In the Netherlands, Henk Heithuis lived in Catholic institutions from infancy. When he was 20 years old, sometime in the 1950s, he complained to the police about sexual abuse by a male official at the Catholic institution where Heithuis was living. That official was not prosecuted; instead, he was transferred to Nova Scotia where he started a home for boys. After Heithuis reported the abuse, he was transferred to a Catholic psychiatric hospital before being admitted to the St. Joseph Hospital in Veghel, where he was castrated. Cornelius Rogge, whose family was friends with Henk, relates the ordeal as described by Heithuis. “He was strapped to a bed. In one stroke, his scrotum was cut out. Then he was taken to an infirmary to rest and recover. Then the other boys received the same treatment. He could hear them screaming.” He died in a traffic accident two years later. As many as ten young men may have suffered the same fate.
The immediate question is: why did the Catholic Church castrate Henk Heithuis? The more fundamental question is how officials running a religious organization—not to mention one claiming some fidelity to Jesus, who preached and lived love and compassion—could be so utterly cruel.
Concerning the first question, two main alternatives present themselves. “It is unclear,” according to the New York Times, “whether the reported castration was performed as a punishment for whistle-blowing or what was seen as a treatment for homosexuality.” According to Joep Dohmen, the investigative journalist who uncovered this case, a gay man who had not been abused was also castrated. This “treatment” is consistent with the Church’s stance that while gay instincts are not sinful in themselves, it is a sin to act on them. Favoring the other alternative, Rogge said he believed that the castration was a punishment. It is possible that Heithuis had reason to believe the same thing. The abuser might have been in a position as an official at the institution where Heithuis was living to set the wheels in motion. At the very least, there would have been a conflict of interest in that institution agreeing to the transfer. We might have to be agnostic on the reason for the brutal act.
Concerning the implications for religion itself of “religious” officials ordering young men to be castrated either because they are gay or in retaliation, a historian might point to the torture used by the Dominicans in the Inquisition as even more horrific. However, two wrongs don’t make a right. Even so, it could be argued on theological grounds that the ends justified the means both in terms of saving souls (i.e., the Inquisition) and in keeping men from sinning (i.e., homosexuality). The motive to punish, however, has no such end from a theological perspective. Even in the ends-justifies-the-means rationale, the tremendous suffering and harm done in the castrations could only be justified by being the only means and if the end is known and certain to result from the means. Even in the 1950s, castration could not be justified as the only means of avoiding the sin of homosexuality.
For one thing, instinct need not result in conduct even with genitals intact. Furthermore, the Church could not be certain of the validity of the theological end being served. It is possible that the instincts themselves are sinful, and it is also possible that acting on them is not sinful to God. For church officials to claim such certainty would be tantamount to them regarding themselves as gods on earth—specifically as omniscient, or all-knowing. Also, the procedure of castration involves the medical domain and that of biology—homosexuality involves the latter. Running a boy’s home or being a religious functionary does not qualify a person in having even rudimentary knowledge in either of the two domains. Not even biologists are certain of the function of homosexuality in species biologically. It is thus evident that the ends-means route involves overreaching from the standpoint of the Catholic Church.
In short, the case of Heithuis’s castration suggests that officials of religious organizations can get away with acting on the basis either of vengeful spite (or sadism?) or presumptuous over-reaching and infallibility. The assumptions of epistemological certainty and having knowledge in other domains by virtue of being in the religious domain (e.g., access to revelation) support the pretentiousness, which is ultimately rooted in self-idolatrous pride under the subterfuge of theological faith. In other words, religion can provide agency and cover for its opposite with impunity. Given human nature, religion in human hands can therefore be very dangerous even as the danger is invisible to the naked eye. We don’t know nearly as much as we think we do, even if we have trouble with self-discipline and presume we are infallible theologically. The fact remains, none of us is God. Put another way, the transcendent is by definition beyond the limits of human cognition and perception, so we cannot be certain regarding what our faith “tells” us regarding the nature of the object. This is a good reason, by the way, to center the phenomenon of religion on the transcendent experience rather than the transcendent referent or object.
Given the toxicity in the human mind wrapping itself around religion, a useful rubric particularly for religious functionaries can be proposed: The infliction of suffering even as a means to a theological goal must pass through heightened scrutiny outside of the religious domain (due to the overreaching and presumed omniscience), with the presumed theological certainty being confirmed by a non-theological means (e.g., empirical science). To be sure, subjecting a theological motive to non-religious confirmation is hardly fair to a religion. It is simply too dangerous, however, to rely on the mind when it directs conduct based on religious grounds. In other words, religious-motivated use of human power has a rather sordid track-record that cannot be ignored. Religion thus needs a chaperone of no relation.
Furthermore, given the problems that can ensue when some humans use power over other based on religious grounds, religious functionaries (e.g., ministers, priests) should not be allowed to be situated in personal or institutional conflicts of interest in cases where harm can be inflicted on others. The same goes for the Catholic Church itself. As demonstrated by the castration case, a religious institution can have extraordinary power that can easily be abused with impunity. Not even an “institutional apology” decades later, such as for cases of priests who rape children, can suffice as a remedy, as if an apology could possibly undo the harm or otherwise make things right. Such severe harm should be prevented from being able to occur in the first place.
Accordingly, interaction between priests and children under 18 (or even 21) should be supervised by adults not employed by a parish or diocese or otherwise close to the parish office or clergy. There is more of enough of a track record established by “celibate” priests to justify this restriction. Secondly, additional protection for whistle-blowers ought to be instituted in public policy, particularly if they happen to be the victims themselves. At the very least, the victims should receive instant protection from people, including clerics, employed by the Catholic Church.
It being utterly unnatural for a man, particularly in his twenties, to be celibate, such renouncing of what is so much of one’s instincts is tantamount to renouncing oneself, which is to make oneself weak. It is one thing to deny oneself a coke or second piece of cake; it is quite another to reject something so much a part of one’s being as an organism. It is no accident, I believe, that so many cases of priests raping children have occurred. The dysfunction is likely a direct result of the artificial denial of so much of one’s organic being. In fact, religion overreaching to the biological—seeking hegemony in that domain—evinces a category mistake (mistaking a biological function as distance from God). Theology is theology. Biology is biology. This is not rocket science, and yet religion so wantonly wanders yet while presuming itself nonetheless hegemonic.
Stephen Castle, “Dutch Church Is Accused of Castrating Young Men,” The New York Times, March 21, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/21/world/europe/dutch-church-accused-of-castrating-10-young-men.html