Andrew Sullivan insists that the horrific story about bones found in an Irish septic tank shows that Catholicism’s teaching on sexual morality is to blame. It is, he says, the fault of Catholic teaching on sexuality — “ideology of sex hatred,” he calls it — that gay priests molested boys and unmarried but pregnant Irish women were sent to Magdalene laundries. Excerpt:

You can make excuses and excuses, but at some point, given this level of atrocity and evil, you have to say: all of this is a grotesque distortion, a merciless imposition of an abstract ideology completely immune to life as it is actually lived. To give human beings an absolutely impossible goal – and then punish, torment, persecute, dehumanize and destroy them when they fail to live up to it is the definition of insanity.

Wait … what? An “absolutely impossible goal”? What is the “absolutely impossible goal” here? Being chaste outside of marriage? Keeping childbearing within marriage? Nonsense. It’s a difficult goal, more difficult for some than others, and more difficult in some times and places than in others. But you know what? Everything about the Gospel is hard, and requires training ourselves to behave contrary to our egoistic natures. This kind of emotionalism (“punish, torment, persecute, dehumanize and destroy them”) is really over the top, and says nothing meaningful about the challenges of living out Christian morality. Besides, as the classics scholar Sarah Ruden — a liberal Christian — has written, the Christian sexual ethic was fantastically liberating for everybody in the Greco-Roman world who wasn’t at the top of Roman society. This idea that Christian sexual teaching offers nothing but “an ideology of sex hatred” is not worth taking seriously.

Did some Christians make far too big a deal of sexual behavior, even to the point of being cruel, neurotic, and destructive? Absolutely — and in the abuse scandal, the fear of telling the truth about sex allowed far worse evils to fester. There seems to have been something especially rigoristic about Irish Catholicism on matters of sex, but then, the same rigorism appears to have been present in Scots Protestantism, and not present, or present in the same way, in Catholicism as expressed in other societies (does anybody ever think of Italian Catholics as sexually neurotic?). Isn’t it worth asking if there isn’t something inherent to Anglo-Celtic culture that created this distortion? I don’t know the answer to that, but it seems far too tidy and convenient to blame the atrocities solely on the one thing that Andrew wants to change about the religion he professes.

Given that most religions and cultures have purity codes governing sexuality, it’s terribly unjust to single out Catholicism for special contempt. Why do purity codes exist? Leaving aside religious revelation, it doesn’t take a degree in cultural anthropology to understand why any society would have the need to regulate sexuality, for the survival of the group. In a resource-poor society, one without advanced medicine, strong rules governing sexual behavior may be harsh but necessary. Andrew has written at length, and with gratitude, about how he once thought he was given a death sentence with his HIV diagnosis, but medical advances have made it likely that he will live a normal life. If he did not live in a technologically advanced, wealthy society, and if he did not have health insurance that pays for his expensive treatment, the sexually transmitted disease he carries would likely have killed him by now. In the not too distant past, no small number of people died of sexually transmitted diseases, and a shocking number of women died in childbirth. Sex had real life-or-death consequences, and that’s before one gets to the issue of maintaining a livable social order.

I’m glad we do not live in an era in which women who get pregnant out of wedlock are shamed out of public, and their babies cruelly stigmatized. I’ve had friends and family, people dear to me, both suffer from the stigma in the past, and benefit from the more compassionate views of today. Yet I wonder if I would be so quick to loosen the reins in the name of compassion if ours was a poor, hungry society, and if doctors and hospitals and medicines were few and far between? Believe me, I’m not defending the Magdalene laundries, Lord knows, much less the cruel treatment of “Home babies,” or their alleged burial in cesspits. But this fantastical idea that St. Paul and the Church fathers invented an “ideology of sex hatred” for the sake of making people miserable is laughable propaganda. Where in history have these libertine sexual paradises ever existed? Where have they been possible? Where I live, to have children out of wedlock may not be the scandal and social death it once was, but it is still, for many, many poor and working-class girls, almost certainly a sentence of poverty and struggle — to say nothing of the setbacks it delivers to the child’s prospects.

More from Andrew:

Yes, Rod, sex is not that big a deal; it is not central to the core claims of Jesus; its pathological repression has wrought such incredible evil and perpetuated such unimaginable abuse it must be re-imagined and re-conceptualized if Christianity is to survive at all. And look, after all, at what this cruel ideology has done in Ireland. It has destroyed the Church in one of its previously strongest redoubts.

Oh, come on. What’s happening to all the churches in the West that are abandoning Scriptural and traditional Christian sexual norms? They are dying. True, Christianity as a whole is waning in the West, but the idea that Christianity has to jettison basic teachings, teachings important to its self-understanding, to “survive at all” is a fantasy that cannot be supported with a shred of evidence.

As I have said, sex is not the biggest deal, but it’s self-serving nonsense to say it’s peripheral to Christianity. We have been over and over and over this, and all the vehemence and foot-stomping in the world will not change basic Christianity on this point, and certainly will not change Roman Catholicism. Two plus two will always equal four in Catholicism. There is a church that takes Andrew’s line on sex; it’s called the Episcopal Church. It is not called the Catholic Church. It never will be called the Catholic Church.

The neurotic suppression of sexual need and pleasure is not a virtue. It is a pathology that leads directly to vice – to the corpses of eight hundred infants in a septic tank and to the shattered souls and violated bodies of two hundred deaf boys in Milwaukee. If that does not prompt a reassessment, what would?

