By Anthony Esolen
Imagine a rash of fires, lit by fire chiefs, in certain ghettos of Eastern Europe during the 1930s. A synagogue burns to the ground in Kraków, another in Prague, a Jewish community house in Danzig, the Beth-salem Orphanage in Leipzig, and yet another synagogue in Bratislava. All are destroyed. Imagine that half of the leaders of the governments involved respond by insisting that laws against arson are outdated and oppressive; that the desire to burn things is natural in man and needs a healthy outlet; that our customs regarding pyrophilia are hypocritical; and that one cannot expect fire chiefs always to be putting out fires without wanting to set a few themselves. Imagine that the other leaders notice that the problem seems not to have been arson but hatred of Jews. Imagine that while these groups fight it out—the one surely in the grip of dementia, the other correct but still half-blind and impotent—the Jews still have no synagogues, no orphanages, and no community houses, nor is it proposed that they get any. In fact, any real thought about who the Jews are, what they give, and what they need is uncomfortably set aside, if it ever arises at all.
That is an analogy for what has happened in our Church, with this one exception: While there’s no natural connection between arson and the very being of a Jewish worshiper, there is a connection—a terrible one—between the seduction of boys and the manhood that was ruined or vitiated in them.To burn a man’s house is to sin against his property, perhaps his posterity. To burn his house out of hatred is to sin against his person. But to seduce a boy, to corrupt his manhood while it is yet in the bud, is to sin against his nature, his essential created being.
We have ignored the boys. And we ignored them, as we have been ignoring them, these many years. Governments and foundations shovel money into programs to teach math and science specifically to girls, but not a penny, not for any subject, devoted specifically to boys. Why is that? Nowadays in some places a boy growing up with a father is as rare as an orphan used to be. These boys need more than ever the male discipline of sports—so what do we do about it? We cut their rosters. Sometimes, against common sense, against plain decency and charity, we force the boys to play on the same teams with girls, even when there are girls’ teams available. Why that happy cruelty? We know that these same boys—often fatherless—are less likely to go to church than are their sisters. That’s all right by us; we set up committees to study women’s participation in the Church. We stock up on female lectors and female directors of religious education. We showcase our altar girls. Why?
Young men are strong enough and aggressive enough to commit—but also vulnerable enough to suffer—the bulk of violent crime in our country. Everyone knows the former; does anyone care to consider the latter? One in ten black men aged 20 to 30 is currently in prison. Do we sponsor any initiatives to reach the boys before they fall into that abyss? Boys are now far outnumbered by girls in college. Exactly how this state of affairs is to be a boon to the civilization, the country, the family, and the Church, no one has bothered to examine. I think it heralds the onset of catastrophe. But is there a single program anywhere designed to address the issue? Boys find school detestable—I found it so, and I have met few young men, even those I teach in college, and most especially the brightest, who say that they loved high school, and few young women who say they hated it. Does anyone care?
Catholic conservatives—I am tempted to place that word in scare quotes—have noticed that nearly all the victims in the scandals were teenage boys. Bully for them; it was hard not to notice it. But that’s where the noticing stopped. I fear I know why. To press the issue is to venture into a minefield, for we have failed the boys and would prefer not to be reminded of it. How else to explain the delicate attempts by many to soften the perception of the crime?
It’s true that conservatives have called on us to recommit ourselves to the Church’s teachings on homosexuality, and justly so. But their focus has been entirely on the priest, not at all on the boy. For when they discussed the scandals they noted carefully that the cases of pedophilia were rare; what we were dealing with, they said, was ephebophilia, the seduction (not rape, sometimes not even statutory rape) of teenage boys. True enough. But what then about those teenage boys? Ephebophilia may not be rape, but it is, I think, something more insidious, and possibly more destructive. To understand the sins of these priests, we need to understand what was peculiarly sinful about their seduction of the boys.
It is a rotten time to be a boy. Loveless feminists can carp all they want, but being a boy has never been easy, and now we seem bent on making it as arduous and as grim as possible. The boy knows that he will not have achieved manhood by reaching a certain age or by the maturation of his reproductive system. Manhood, though we find it convenient to forget the fact, must be won and won again. Boys cannot forget it, and so they naturally form gangs, blood brotherhoods, teams: If you’re a member, you have won approval—you’re a real boy, a real man. But your membership is contingent upon your holding up your end of the deal. You must be brave; you must be loyal.
