In his Christmas message to the curia, Pope Benedict lamented sexual abuse and said the church must reflect on what went wrong. He, as a theologian, thought that distorted moral theology in the 1960s and 1970s contributed to the abuse. 

In order to resist these forces, we must turn our attention to their ideological foundations. In the 1970s, paedophilia was theorized as something fully in conformity with man and even with children. This, however, was part of a fundamental perversion of the concept of ethos. It was maintained – even within the realm of Catholic theology – that there is no such thing as evil in itself or good in itself. There is only a “better than” and a “worse than”. Nothing is good or bad in itself. Everything depends on the circumstances and on the end in view. Anything can be good or also bad, depending upon purposes and circumstances. Morality is replaced by a calculus of consequences, and in the process it ceases to exist. The effects of such theories are evident today.

John Allen tends to poo-poo this and finds experts who are dubious.

Among specialists, however, there are serious reservations as to whether proportionalism really is to blame.

First, moral theologians say that proportionalism reached its high-water mark in the 1970s and has been in retreat ever since. Focusing on it now, they say, risks fighting yesterday’s battles.

Second, Redemptorist moral theologian Fr. Brian Johnstone of the Catholic University of America said in the wake of the pope’s 2008 remarks that he’s not aware of any serious Catholic moralist who ever invoked the theory to justify the sexual exploitation of minors.

Johnstone, an Australian who over the years has been critical of proportionalism, said he’s “totally unconvinced” of any connection between proportionalism and the abuse crisis.

Third, statistical studies of the crisis may not support a link to a defective moral theory.

Margaret Smith, data analyst for a John Jay study of the “causes and context” of the sexual abuse crisis commissioned by the U.S. bishops, likewise said in 2008 that research found incidents of sexual abuse as far back as 1950, the very beginning of the time frame the bishops asked them to consider (1950-2000). Those earlier acts of abuse probably cannot be explained by proportionalism.

Smith added that changing attitudes towards authority in the ’60s and ’70s, as well as a growing individualism in the broader culture, may well have played a role in the crisis – and that, she said, was perhaps the point Benedict “was reaching for” in 2008. Nonetheless, Smith said, her hunch is that when all the data is in, proportionalism will not loom large.

“This is behavior much more deeply embedded in the personality of individuals than a particular theory of moral action,” Smith said. “I think the analysis of causes will have more to do with things like preparation for living a life of celibate chastity, and how to understand and deal with intimacy.”

While the specific theory of proportionalism may not have been the main culprit, there were plenty of influential theologians around who contributed the climate of sexual laxity, especially about homosexual behavior.

The reports of true pedophilia (small children, under 10 or so) were a small portion of the abuse committed by priests and in fact declined slowly after 1950.

Terrible abuse has long occurred in the Church, but at least in the US there is a big spike in the reports of abuse of boys 12-18, abuse that occurred in the 1960s and 1970. Abusers showed older boys books by theologians who said that homosexual sex could be ok.

The Rev Anthony Kosnick in the Catholic Theological Society of America book, Human Sexuality: New Direction in American Catholic Thought (1977) concluded that

“at this time the behavioral sciences have not identified any sexual expression that can be empirically demonstrated to be of itself, in a culture-free way, detrimental to full human existence.”

Any sexual expression – any.



Of course society is not as enlightened as Catholic theologians, and it criminalizes certain behaviors, so Kosnick advised that until society realizes that there is no sexual expression that is in itself harmful,

“enlightened and well-integrated individuals might well free themselves of conflict by simply reflecting on the relativity of their society’s sexual ethic and proceed discreetly with their sexual project.”


And so several thousand Catholic priests proceeded with their sexual project.

Of course unenlightened parents would sometimes object.



Rev. Andre Guindon, who is still held up as a progressive theologian, had taught in The Sexual Language, a book that the abuser Rudy Kos used in his seminary, that

“the most recent studies tend to disprove that lasting hurt comes from pedophiliac contact itself. Rather, the trauma comes from the familial panic which is the usual response to the incident.”

The children are hurt not by sexual contacts with priests, but by parents who make a fuss about it – so taught a leading theologian, and such seemed to be the attitude of the bishops.

Perhaps some of Benedict’s suspicions are justified

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