A Key To Understanding Catholic Moral Theology

Part 1 of a 5-Part Series

In this my inaugural column, I’d like to give you one simple cipher that will help you decode, and hopefully put in perspective, the whole of Roman Catholic moral (sexual) theology. I put the word sexual in parenthesis because, even though the Church insists that moral theology encompasses social justice, medical ethics and various other doctrine on individual moral virtue; it is sex that is THE Catholic sin. It’s also the only reason this column is being written.

In mid-July of last year the Vatican issued a revised set of in-house rules in response to the international clerical sex abuse scandal. Nothing new surfaced in these dictums. For example, we won’t be seeing the transparency victim advocacy groups are looking for, nor will there be a “one-strike and you’re out” policy for pedophile priests. And bishops still aren’t expected to report molester priests to civil authorities. (I’ll address some of these issues in a later column.) But for now I have another reason for calling your attention to this particular Vatican ruling; and it is not clergy sex abuse.

These new Vatican rules cover the canonical (Church law) penalties and procedures used for the most grave crimes in the church. As one would suspect, the Vatican considers clerical sex abuse a “grave crime”. What no one was expecting, certainly not in a document that deals with pedophile clergy, was the startling inclusion of the attempted ordination of women as a “grave crime” subject to the same set of procedures and punishments meted out for sex abuse.

This drew immediate criticism from many Catholic women and men, who said making women priests the moral equivalent of child rapists was deeply offensive.

Despite the repugnant nature of this Vatican rule, it does clearly elucidate the cipher I promised I’d give you. To get a handle on Catholic moral theology one must first grasp the depth and breath of it’s institutionalized misogyny.

Less than a hundred years ago, women had little standing in the church. Women were not allowed to receive communion during their monthly periods; and after giving birth to a child they needed to be ‘purified’ (or ‘churched’ as it was called) before re-entering a church building.

Women were strictly forbidden to touch ‘sacred objects’, such as the chalice, the paten or altar linen. They were certainly never to distribute Holy Communion. And while in church, a woman needed to have her head veiled at all times.

Women were also barred from:

  • entering the sanctuary except for cleaning purposes;
  • reading Sacred Scripture from the pulpit;
  • preaching;
  • singing in a church choir;
  • being servers at Mass.

But the most important restriction of all — women were barred from receiving Holy Orders; being ordained as deacons, priests or bishops.

When I was in seminary in the mid 1970’s the movement to ordain women was just finding its footing. The official rationale for refusing women to the priesthood back then, as it is now, is that a priest must physically resemble Jesus. The priest acts ‘in the person of Christ’. Since Jesus was a man, only a male priest can signify Christ at the Eucharist.

I used to get such a kick out of that reasoning, because when I was ordained the bishop laid his hands on my head to ordain me. And since women also have heads, I just figured that the bishop was laying his hand on the wrong part of my anatomy if he wanted the part that made me physically resemble Jesus.

The truth of the matter is that every aspect of Catholic moral theology from birth control to homosexuality; from the ordination of women to pre-marital sex, from abortion to celibacy is rooted in a medieval theology that still holds sway today. Every woman is ‘a defective male’, ‘born through an accident’, ‘a monster of nature’; as Thomas Aquinas put it. Procreation was attributed to the father alone: the whole future child is carried in his sperm. The mother was seen to be only the ‘soil’ in which the seed developed.

Institutionalized misogyny of this magnitude leaves some Catholic faithful in a quandary. How do I remain faithful to my baptism, but resist what, I know in my heart, is not right? The answer is the principle of the primacy of one’s conscience. According to this belief, one must follow the sure judgment of his/her conscience even when, through no fault of one’s own, it might be mistaken. This is the cornerstone of all Catholic, and indeed all Christian, teaching. No law, no dictum, no dogma can take precedence over an individual’s conscience. Our conscience is our connection with our God.

This principal has allowed tens of thousands of Catholics over the years, both religious and lay; to stand against the unconscionable second-class status afforded women in the Church. And despite institutional resistance, great strides have been made over the last fifty years in toppling this gender-based injustice. Women are now included in many aspects of church life that were once closed to them.

Book Available Worldwide and as a Kindle eBook

More good news about my new book: SECRECY, SOPHISTRY AND GAY SEX IN THE CATHOLIC CHURCH; The Systematic Destruction Of An Oblate Priest.

  • The soft cover version of the book is now available on all the Amazon sites around the world — UK, France, Germany, Canada and Japan.
  • For all you really trendy folks out there, the Kindle version of the book is now available in the US and will be available worldwide by 07/6/11.

I welcome your comments and thoughts. It’s been so heartwarming to hear from so many of you already. And remember if/when you buy the book on Amazon you are entitled to write a review. Reviews boost me in the ratings. And if I get a dozen good reviews I’ll be, in the immortal words of Marlon Brando, “a contenda”. 😉



I’m delighted to announce!

