It's the doctrine, stupid

Rome would not issue a bishop a red hat and send him to New York City unless he had demonstrated at least some ability to stay cool in a media firestorm.

So reporters in Rome must have been baffled last week when Cardinal Edward Egan uttered this twisted response when asked about his views on gays in the priesthood.

"I would like to say this," the cardinal told the New York Times. "The most important thing is to clean up the truth. And the truth is that I have never said anything."

Yes, most U.S. bishops are saying as little as possible right now, especially about the issue that dares not speak its name. One reason the cardinal of New York was so flustered was that the dean of his own cathedral, the Rev. Msgr. Eugene Clark, had just preached a sermon that echoed in newsrooms as well as in pews. Clark said the Catholic hierarchy has been sinfully silent on homosexuality, in part because it feared being accused of fanning the flames of prejudice.

"When it was said that homosexuality was fixed at birth (which is not true), and therein required civil rights protection, many bishops and others hesitated to criticize homosexual demands for moral acceptance," said his printed text. "Some priests drifted into homosexual circles, then into homosexual license and then into man-boy relationships. ...

"The failure of church authorities to approach the subject as a problem gave these delinquent priests a freedom they should not have had."

A few parishioners stormed out of St. Patrick's Cathedral, while others applauded.

What was lost in the furor was that this sermon was not primarily about homosexuality. Clark didn't just attack homosexuality. He attacked the whole sexual revolution, with a special emphasis on its impact in Catholic higher education -- especially in seminaries.

But this crisis is not just about sex. It's about doctrine. Specifically, Clark said the current scandals are rooted in a fad in moral theology called "Proportionalism." The Vatican condemned this theory in the 1980s, yet it remains popular, he said.

"Simply, it said that while abortion, fornication, adultery, divorce, remarriage and contraception all remained sins, they could be permitted" if someone had a serious enough reason -- a "proportionate reason" for committing the acts, he said. "It severely damaged moral sexual life among vast numbers of college students and young married Catholics. While most priests and seminarians saw the obvious flaws in Proportionalism, it is now clear that some did not."

Some priests, said Clark, decided that their emotional and psychological needs were so great that they had just cause to break their vows and seek sexual release. After all, weren't the experts -- Catholic and secular -- saying that celibacy was an out-of-date concept, one that might even be unhealthy?

"A priest who believed this," said Clark, "could see it as a proportionate reason to put aside sexual abstinence."

This would lead many priests - gay or straight - to remain silent about church teachings on sex and marriage. This would lead some priests to argue that "celibacy" may not always be the same thing as "chastity."

This would surround the church's clerical structures in a fog of secrecy and stall reform.

Thus, Pope John Paul II told the U.S. cardinals that the current crisis is not just about priests with sex problems. It's about children, parents, marriages, homes and a warped culture. It's about doctrine. The church must deal with its own problems, so it can get back to healing souls

To do that, it will need bishops and priests who will answer tough questions.

"People need to know that there is no place in the priesthood ... for those who would harm the young," said the pope. "They must know that bishops and priests are totally committed to the fullness of Catholic truth on matters of sexual morality, a truth as essential to the renewal of the priesthood and the episcopate as it is to the renewal of marriage and family life.

"We must be confident that this time of trial will bring a purification of the entire Catholic community, a purification that is urgently needed. ... So much pain, so much sorrow must lead to a holier priesthood, a holier episcopate and a holier church."