There is nothing inherently wrong with such brotherhoods. Saner societies than ours used to foster and direct them: Boy Scouts, Junior Achievement, ROTC. They, or something like them, are necessary for the boy’s development. If the boy is rejected by the other boys, he needs a man to take their place, to be his mentor, to bolster him in his uncertain manhood, to assure him that his arms are growing stronger, to holler and rail if need be as he straps on the helmet or grabs the next knot in the rope, and to nod (a laconic nod of approval more powerful to that boy than any mother’s smile can be) when he stands in victory.
So let us look at our ephebophile and his prey. Pardon me as I condense several accounts of crimes we have read about to present the deed in its essence. Between the man and the boy in question, there’s a curious affinity. Father Mike, let us call him, was, as a boy, intelligent but shy, not terribly athletic but admiring of athletes. He was the boy who looked out the window, in resentment yet with aching attraction, at the other boys playing king-of-the-hill in the yard next door. He cannot be like them, he thinks, but he wants to be like them. They may barrel into each other with innocent rivalry or boyish affection, but he has never felt that crush of bodies, or the few times he has felt it, it meant too much to him because it was too rare. He is skinny or pudgy or short or nearsighted or asthmatic or coddled by a hypochondriacal mother or ignored by his father. He wears his body awkwardly, wishing he looked like one of the other boys. He is not privy to what they whisper and snort about behind the shed or up the woods. He suspects the ribaldry he doesn’t know. The grosser he supposes it to be, the more he despises it, and the more he wishes he were part of it.
This lad I’m describing was not born so. The thoughtlessness and cruelty of others have made him so. He will say he has always felt an attraction for members of his sex. He isn’t lying. He has. But he’s mistaken about it nonetheless: His longing for male comradeship is something he shares with every man who has ever lived. His feelings, in themselves, show how David admired Jonathan, how Oliver wished to die beside Roland, how Gilgamesh wept inconsolably beside the body of Enkidu the strong. The problem is that when he reaches puberty, the longings natural to every boy and man may become—by being unmet, by having been a source of pain—unnaturally sexualized. If so, he becomes a homosexual man: that is, a man who still wants to be one of the boys, even as he resents boys who are comfortable and easy with their masculinity.
He is drawn to those like him. He sees a boy, possibly better-looking than he was or more athletic, but still lonely, unsure of himself, needing the approval of a man. Perhaps the boy’s father is far away; perhaps that distance is the doing of a selfish mother. Perhaps the father is all too near and is cruel and angry. It may be that the boy is not exactly rejected by his peers, but not exactly welcomed, either. Enter the older man, the apparently (but only apparently) confident priest. At this crisis of the boy’s life the priest comes on the scene as the male friend, the mentor, the older comrade. He takes the boy to the basketball game—something the boy wishes his father had done. He slaps him on the back with what seems like nonchalance. He praises him for his cleverness, asks him if he’s all right with the girls, laughs when the boy tells of some trouble he got into at school, and wisely advises him how to get out of it again.
Soon Father Mike—Father Mike, not Reverend but Father—has taken the boy into his own confidence, too. He encourages him to be comfortable with, actually a trifle loose with, his body and his sexual feelings. He may ply him with a few of the secrets of pornography. Now the boy—remember, this is a lonely sort of boy looking from the outside into the mysteries of manhood—feels that he’s finally being taken seriously, that he’s finally being considered a man by another man. At the same time, the pathetic Father enjoys what for him is the rare pleasure of being admired as a man by anyone at all. At last he’s the lead boy on the field, the captain of his team in Capture the Flag.