(Click on the book art above to purchase.)

For centuries homosexuals have been vilified and persecuted by the Catholic Church, but throughout all of its history the Church has had a very inconvenient secret. Many of its clergy and religious men and women, even those in the highest echelons of the Church, were and are homosexual. Little was known of the lives these religious people live until the publication, in 1981, of the groundbreaking, Gay Catholic Priests; A Study of Cognitive and Affective Dissonance.

I am the author of that study and I am a gay priest. But the media firestorm that erupted after its publication and the backlash within my religious community because of its publication eventually destroyed my public priesthood. The story of my 13-year battle with the Church to save my ministry exemplifies the spiritual isolation, emotional distress and ecclesiastical reprisals every gay priest most fears.

A Brief Description
Secrecy, Sophistry And Gay Sex In The Catholic Church provides an intimate and disturbing look into the unseemly inner-workings the Catholic Church. It is primarily a story about how this institution deals with dissent in its midst, but it also shows to what lengths the Church will go to silence a whistle-blower. What I am about to recount happened between 1981 and 1994. It involves the highest levels of the Vatican bureaucracy, secret documents, corporate incompetence, canonical corruption, and institutionalized homophobia on an epic scale.

The publication of my dissertation broke the seal on the Vatican’s gay secret. The press dubbed me “The Gay Priest,” but my research and what it implies made patently clear that I wasn’t the only gay priest. In fact, there is a sizable segment of the clergy population that is gay and these men are forced to live duplicitous lives of repression in secret.

The Church’s single-minded effort to quash the emerging story and silence me showed that I needed to be “dealt with” in the most severe fashion; an example had to be made of me. If other priests started coming out of the closet, demanding to be treated with dignity and respect it would certainly undercut the entirety of Catholic sexual moral theology—there is no place for non-reproductive sexuality in that paradigm.

The irony is that at the same time my story was unfolding an unimaginable scandal, involving hundreds of Catholic priests across the globe, was also brewing. Cardinals, bishops and provincials worldwide were, and still are, furtively shuffling pedophile priest from one crime scene to another. They were, and still are, involved in a massive corporate cover up of their own crimes and those of their brother clergy.

While I am being singled out for 13 years of Church vitriol, public character assassination and communal shunning—my superiors claim that they are simply trying to protect the Church from scandal—these same Church leaders and others are lying, prevaricating and sabotaging any effort to uncover the burgeoning clergy sexual abuse scandal that would soon rock the front pages of newspapers all over the world.

The public panic, among Church officials, exhibited toward me—a single up-front gay priest in their midst—is in stark contrast to their apathetic and anemic response to the systemic clergy sexual abuse that engulfs them.

I am confident making the comparison between my struggle and the clergy sex abuse scandal, because I have first-hand knowledge of this abuse criminality. I was repeatedly sexually molested as a 14-year-old boy in an Oblate seminary in southern Illinois.

My story is the story of a Church that will go to any length, even to violate its core principles—Gospel values that form the fundamental tenets of faith—to protect its public image. In other words, this is a story of a Church out of control.

Secrecy, Sophistry And Gay Sex In The Catholic Church: The Systematic Destruction Of An Oblate Priest, is presented in two distinct parts.

  • Part 1 is a detailed account of my 13-year struggle with the religious community I once belonged to, The Missionary Oblates Of Mary Immaculate, to preserve my priesthood. It reads like an ecclesiastical who-done-it.
  • Part 2 is my complete doctoral thesis, Gay Catholic Priests; A Study of Cognitive and Affective Dissonance.  I included it in this volume, because this is precisely what set this controversy in motion.  It illustrates and reveals the plight of gay Catholic clergy and the fierce repression the Vatican imposes upon them. It is also the 30th anniversary of its limited publication as a monograph before the Vatican silenced me. It’s been out of print for well over 25 years.

Brief Bio
Richard Wagner, Ph.D., ACS — Psychotherapist, Clinical Sexologist in private practice in Seattle, WA. I’ve been a practitioner of Sex Therapy and Relationship Counseling for 30 years.

I am the only Catholic priest in the world with a doctorate in Human Sexuality. My practice has included a special outreach to survivors of clergy sex abuse and I’ve had many opportunities to work with clergy offenders. I am available to clergy abuse survivors and their advocates as a consultant, expert witness and/or therapist.

I design, develop and produce long and short-term seminars and workshops for healing and helping professionals including religious leaders. And I’ve have facilitated support groups for gay clergy of numerous denominations for many years.

I’m involved in numerous sex education and sexual enrichment projects. One such outlet is my online sex advice column that I’ve been writing for the past 15 years. During that time it’s been syndicated on a number of sites. Now my column and weekly podcasts has a home of their own: drdicksexadvice.com. I am also a guest columnist on several other websites.