Ex malo bonum, goes the old Latin tag -- out of evil good may come. The Roman Catholic Church's Latin may have gone rusty over the past four decades, but the lowliest layman can now see the point. The lowliest Christian, for that matter. The lowliest citizen of our lowlife age. A sex scandal of wide and damaging dimensions has us talking seriously about sex and its consequences.
It is a conversation seriously overdue. It will not be wrapped up by the American Catholic bishops at their Dallas meeting this week, and it will not wrap up any time soon. There is too much to talk about. The bottom line is, we know we have to talk.
Talk? About sex? What have we talked about for decades?
The joys and glories of sex, yes?
What we haven't talked about is the perils. Had we done so, the bishops might not be having this kind of meeting. They might have been discussing winning the world for Jesus.
That was never discussed -- for two reasons: First, the secular world needed to be in on a conversation about sex and attendant human responsibilities. Second, Christian churches from the '60s forward sought to rid themselves of prune-faced prudishness when it came to sex. Hey, man, preach about responsibility, and, like, who's gonna listen?
The Christian churches -- guardians of the Christian moral vision -- find this aspect of the vision narrow, cramped and offputting. Go, for moral instruction, to many of our finest churches, and what you find is the equivalent of an American Medical Association pitch for tongue-piercing.
Well, now, if the churches have little to say about moral responsibility, are we entitled to surprise when specific churchmen jump the moral traces? Such is the essence of the Roman Catholic crisis. Men solemnly sworn to celibacy -- a particularly exacting kind of sexual responsibility -- jumped the traces: with boys and younger men whose spiritual welfare had been entrusted to them. To degrade your sacred calling in this manner, you have to take a light view of that calling and of the dangers walking in step with the pleasures of sex.
The irony is that over the centuries, no institution has proved better able than the church to interpret these dangers and pleasures. Certainly, the Freudian psychiatrists haven't been able to; less so the skin magazines; least of all, perhaps, television's morning talk show ringmasters.
How come? Because sex, seemingly, would have fallen under the heading of Divine Creation. What could be more basic to creation than the means of birth? Better not mess up, the church felt itself under obligation to counsel its children. Out of this sense of obligation and heightened understanding came "the rules" -- matrimony as sacrament and lifetime covenant; pleasures seen as bound up intricately with duties -- neither one standing alone. Much like husband and wife, to tell the truth.
There was logic here that a secularized society showed itself less and less able to tolerate. Responsibility? Get outta here. We had feared the churches might be buying into this view; we just didn't understand until recently the size and cost of the purchase. What a mess.
What an opportunity as well. The churches know they can't go on this way -- not with subversives in the ranks, undercutting the gospel imperative by deed as well as by word. Nor can the secular society pretend that the "joys" of sex have their unjoyous consequences in the destruction of life and faith and vocation
It's not a great time to be a sexual liberationist. Actually, the church would once have counseled us that no time is. But try getting that message across if you were addressing the liberationist culture. Boooo! Hissssss! Zzzzzzzzzz ...
Ex malo bonum at last, maybe. With a little prayer, a little repentance, a little -- to tell the truth -- thankfulness.