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SpotLight Sex Priests & Power

kristena briem-west


I don’t have cable television so I typically see movies a year or so later. I do go to movies, although the sound is so loud I usually take ear plugs. Hence, I missed SpotLight the movie when it came out.  I just watched the movie on web television. I am so happy to identify that the Boston globe did this research and published on Ephiphany (hardly a coincidence) January 06, 2002. I was of course aware of the furor created as it escalated into a world phenomena. But like most people had no idea of the magnitude of the children being molested.

Below,  is an excerpt of a book I wrote, “Alchemy; the Magical Arts of the Union of Soul” from 1998-2000.   In it I quote Richard Sipes from his book, “Sex, Priests & Power” and a “Secret World. I was trying to understand how women lost their traditional roles and power. I was studying gender variance in traditional cultures and this led to witch trials and of course celebacy & the Catholic Church.

Who Wrote the Rules?

The first thing we must address before talking about specifics in gender diversity is the cultural container regarding gender and sexuality we have created here in America. For the most part, we have internalized pleasurable, healthy sexual relations as dirty, evil, and shameful. This is due largely to the teachings the Christian Church formulated for us. As with all things we are forbidden, sex became a most desired fruit. Adding insult to injury, sex is a fun, downright ecstatic pastime. It took the Church centuries of applied fear and force to convince us of the idea that sex is a sin.

By proclaiming sex out of wedlock sinful while declaring moral, upstanding individuals to be free from its taint and lure, the Church officials created both the moral majority and an enormous sexual shadow for the culture. This kind of repression, supported by a religious institution with such massive power to form belief systems and control people’s behaviors, creates widespread sexual shame and shadow material. Anne Wilson Schaef in her book Escape from Intimacy comments on contemporary issues regarding sexuality, addiction, and the Church.

I believe that many of our most outspoken leaders of organized religion are themselves sexual addicts. They are so obsessed with sex that they make it impossible for church members to learn about healthy sexuality in the church. I believe that obsession and repression go together. Those things we are obsessed with and we try to repress become obsessions. Those things that we try to repress usually find their way out and frequently we act out in ways that are confusing for ourselves and those around us. (p. 39)

The sexual activity of priests has been covered up for centuries under the dual cloaks of denial and secrecy. In the beginnings of Christianity there were no hard and fast laws regarding the marital status of Christ’s followers; many of the original disciples were already married. Many popes fathered sons who in turn became popes, and many men were married before becoming priests.

A.W. Richard Sipe, a retired, ordained Roman Catholic priest, blew the whistle on sexual activities within the Church in his 1990 book. In A Secret World, a study on celibacy, he states:

The justification for male superiority and the introduction of evil into the cosmic system via sex both hinge on the Church’s view of women. According to Church tradition, the only good woman is silent, sexless, and subservient. My study of celibacy has left no doubt that this attitude is still alive and well in clerical circles. (p. 30)

A Secret World opens up the cloistered lives of priests who are torn between leading a celibate life and following their sensual desires. This conflict leads some of them into sexual experiences with other men, children, adolescent girls and boys, and nuns and other women. Sipe writes, “Ironically, the legislation against marriage and sexual activity for clerics produced two notable side effects in the Church: 1) an increase in the transgressions against chastity and the rearticulated rule of celibacy; and 2) a continuing degradation of women.” (p. 39)

Although sexuality within the Church was an ongoing and continual problem, it wasn’t until the twelfth century when legislation against marriage and sexual activity for clerics took force that the sexual shadow projection magnified and birthed the witch-hunts. Suddenly, priests indulging in any form of sexual release had gone against Church rule and sinned. The only way for these men to continue within this rigid framework was to stop all sexual activity or to split their consciousness and hide their sexuality.

Priests were expected to subdue their intrinsic passions for the love of God, for a doctrine of enforced chastity and celibacy. Celibacy is not for everyone, and it is a very difficult path even for those who choose it freely. That every man who entered the priesthood should adopt such a rigorous role under oath was perilous at best. Priests who could not overcome their sexual drives were told by their superiors that is was better to meet their needs than to give up the priesthood—some were told privately to take care of themselves or to “take a housekeeper.” Sexual relations between priests were not usually addressed but were consciously overlooked.