Inevitably it comes round to undressing. I assert that there is not one woman alive who can really understand this, not one. I also assert that there is not one man alive who does not immediately understand this, as painful as it may be to admit. The nakedness of both is enjoyable. For the change from boy’s body to man’s body is stark and embarrassingly conspicuous. The boy is intrigued by his own body (all boys are) and is excited to be in the presence, naked, of one of his own kind who will accept him for what he is and not laugh at him. Boys go skinny-dipping even before puberty—they always have. Were it not for the keyed-up emotions and the subtle sexual undermining of the mentor—the Father—this too could be healthy. Peter and his comrades did not wear wetsuits when they fished! There is a great ease and pleasure in such frankness. So the two of them are in the shower, let us say, after a workout in the gym; the older man diseased and unscrupulous but deeply lonely, the boy excited and pleased, finally, so he thinks, having arrived at the port of his manhood.
Then the Father touches him—there—and all is ruined, corrupted, soiled forever.
I know there are variations on this account. Sometimes the priest has gathered around himself a kind of sexual gang, a brotherhood of carnality. Pornography can work wonders for establishing such a thing. Sometimes the boy struggles to pretend that he was not violated, that he wished for the encounter after all. Sometimes the priest verges upon the ghoulish; sometimes he even believes, and teaches, that there is a sacramentality in this abuse of the body. Sometimes he even says that it is a manly thing to do.
Whatever the gross details may be, it is important to consider that touch. The terrible thing is that the boy, confused, is excited; he cannot believe what is happening and is too surprised to know immediately what to do. This is the man he has, so to speak, fallen in love with—fallen in admiration of, as a boy will admire a man, a hero, his own father. He feels at once ashamed and prized; he does not pull away. His body betrays him. Never will he be able to say, as the raped woman can say (and please, I am not making light of that horrible crime; it is a different sort of crime), “I was overcome.” No, he was willing, certainly not wholly unwilling, and that is the ugly horror of it. Never will he be able to say, “I felt no pleasure in it.” Till the day he dies the nerves of his own body will testify against him. He is not raped. Would that he were; he is seduced, made to cooperate in the perversion of his own manhood. At the most vulnerable time of his life, as he tries to steer that most perilous strait, he is corrupted not only in his body but in his being, in his manhood, by the very “man,” the Father, who seemed to promise to him safe passage. Does he wish he had been raped? Talk to some, and they will say they wish they had been strangled.
Why have the commentators not seen this? Grown men speaking about their experiences have collapsed into tears on national television. Are we to believe they would do so had they been seduced by nuns? Had any one of those men been so seduced, it would, we hope, be a source of shame to him, as any sin ought to be. More probably he would himself ensure that tales about the shameful sister never died down.
Why have we not seen it? Because all of us, conservative and leftist alike, have too much invested in feminism. Boys with rotten lives may be the most obvious and poignant reminders of the misery spread by our latest version of the egalitarian heresy. But men are too busy pushing their daughters into ice hockey, and women are too busy reading Redbook on the subway home from the bank. Besides, boys are sloppy, unruly clods, no? So says the popular culture. And they can take care of themselves, can’t they?
Jesus would not have thought so. I have read, and I accept as valid, the argument for the all-male priesthood that notes that Jesus chose only men to be His apostles. But could He not have had an additional reason for it, a very human reason? Jesus often chose to be alone: We see him retreat into the wilderness, to the mountains, to a boat offshore. He also seemed to enjoy the occasional crowd and celebration, and in fact He mentions that His detractors jeer at Him for His eating and drinking. We see Him do what no self-respecting rabbi of his day would do; that is, talk alone with women, teach them, whether the good Mary of Bethany or the not-so-good-yet Samaritan woman at the well. But He chose only men for His apostles. He traveled with them, He confided in them, He huddled against the cold with them, He spoke to them about His coming agony. They were more than His friends: They were His brothers. Sometimes, in His humanity, Jesus wished to be alone with other men.
And in their company we see Jesus as a man among men. In one of my favorite passages, the names of the apostles are recounted, and when we come to the brothers James and John, we learn that He called them “Boanerges, which is, The Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17). I love that nickname; it fits the brothers who wanted to sit at either side of Christ when He came into His glory. I love it, too, because it shows us a glimpse of Jesus the Man—for giving nicknames is a thing men do, out of affection, sometimes even, as is the case here, out of an ironical affection. Jesus did the same for Simon Peter. I am struck not only by what He called Simon bar-Jonah, but that He called him anything new at all. Of course, the new name signaled a new birth for Simon, a new being; but on a more human level, it meant that Simon was Jesus’ blood-brother, a man worthy to be given a new name.
