Virtue and Vice Reside in Dispositions, not Orientations

John Haldane

The Catholic Church in the United States is in serious trouble. No proper interest is served by pretending otherwise, or by suggesting that this is a storm that will pass in a few months. The causes of the difficulties remain and the effects will extend for years to come and will be felt beyond America itself.

The immediate issue is that of sexual vice among clergy and religious, and the failure of bishops and superiors to take adequate measures against wrongdoers, and to protect the innocent from being preyed upon by them. Quite apart from their moral and religious responsibilities these authorities failed to report criminal activities. So we have the sorry state of multiple offenders being exposed and in some cases imprisoned, and of Bishops, Archbishops and Cardinals being roundly condemned from within as well as outwith the Church.

Certainly the media is in a frenzied state tasting hot blood and wanting more, and all sorts of opportunists are leaping forward to take advantage of the situation; but the truth is that men in cloth have failed the Church in ways and on a scale that is causing great damage. The image of a hierarchy concerned to protect itself and the Church even at great cost to innocents is now being overlain with further accusations of earlier Papal complicity with Nazism and lack of concern for the Jews. Although these events are separated by time and space the general impression is of a failed organisation letting down those its own members as well as the wider world – an ecclesiastical Enron.

Like their Irish counterparts, with whom they are in some cases almost certainly blood cousins, many members of the American hierarchy now feel unable to challenge society over its values and policies, and the prophetic voice of Catholicism is growing weaker. Others seek the favour of their critics and redirect the blame upwards, suggesting that it is time for the Church to review its understanding of certain fundamentals of religious and moral practices. This is code for questioning priestly celibacy, an exclusively male priesthood, and sexual ethics, including attitudes to extra-marital sex, contraception and homosexuality.

It is common to read that the matter of priestly and religious abuse is not a 'gay issue' but one of paedophilia. This is unconvincing. Most of the cases of sexual vice among clergy involve homosexual approaches and acts involving teenage boys. There have been many cases of heterosexual paedophilia but the major problem is homosexual ephebophilia (the attraction of adults to adolescents, as opposed to (pre-pubertal) children) and even this seems to be a matter of clergy taking opportunities with adolescent boys because of lesser risk of exposure than might be posed by soliciting adults. This is one reason why activists are keen that sexual vice not be deemed a 'gay issue': they hope for acceptance of homosexual activity among religious and don't want that imperiled by widespread repugnance at what is now being revealed.

In a sincere effort to exercise pastoral sensitivity and in response to charges of homophobia senior church figures have emphasised that the Church does not judge or unbidden sexual desires but only intentional sexual activity. Though theologically sound this is a somewhat confused message and encourages the reaction if the former are acceptable how can acting on them be wrong? Herein there is a confusion, or at east insufficient distinction, between orientations, desires and dispositions. The determining forces of sexual orientation and impulse are still not well understood, but let us suppose that nature and nurture combine to establish a range of sexual orientations and levels of appetite. Between these and habitual action lie dispositions.

If one has a certain orientation or pattern of desire this need not lead to active sexual practice and whether it does or not depends on the development or inhibition of dispositions. To be disposed is to be primed to act or react in certain ways. So if one has a particular orientation but does not wish to find oneself acting or being strongly inclined to act in accord with it one needs to attend to one's dispositions. This is where the Church's teaching and its training have tended to be negligent. What should be said to those entering the celibate life is that while their orientations may not matter their dispositions and habituated desires certainly do. Whether heterosexually, homosexually or otherwise oriented they must cultivate strong counter-dispositions to act on these. In other, and older words they must cultivate 'sexual asceticism'.

Current American estimates suggest that anything from fifteen to fifty percent of seminarians and those training for religious life are of homosexual orientation. Obviously this figure is greatly disproportionate to the percentage of homosexuals in the population at large (which is widely presumed to be about five percent). Why should this be so? Two answers suggest themselves, first, that the religious life is becoming one of the 'gay professions'; second that apart from its positive attraction for homosexuals it is losing its appeal for heterosexual men. The latter possibility may have some connection with celibacy, which is increasingly at odds with highly sexualised secular lifestyles; but it is also likely to be related to the fact that the priesthood once offered rare opportunities (e.g. of higher education and institutional security) that are more generally available to now affluent members of those historically unprivileged communities from which vocations were drawn.

In the discussions about celibacy one issue that has been overlooked is that an argument from the legitimacy of sexual orientation being expressed in sexual activity, conjoined with acceptance of the legitimacy of homosexual orientation yields the conclusion that active homosexuality is compatible with the priesthood. Further talk about 'responsible relationships' is detailing. The only principled way to resist the conclusion is to argue from the claim that the proper meaning and role of sexuality includes, if it is not exhausted by its generative function. On this account settled dispositions to non-generative sexual acts, and orientations towards such activity are intrinsically disordered.

So we find ourselves heading towards the old controversy over contraception. This is not the occasion to pursue that, but the issues are linked and a decent theology and philosophy of sex needs to show the extent and nature of that linkage. In the meantime, the Bishops, heads of religious, and directors of seminaries need to attend to the threefold distinction: orientation, disposition, and activity, and to establish a barrier so as to inhibit the occurrence of the third. That wall needs to be placed after orientation, for by the time active dispositions have developed it is likely to be too late to prevent their expression in activity.

In many cases it is too late, and only heroic corrective efforts assisted by grace will enable individuals to curtail their active proclivities. Their superiors, some of whom may themselves be in the same moral danger, need to encourage asceticism, to insist upon it in the seminaries and to require the departure of those who are unable or unwilling to take the necessary measures, either as staff or students. One reason for reluctance, additional to possible compromise and fear of controversy, is the concern over the perilously low number of vocations.

It is hard to predict outcomes but I suspect that a determined treatment of the issue of sexual disposition – homosexual and heterosexual – with effective ascetical training, would in fact make the priesthood and religious life more attractive to those of well-ordered sexual character. One might also hope that as it became known that having had this problem the Church had dealt with it, the priesthood might again enjoy the prestige that once gave it a kind of nobility. At any rate no good outcome can be hoped for until this painful nettle has been grasped.

John Haldane is Royden Davis Professor of Humanities at Georgetown University and Professor of Philosophy in the University of St Andrews.