The Church, which turned a blind eye to the ongoing sexual activities of its members, endorsed denial and secrecy while publicly declaring their chosen ones free of the taint of sex. But, in spite of the oath of celibacy, the issues of sexuality within the Church became more problematic. Although many priests followed the dictates of the Church with good intentions, others had outside affairs with women, some fathered children, and some turned their sexual attractions onto their brothers.

The Church surely realized that celibacy, the sublimation of sexual drive, was not an attainable goal for all priests. Instead of taking this under consideration and seeking other alternatives for releasing sexual tension, the Church dove more deeply into the split of denial and secrecy. It could not address directly the homosexual relations priests were having with each other, as this would point to an internal failure within the institution of the Church itself. Instead, it projected the blame for this failure onto women.

By blaming women for the priests’ failed sexual vows, the Church publicly side-stepped internal issues. The sublimation of the priests’ sexual drives was supposed to birth divine love and creative service in God’s name. Instead, it birthed a holocaust for women. The witch-hunts were the result of a profound lack of responsibility and duplicity on the part of the Church superiors.

The Church, by labeling women as sexually insatiable, inferior, evil liars, emotionally and morally weak, prepared the groundwork for murder. By killing thousands of women, the Church tried to manipulate priests away from the lures of sexuality and to overthrow women’s wisdom paths, all at once. But those priests who were looking for a sexual outlet, regardless of doctrine, were going to find it. Today the Church still denies homosexual behaviors among priests, despite the documented case studies. The Church, supposedly based on Christ’s doctrine of love and forgiveness, during the witch trials laid a corrupt foundation of repression, degradation, and murder of thousands of women and their families, thus taking for its bedfellow the very things Christ spoke against—the sins of deception, hatred, hypocrisy, evil, and murder.

Many people today are unaware of how we came to the negative labeling of our sexual natures and the repression of women. Many are spiritually and socially apathetic; they see the hypocrisy of the Church and equate it with the Christ Consciousness and throw it all overboard. The teachings of Christ have little or nothing to do with the institution of the Church and its acts. This is not to say that there aren’t many sincere and devout people—leaders, priests, and nuns—within its context. But as Richard Sipe reminds us in his second book, Sex, Priests and Power,

The parameters of the conflict are not limited to a relatively few men who may or may not practice the celibacy they profess. The power of Catholic priests and the sexual reasoning of Christian tradition have implications for life on this planet, including the issues of population growth, gender and racial equality, and understanding the nature of human sexuality. The salient questions are not about the theoretical preferences, venerable traditions or sacred opinions. The questions are practical struggles for truth, which affect people’s lives and the future of the planet. (p. xvi)

The cover-up within the Church needs to be faced squarely and understood if we are to ascertain the effects our upbringing in a Christian society has had on our gender relations. This split between men and women was engineered by the edited “holy texts” and strict dictates. If we allow a spiritual institution originally founded on the laws of love and forgiveness to silently get away with murder, what does that say about our culture? If we accept the lie and pretend it does not exist, what does it say about us personally? Through ignorance or pretense, we collude with the Church by default. We agree to it because of our silence. This negative contract limits and binds our society. Within this context, we can consider how men’s and women’s gender roles are enacted in our society today.

Men’s and Women’s Gender Roles

By naming men the superior authority and women the second sex, the Church has constructed restrictive male and female roles. By denying the homosexual participants within its fold, the Church disavows and denies homosexuals in society. Therefore our society expects everyone to fit into either the all-male or the all-female role. Too bad our gender roles don’t match our cultural hero myths. In a culture where we glorify those self-willed, creative individuals who cut their own trail through civilization’s brush, we do not recognize and celebrate this same trait when it comes to gender variance.

This rigid set of gender roles and the massive negation of homosexual activity within religious institutions create a corresponding sexual shadow that society plays out. If we have erotic fantasies that go outside the “me man, you woman” sexual-pairing scenario, we can feel shame, anger, and resentment. This repression leads to a shadow market of pornography, where we find anything goes. Pornography and sexual violence can be viewed as the acting out of our collective sexual shadow.

