Christianity and sexuality clergy abuse crisis

Natural Law Errors: In Catholicism

Authority, sexuality, and abuse can come together to assist in what many call “the clergy abuse crisis.” The crisis arrives because, regardless of whether or not we use the language of “natural law,” we all tend towards Nietzscheanism in the world today.

This series of posts has explored some dangers and weaknesses of natural law rhetoric today. The first post explored overly objectivized accounts of natural law. The second explored empiricist treatments of natural law. The third post explored these ideas in the context of “virtue signaling.” The fourth post considered the ways in which Nietzschean activity can utilize natural law rhetoric. The fifth post explored natural law which dismisses human affectivity. And the sixth post considered how natural law arguments can actually be emotivist. This last post will consider natural law in Catholicism today.

I am quite happy to have engaged with thoughtful natural lawyers invested in humbly picking up the classical tradition and placing it in real dialogue with the present culture. At the same time, I have observed large portions of Catholic culture which I believe aim neither for genuine moral discourse nor the integrated flourishing of the human person. They seek, rather, dominance and control in one form or another, disguised (often even from themselves) as “moral discourse” grounded in the “natural law.” Disagreements are met with dismissals. Pundits want to replace prudential considerations and the personal tie between reality and understanding with a demand for compliance. The lists and flowcharts of the pseudo-philosopher aim to overcome (and replace) the reason and will of the recipient. Such exercises by self-proclaimed natural lawyers degrade the will and reason of the human person. Moral failure on the part of these natural lawyers drive intellectual inquiry and its degradations, even if the “language” of Catholic moral theology is used. And this ultimately undermines Catholic culture. Rather than competing conceptions of the good, it may be insecurity and the ego which result in the greatest destruction of Christian moral thought in the modern age.

The Healer Psychologist

Perhaps an example can illuminate what I mean. One of the least-discussed clergy scandals in recent years involves a priest who sought to remove gay men from seminaries. Father Tony Anatrella was a practicing psychologist and Vatican “expert” on homosexuality for many years. He was one of the advisors behind the 2005 Vatican directive against admitting seminarians with “deeply rooted homosexual tendencies.” Drawing on the view that homosexuality is “intrinsically disordered,” he identified homosexuality with narcissism and worked as a psychologist to “heal” his clients from it. He has influenced a number of works by prominent Catholics. All the while, Anatrella committed sexual abuse against men during therapy sessions. He has since been removed from ministry.

You might be surprised to discover this last fact, given Anatrella’s teachings. He taught that “homosexuals are narcissists who are incapable of forming long-term relationships.” He advised seminarians, “You’re not gay, you just think that you are.” He almost certainly did not consider himself a homosexual. The Church sent him all over France to “cure” individuals of their homosexuality. And perhaps he did–if you define “cure” and “homosexuality” as Anatrella might have. It all depends on perspective. 

Consider, for example, a hypothetical bishop, a longtime advocate of natural law who has considered himself a “celibate heterosexual man.” Yet during his priesthood he has engaged in sexual liaisons. Seminarians and younger priests have come forward, accusing him of sexual abuse and harassment. In this situation, one could present three scenarios: 1) the bishop is lying, 2) the accusers are lying to discredit a natural law advocate, or 3) both the bishop and the accusers are telling the truth. I propose the last as quite likely. It’s entirely possible that the bishop has created and habitated in versions of natural law constructed to protect his views on right and wrong, while at the same time protecting his own self-righteousness in the face of his history. It all depends on one’s ability to frame one’s past. 

The careful framing of natural law into clearly defined and objectivized terms facilitates this situation. The bishop can claim he did not violate his vow of celibacy if he believes that such a vow only concerns sex, and sex means penetrative intercourse. As long as his sexual activities excluded this one thing, he remains to himself a celibate man. As long as “homosexual” is essentially a meaningless term, as seems to suggest Anatrella, he can call himself a heterosexual. And as long as he convinces his victims of all the above, they have no way to consider his harms as abuse. The problems which the bishop opposes as a “natural law” advocate are sodomy, same-sex marriage, adoption by same-sex couples, and identification with the word “gay.” This bishop as “natural lawyer” has framed his list so as to protect and enable his abuse and self-righteousness. 

For Anatrella, surely his anthropology, psychology, and understanding of Catholicism and natural law accommodated his sexual practices. By controlling the narratives of his victims’ sexualities in the name of Church teaching and the natural law, he could frame this in ways to accommodate his abuse. He could also frame homosexuality in hyper-pathologized terms, as a way of limiting personal culpability and attributing his failures to “the disease,” rather than to himself. We should carefully consider the ways in which his anthropology and pastoral advice may have been formed by (as well as formed) the structures he and many other clergy created to facilitate, at one and the same time, sexual abuse and moral self-righteousness.

For the reasons outlined throughout this series, it would be unsurprising for those in Church authority with insecurity about their own sexualities to promote coercive discourse on and frameworks for sexuality, even while working in the name of “natural law.” As one friend insightfully shared with me: when you feel your own sexuality is out of control, you’ll do what you can to control everyone else’s sexuality. The hypothetical bishop above necessarily obsesses over the sexual control of others, whether through physical abuse or legalistic demands, because he is deeply insecure about his ability to control his own sexuality. He thus represents one of the two poles one must resist when struggling with and fearing a failure of integrating one’s sexuality: licentiousness or repression maintained through legalism. (Oddly, the latter in disposition often leads to the former in practice.)

But control and coercion do not come only in the form of sexual abuse. They can come in many forms, including reducing complex human realities to limited objectivized checklists meant to replace prudential judgment and an integrated flourishing. The Church loses sight of the moral law as soon as objectivized aims (including supposedly teleological claims) look away from those whom they touch. And they tend towards abuse. In this way, authority, sexuality, and abuse can come together to assist in what many call “the clergy abuse crisis.” The crisis arrives because, regardless of whether or not we use the language of “natural law,” we all tend towards Nietzscheanism in the world today. The way out begins with recognizing this. I write this, ironically, as someone who believes in natural law. But I must not submit to its monstrous false children.


More posts in this series:


Chris Damian is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “I Desired You: Intellectual Journals on Faith and (Homo)sexuality” (volumes I and II). He is also the co-founder of YArespond, a group of Catholic young adults seeking informed and holistic responses to the clergy abuse crisis. In his free time, he enjoys hosting dinner parties and creative writing workshops. 

6 comments on “Natural Law Errors: In Catholicism

  1. Pingback: Natural Law Errors: Emotivist Natural Law – Chris Damian

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  4. Pingback: The Virtue in Virtue Signaling – Chris Damian

  5. Pingback: Natural Law Errors: Empiricizing Natural Law – Chris Damian

  6. Pingback: Natural Law Errors: Do Gay Penguins Matter? – Chris Damian

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