Matt C. Abbott
No, the pope doesn't have a 'sex problem'
By Matt C. Abbott
November 6, 2010

As an advocate of clergy and religious abuse survivors (and all abuse survivors, for that matter), I highly respect the work of journalists Joe Rigert and Richard Sipe — in fact, they've been featured in my column on previous occasions — but I was very disappointed to see a recent commentary of theirs suggesting that Pope Benedict should resign. Rigert's and Sipe's commentary can be read in its entirety here; I will respond to portions of it below.

Rigert and Sipe write:

    But the abuse scandal, even if the worst in the history of the modern church, should not be treated in isolation, for it is a symptom of a systemic problem rooted in church structure and teaching. It is a symptom of an outmoded, in some cases ludicrous, teaching on sex and sexuality. In short, the pope — and his church — have a sex problem.

    The pope's problem with sex is seen in the excommunication of a nun hospital administrator for allowing an abortion to save the life of a mother. It is reflected in the ban on birth control, even though practiced by a majority of Catholics. It is tragically shown in the effort to prevent the use of condoms to curtail the spread of AIDS, which has made millions of children AIDS orphans.

My response: Catholic-bashers have been assailing the Church's moral teachings for quite some time. To those who believe in the moral law and the truths of the faith, said teachings are hardly ludicrous. It may not be easy to follow them given original sin, but they're vital for the common good and personal sanctification.

The issue of the nun being excommunicated was portrayed in a typically unfair manner by the mainstream media. Direct abortion, even in "hard" cases, can never be allowed; hence, the bishop acted appropriately according to canon law. As for contraception, the fact that a majority of Catholics practice it doesn't make it morally acceptable; it is, after all, contrary to the natural law and biblical principles. And condom use is, of course, a form of contraception. See this essay on why condoms are bad for society.

Rigert and Sipe write:

    Obviously, however, this pope and other popes have been unable to fully enforce their teaching on sex, even in the priesthood. They have professed to maintain a no-sex celibacy in the clergy, but they know that a high percentage of priests is or has been sexually involved. They also brand homosexual acts as intrinsically evil, despite conservative estimates that a third or more of priests are homosexual as a genetic predisposition. (Not to mention the futile prohibition of masturbation, or of divorce and remarriage.)

My response: The celibacy debate is a legitimate one, but I have serious doubts that an end to mandatory celibacy among clergy will be a solution to the problem of sexual abuse. I do agree with Rigert and Sipe that a third or more of priests are homosexual, although the "born that way" assertion is debatable. Regardless, homosexual acts are contrary to the natural and divine law, and the homosexual inclination (which is disordered but not sinful per se) is, like so many other ills, the result of original sin. Also, Church teaching on masturbation and divorce and remarriage may not be popular, but so be it. It's the truth.

Rigert and Sipe then go on to list incidents where Pope Benedict "was slow to act or allowed pedophiles to remain in the priesthood despite sexual abuse of boys or young men."

Now, I don't blame the media for exposing corruption in the Church — in fact, I'm glad they did — but I do question some of the coverage, particularly in regard to the pope's role in the scandal. Interestingly, Rigert and Sipe concede that Pope Benedict "has said more and done more than his predecessor, John Paul II." I agree on that point.

Rigert and Sipe write:

    What can Benedict do to resolve the sexual crisis of Catholicism? At the very least he could open up for discussion and study the antiquated sexual teachings on such common practices as birth control, use of condoms and sex outside of marriage. Further, he could lead the way to making celibacy optional for priests and allow women in the ministry. (Would women have taken part in, or allowed, the sex abuse scandal?) And he might call for a representative church council to consider all of these basic reforms.

    But it is unlikely that any of these reforms will happen as long the aging pope and the old men of the Vatican persist on retaining their power and control. They must be willing to share their authority and then undertake a Sexual Copernican Shift in their basic assumptions about sexual teaching and discipline, a shift recognizing that our core sexual nature is a bio-diverse reality, not a theological construct. Only then will the pope and his men begin to address the crisis now inundating the church.

    And now we get to the hard part, the need for a courageous act. The pope could initiate this change by resigning from the papacy and calling for the resignation of all the other bishops, like him, who were complicit in the abuse scandal. (In Ireland, the archbishop of Dublin proposed such action, and five bishops offered to resign.) Other popes have quit. In centuries past nine of the 265 Roman Catholic popes have resigned or been forced out of office for the good of the church. The most recent was Gregory XII who abdicated in 1417 to help settle the claims of three competitors for the papacy.

My response: Would women have taken part in, or allowed, the sex abuse scandal? Well, did Rigert and Sipe ever talk to victims of nun abuse? There are a number of such victims, sad to say. (Note: I'm not in any way denigrating the wonderful work of so many nuns over the years.) And "open up for discussion and study" the act of fornication? Are you kidding?

Lastly, Rigert and Sipe write:

    The fact is that the Catholic Church today is in need of a reformation as profound (and breathtaking) as any in its history. The voluntary resignation of Pope Benedict XVI could be an epic gesture that would match the epic challenge that faces Catholicism today.

    Such leadership by example might help break the pattern and practice that holds the church hostage to a past that no longer meets the spiritual needs of the people. As presently constituted, the church structure allows male leaders — no women allowed — to maintain their power and control in an archaic monarchy; to regulate all sexual behavior, and to suppress any 'sinful' deviation. A reformed church, open to the involvement of all people, would move from its obsession over sex to a healthy regard for human sexuality. It's the only way to deal with the sex problem of the pope and his church.

My response: If Pope Benedict were to decide, for his own reasons, to resign, that would be between him and God. It just seems to me that Rigert and Sipe are trying to "reform" the Catholic Church into a liberal Protestant denomination. Ain't gonna' happen. You see, it's not the Church that's obsessed with sex; it's the Catholic-bashers who are obsessed with sex.

Our Lady of Fatima, pray for us.

Related links:

"'Journalism Is War': Father James Haley, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, and the 'sexually-active priest' crisis"

"An Irish (Catholic) tragedy"

© Matt C. Abbott


The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
(See RenewAmerica's publishing standards.)

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Matt C. Abbott

Matt C. Abbott is a Catholic commentator with a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication, media and theatre from Northeastern Illinois University. He also has an Associate in Applied Science degree in business management from Triton College. Abbott has been interviewed on HLN, MSNBC, Bill Martinez Live, WOSU Radio in Ohio, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's 2019 ‘Unsolved’ podcast about the unsolved murder of Father Alfred Kunz, Alex Shuman's 'Smoke Screen: Fake Priest' podcast, WLS-TV (ABC) in Chicago, WMTV (NBC) and WISC-TV (CBS) in Madison, Wisconsin. He’s been quoted in The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and other media outlets. He’s mentioned in the 2020 Report on the Holy See's Institutional Knowledge and Decision-Making Related to Former Cardinal Theodore Edgar McCarrick (1930 to 2017), which can be found on the Vatican's website. He can be reached at

(Note: I welcome and appreciate thoughtful feedback. Insults will be ignored. Only in very select cases will I honor a request to have a telephone conversation about a topic in my column. Email is much preferred. God bless you and please keep me in your prayers!)


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