Within the secrecy of our sexual fantasies, many of us will at one time or another think about making love with someone of the same sex. Engaging in sexual play with someone of the same gender is accepted in many societies as a normal experimentation for youths. It is nothing to really worry about. People who feel they are called to live a same-gender-loving lifestyle are integrated into the societies. But in our current sexual environment, we Americans usually demonstrate no such flexibility. We turn same-gender sex, lesbians, and gays into the enemy, and with that label we persecute and even kill them. Zweig and Wolf give examples of enemy-making in their book, Romancing the Shadow:

Enemy-making seems to serve a vital purpose; those qualities that we cannot tolerate in ourselves we can unconsciously and painlessly attribute to our enemies. When observed through psychological lenses, enemy-making is a transposition of shadow onto others who, for often complicated reasons, fit our images of the inferior. We need only to think of the people whom we judge or dislike or against whom we hold secret prejudices to find ourselves in the grip of our darker nature. At the level of nation, race, religion, or other collective identity, we can witness enemy-making being enacted in mythic, dramatic, and often tragic proportions. War, crusades, and persecutions are the terrible estate of this form of the human shadow. (p. 195)

We can readily understand this as we hear the multitude of stories about sexual abuse within families, the silence regarding priests’ sexual relations with each other, and the many sex scandals of psychologists, doctors, educators—up to our highest office, the U.S. presidency. I think it’s safe to say that one of America’s spiritual lessons is to heal the collective sexual wound.

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The Great American Hero: Bustin’ the Cowboy Myth

Here in America we grew up with the idealized cowboy myth, popularized by John Wayne, of the masculine, rough-’n’-ready man who rides the range. Looked at a bit more closely, we might say that many of these cowpokes roamed the rump—of their male “pardners,” that is. The all-American cowboy is scrutinized by Walter Williams in his book, The Spirit and the Flesh, in a chapter titled “Seafarers, Cowboys, and Indians: Male Marriages in Fringe Societies on the Anglo-American Frontier.”

Williams posits that men who had less need of women would be drawn to these all-male fringe groups: pirates, sailors, hobos, and cowboys. Throughout this very interesting read, Williams shows male partnering as a natural extension of these fringe environments. Using an Oklahoma cowboy’s recollections, Williams describes the accepted pairing off of cowboys and how often these pairings became sexual.

“Always take another puncher along,” urged the boss. “In a cow outfit, you and your fellows are members of one of another.” In his private correspondence, this cowboy confessed that these partnerships often eventually became sexual…. “Attraction for another cowboy was at first rooted in admiration, infatuation, a sensed need of an ally, loneliness and yearning, but it regularly ripened into love.” (p. 159)

Williams’s addition of another man’s recollections of the early 1900s when he worked in an isolated all-male Western logging camp goes as follows:

“Not one of us could be considered effeminate, neurotic or abnormal. Yet all but two engaged in homosexual activities…. The popular method, preferred by the majority, was sodomy, and it was in this logging camp that I was initiated into the discomforts, adjustments and ecstasies of this form of sexual activity.” (p. 159)

To add credence to his position, Williams quotes the Kinsey report, a massive survey of American male sexual behavior taken in the 1940s.

“There is a fair amount of sexual contact among the older males in Western rural areas. It is a type of homosexuality which was probably common among pioneers and outdoor men in general. Today it is found among ranchmen, cattlemen, prospectors, lumbermen, and farming groups in general—among groups that are virile, physically active. These are men who have faced the rigors of nature in the wild. They live on realities and on a minimum of theory. Such a background breeds the attitude that sex is sex, irrespective of the nature of the partner.” (p. 160)

There is no claim in this information that all men in these fringe societies were gay. But as Williams points out, “The frontier was largely populated by men who were content to be asexual for long periods or who had sex with other males.” (p. 157) Once again we can take a look at same-sex preferences that have been submerged in our history and culture.

We have witnessed same-gender coupling within our religious system, military groups, and cowboy myths and seen the silent cover-up. By coming out of denial and speaking directly about same-sex pairing, we will start the process of disintegrating our sexual shame and shadow blame-game. By acknowledging sexual liaisons between people of the same gender, perhaps we can begin the work of normalizing and acceptance, allowing each individual to experience the personal freedom suggested within our Bill of Rights.

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