thought, of God.
The Second Vatican Council, which “modernized” much of Catholic tradition, seemed to produce the same demystifying effect as the pill. The Latin Mass was gone—a great loss, I thought, because I loved the Latin, and its elegant effect of distancing language, like the haze of blue mountains. The church’s cultural shift in the ’60s also allowed the majority of Catholics—including priests and bishops—to make peace with new mainstream notions about sexual ethics.
There would remain some heretics who went on believing (with Lucretius and others; see the magnificent opening of “De Rerum Natura”) that heterosexual sex is nothing less august than the engine of life on earth; that “gender” is nothing so frivolous as a “social construct” or discretionary aspect of personality but rather is an inevitable manifestation of sex, the driving mechanism of life; and that 50 or 60 years of sexual improvisation or hysteria do not alter the facts of life, which have a long history and like to do business in a professional way.
In any case, the metaphysical excitement of this revolution in culture allowed snakes like His Excellency the Most Reverend ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick to make their way into the church hierarchy, and start inviting seminarians into their beach houses and beds.
The Catholic church, to its sorrow and shame, became infested with Archbishop McCarrick’s kind of thing. The problem in the seminaries has been corrected, but the hierarchical culture of coverup has yet to be expunged. As it was before the Reformation, the church has been subverted by its own indulgences.
Mr. Morrow, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is a former essayist for Time.