There is absolutely nothing in the doctrine of Roman Catholicism that supports the molestation of 200 deaf boys, or a single solitary child. Nothing. In fact, the doctrines of Roman Catholicism condemn such evil. I hardly think I, someone who wrote so much, and so critically, on the evil of child sex abuse in the Catholic Church that he lost his Catholic faith, can be fairly accused of trying to make excuses for Rome in this. The abuse happened because of a toxic mixture of sex (yes), secrets, power, clericalism, and willful denial on the part of the laity. I find it hard to see any innocent party in all of it, except the victims. Of course the catastrophe of the way the Roman church handled sexual abuse should spur profound soul-searching, and reform. No argument from me there. As I said in the first post I wrote about the 800 dead, the Irish Catholic Church is reaping what it sowed.

The degree of evil still isn’t generally known among the public. Leon Podles, a Catholic, wrote a book about it called Sacrilege, which was filled with material he uncovered from police reports and court filings. It was so horrifying I literally could not read far into it. I don’t write much about the scandal anymore, because I don’t follow it remotely as much as I used to. I trust Lee Podles though — and he is not impressed with what he’s seen, even under Francis.

By the way, there was some doubt expressed by readers yesterday that this story was valid, versus a ginned-up tabloid shocker. Well, it is now coming out that the head of the Bon Secours sisters, the order of nuns that ran the home, has met with the archbishop to talk about building a memorial to the dead thrown into the cesspit. I find it hard to deny the anger of columnist Emer O’Toole here:

Father Fintan Monaghan, secretary of the Tuam archediocese, says: “I suppose we can’t really judge the past from our point of view, from our lens. All we can do is mark it appropriately and make sure there is a suitable place here where people can come and remember the babies that died.”

Let’s not judge the past on our morals, then, but on the morals of the time. Was it OK, in mid-20th century Ireland, to throw the bodies of dead children into sewage tanks? Monaghan is really saying: “don’t judge the past at all”. But we must judge the past, because that is how we learn from it.

Monaghan is correct that we need to mark history appropriately. That’s why I am offering the following suggestions as to what the church should do to in response:

Do not say Catholic prayers over these dead children. Don’t insult those who were in life despised and abused by you. Instead, tell us where the rest of the bodies are. There were homes throughout Ireland, outrageous child mortality rates in each. Were the Tuam Bon Secours sisters an anomalous, rebellious sect? Or were church practices much the same the country over? If so, how many died in each of these homes? What are their names? Where are their graves? We don’t need more platitudinous damage control, but the truth about our history.

A full reckoning must be had. Unlike O’Toole, I would want prayers said, but not in place of telling the truth and atoning for these sins. Period.

However, the idea that Catholic teaching on sexual morality led directly to this catastrophe in Ireland, and the sexual abuse of children by priests, is hard to take seriously. In fact, as studies have shown, the worst priest sexual abuse in the US happened after the great postconciliar anything-goes party. Understand my point here: I’m not denying that Catholic teaching, or some gross distortion of it, is implicated in these crimes. The standard theocon Neuhaus-Weigel line — that the scandal is the fault of the lack of “holiness” — is as radically insufficient and self-serving as the explanation preferred by their culture-war opponents. You can’t really understand the scandal if you choose to blame it only on the teachings or people or factions within the Church that you don’t happen to like. It’s dishonest, and it’s inaccurate. But when you begin with the premise that Catholic teaching is directly responsible for clerical child molestation and dumping bodies in a cesspit, you are stacking the deck.

But we’ve been over all that before. The reason for this post is that I object to Andrew’s seizing this horror story as evidence for why the Catholic Church should cast off its teachings on sex and sexuality. The idea that Jesus, a first-century Jew of Palestine, didn’t care about sex is untenable. He did care about sexual sin, but he balanced that concern with others. Consider this famous passage from the Gospel of John (NRSV):

53 Then each of them went home, 1 while Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2 Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. 3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, 4 they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. 5 Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’ 6 They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ 8 And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. 9 When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ 11 She said, ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’

Note what happens here: Jesus condemns the hypocrites in the religious mob who came to stone the adulterous woman, and sends them packing. He forgives the woman, but he also observes that she was a sinner. Here is Justice incarnate, but also incarnate Mercy. He is our model. Sin does not cease to be sin because it offends our modern sensibilities. If the Irish nuns and other Catholics of the last century treated women who bore children out of wedlock and their children with cruelty and indignity, the answer is not to declare vice to be virtue. The answer is to meet vice with greater virtue, which, for Christians, means greater mercy and love.

Yes, of course the atrocities in Milwaukee, and Ireland, and everywhere else ought to force the Catholic Church to reassess how it lives out, or fails to live out, the Gospel (and again, it’s not only the Catholic Church, or churches alone, that need to do this). But it’s madness to demand that Catholicism jettison what it has always taught as true, what the New Testament plainly teaches is true, and what nearly all Christian churches everywhere taught was true, until the last few decades. If the prosperity gospel preachers sanctify Greed — and they do — then this equally false gospel sanctifies Lust. It is also madness to expect that Rome will go along with this. The Roman church does not operate according to the standards of sexually permissive North Americans, thank God. Pope Francis, as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, rightly condemned the rigorists in his own clergy who refused to baptize babies born outside of wedlock. But he did not say, nor would he ever say, that sex outside of marriage is no big deal.

These are hard sayings. None of us fully live up to the example set by Christ; I certainly do not, but by grace, I’m trying to die a little bit more to myself each day. We can only make 2 + 2 = 4 by the gift of grace. What we cannot do is say that 2 + 1.2 = 4, because that’s as far as we are willing to go. And all the wailing and gnashing of blog teeth will not change that.