Enough Is Enough

Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

A number of lessons can be drawn from a recent Washington Post story.  On March 9, the Post published a nearly 4,000-word story on the work of Catholic Laity and Clergy for Renewal (CLCR), a nonprofit based in Colorado.  CLCR meticulously – and legally – collected publicly available data on clergy usage of Grindr and other hetero and same-sex hookup dating apps.  It then provided the information to bishops for corrective action.  Similar data reported on by The Pillar forced the resignation of former USCCB general secretary, Msgr. Jeffrey Burrill.

In the Latin rite, diocesan priests make a promise of celibacy.  Religious community priests take a vow of chastity.  The intended result is the same:  The priest commits himself to refrain from sexual relations.  It’s a sacrifice that, properly lived, frees him to devote his life to the service of Jesus Christ, the Church, and her people.  It’s not an easy path.  But having worked in diocesan service for twenty-seven years, twenty-three of them as a senior aide to a bishop, I saw, again and again, the admirable integrity of most priests – the great majority of priests – in living out their commitment faithfully.

And yet the priesthood, just like the laity, is peopled by humans; and humans are creatures with flaws.

The theme of the Post story is familiar: A “secret effort” by “a newly empowered American Catholic right-wing” and “anti-LGBTQ vigilantes” is resulting in “the character assassination” of private individuals.  So a few observations are in order.

First, in a marriage, the man or woman who commits adultery betrays the covenant he or she freely made, and in doing so, lies.  In like manner, the priest who betrays his promise of celibacy violates the trust of the community to which he publicly committed himself.  He lives an ongoing falsehood.  The betrayed party or parties have every right to know they’re being betrayed.

Second, sexual integrity involves more than refraining from illicit genital relations.  It demands a clean spirit and worthy conduct.  Married men who hang out in strip bars, surf porn sites, and use adultery apps behave indefensibly.  Claiming a “right to privacy” in such cases belongs in a Comedy Club act.  Priests who use apps like Grindr do so in a manner not typically related to preaching the Gospel.  They have no excuse for the consequences.

Third, while we’re on the subject of privacy: It no longer exists.  We already live in a surveillance state.  Unlike China, we’ve created it voluntarily.  We still have laws that mitigate the worst online abuses and prevent, so far, the emergence of a tech-enforced social credit system.  But federal authorities and many corporations already have, or can easily get, everything they need to know about my – and your – private life, beliefs, preferences, appetites, and behavior patterns.  I gave it all away, freely (if unthinkingly) with the everyday applications I use on the internet for work, shopping, news, and similar activities.

Four years ago I noted here that:

For all the elevated talk about our American “right to privacy,” the world we actually live in has a bottomless appetite for commerce. And that appetite includes our intimacies and seeks to relentlessly monetize every element of life.  Almost anything we do on a computer or cell phone, no matter how embarrassing or sensitive, leaves an exploitable record that is difficult to expunge. . .

Privacy (despite corporate assurances) can never really be guaranteed. Grindr users enter a localized and identifiable market for commoditized same-sex interactions. The app company watches those interactions and learns. Foreign states aren’t the only entities with an appetite for these data. Nor are they the only ones with the skill and intent to collect and capitalize on them.

If government officials with “secret” lives can be blackmailed, humiliated, destroyed, or simply exposed, why not Hollywood celebrities, star athletes, university presidents, corporate board chairs, and clergy and religious leaders – like denizens of the Vatican and its diplomats? Let that sink in. None of this involves excessive imagination or anxiety. It can happen right here, right now. Sooner or later, it likely will. Little in the digital age is truly hidden.

Fourth, on the matter of “anti-LGBTQ vigilantes” and “character assassination”:  People on Grindr and similar apps assassinate their own characters.  No one else is responsible.  And the last time I checked, Catholic teaching (not to mention Scripture) regards same-sex genital relations and related behavior as gravely wrong and disordered.  As Augustine said, we have the obligation to love the sinner, but also to hate the sin.  There’s nothing at all “vigilante” about lay Catholics – men and women who seek to live their faith honestly – insisting that their priests live by the same religious convictions they preach to the people in their care.

Fifth, for the last ten years we’ve been lectured by supporters of the current pontificate about the destructive legalism and fine-point nitpicking of  “doctors of the law” in the Church.  So it’s just a bit weird for the Post to invoke canon lawyers in suggesting that “simply having Grindr on a phone, as a priest, is not against the Sixth Commandment.”  Technically?  Maybe.  Morally?  No.

Sixth and finally, the overwhelming majority of abusers in the clergy abuse scandal were homosexual men.  Thus the hypocrisy of the Post in its March 9 report – a news organization that reveled in trashing the Catholic Church for its patterns of clergy sexual abuse – is thick enough to rival the Antarctic ice pack.  Illicit homosexual behavior in the priesthood has no claim to “privacy”. . .or moral integrity.

The priesthood deserves our gratitude and respect, but not our blindness.  CLCR’s goal was to work cooperatively and confidentially with bishops to address a real issue in many current dioceses.  The need for the data collected by CLCR is humiliating and regrettable.  But the findings are too important to ignore, and dismissing them on specious “privacy” grounds only compounds the problem.  At this point, enough is enough.