No faithful woman should be so childish as to complain of this. We never hear Jesus utter a condemnation of a single woman; while his lashing out against the scribes and Pharisees is unmatched for vehemence. On the other hand, we never see Jesus predicting martyrdom for the women, nor does He share with Mary and Martha His agonies to come. Jesus did not truckle to women; note that while He obeys His mother’s wish at Cana, by His reply He yet asserts authority. Jesus loved women as women and men as men, and treated women as women and men as men.
What we need now are men like St. John Bosco, who won the attention of the homeless boys of Turin by impressing them with boyish tricks and athletics, and who then taught them chastity and temperance and courage and the unalterable truths of the Faith. We are not likely to see such men. If we speak about St. John Bosco, we say that he had a ministry to children. No such thing! His ministry, the peculiar grace he was given to preach the Word of God, was to boys. Now of all times, when fatherhood itself is under siege from no-fault divorce, from feminism, from a sneeringly misandrist educational system, from popular culture, and from our chase of the almighty dollar at the cost of sanity and order at home, in short from the manifold sins of men and women, now of all times we need a St. John Bosco. We need a man to slap a boy’s back and say, “Son, your name is Smoke, because that’s what you’re throwing.” We need it, and barring an extraordinary gift of grace, the need will not be met.
For how can it be met? The boys are invisible, and now that our Church has caved in ever so slightly but ever so noticeably on the issue of homosexuality, it has helped ensure that men with vocations to work with boys will not be able to fulfill them. Did it never occur to our soft-minded leaders that one of the reasons why we cordon off male homosexuality as unnatural is to give boys the breathing room to develop such friendships as Jesus Himself enjoyed? In poisoned air the most salutary meal will smell sour.
And the poison lingers. The original evil was perpetrated by a few of our priests, allowed by some of our bishops, and unwittingly encouraged by all of us Catholics who have found it a bit too comfortable to condone the kissing cousins of androgyny and sexual license. But that evil has not ended with the corrupted youths of the boys who were abused. Because of that abuse, now when ministry to boys is needed most, ministry to boys is all but unthinkable. What man now dare play the part of John Bosco? When in some places you cannot utter the word “mankind” without being scolded, who would even think it worth his time to propose to the bishop a new effort to help boys see what true manliness and true Christianity look like?
But nothing is impossible for God. Therefore with hope in Him—certainly with no hope in the leaders of my Church, or in myself and my fellow Catholics, so blandly indistinguishable are we from the most secular of our countrymen—I wish to issue a challenge. Millions of dollars are being siphoned away from dioceses to settle civil litigation in this scandal. Let some money also go toward righting the wrong, the particular wrong of the abuse of the boys. I propose that for every boy corrupted by a priest, ten boys be educated at some new, Catholic, all-boys school; or for every ten boys abused, one new boys’ school be built to teach 100. Needless to say, these schools would have to be staffed with healthy men, not adult males stuck in the neutral of everlasting puerility, and they would cheerfully violate every tenet of political correctness spit forth by the great Despiser of the Sexes from his ice hole below.
The manhood of the boys was undermined, destroyed. Then build up the manhood of others. The abusers took advantage of the boys’ desire for comradeship. Then meet that desire now by giving others the chance for comradeship that is upright and sane. The psychology of the boys themselves was turned to their sexual corruption. Then use that same psychology to teach boys courage and cleanliness in body and mind. Father engaged in the sickest of incest. Now show others, in the company of men, what a true father and a true man is. So did St. John Bosco. So did Jesus Christ.
What about it, leaders of my Church? Do you yet have any trace of the Sons of Thunder in you? What about it, my fellow Catholics, fellow squishers and squeezers of the sixth commandment? We have our share of repenting to do. Repent by building. Stop ignoring the boys.
Anthony Esolen is professor of English at Providence College and a contributing editor for Touchstone magazine. He has recently translated and edited Dante’s Divine Comedy, in three volumes, for Modern Library (Random House).