The consequences of the sexual-abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church in the United States continue to unfold. On the surface, the crisis is about sex. Beneath the surface, the crisis is about the church’s teaching authority. The crisis of the last year and a half is only the most dramatic example of how questions about authority and sexual morality have become intertwined over the past several decades, and how together they threaten the integrity of the church. Many conservative Catholics blame the bishops for failing to teach and for ceding their authority to therapists and lawyers, and blame homosexual priests for failing to keep their vows. They think the ordination of “manly men” will go a long way to restoring integrity to the priesthood, and thereby to the church. They call for reform, but only of morality. There is no need to debate the issue of a male celibate priesthood, because, it is repeatedly declared, all that is needed is “fidelity, fidelity, fidelity,” as Richard John Neuhaus (editor in chief of First Things) and George Weigel (author of The Courage to Be Catholic) have written. Readers of Neuhaus and Weigel, two of the more prolific and outspoken Catholic commentators on the scandal, will find in my analysis some points of similarity as well as a basic agreement on the need for the church to recover holiness. I differ sharply from such observers, however, in the lessons I draw from the crisis. Conservative thinkers argue that the crisis demands no fundamental change in church teaching or structure. They deal with the crisis by isolating it. They see it involves both sex and power, but they connect them only superficially. Nowhere in Neuhaus’s and Weigel’s writing on the crisis, for instance, is there any awareness that God may be calling the church through the cataclysmic changes of recent decades to a more fundamental consideration of what fidelity really means. Does it mean only the fidelity of believers to the hierarchy, or does it demand, more fundamentally, the fidelity of the entire church to the living God? Because I believe that God is speaking to the church through the present circumstances, and calling the church to a more fundamental reform, I think it is necessary for us to distinguish the accidental and the essential in Catholic teaching, and to discern more accurately the ways in which issues of sex and power must be addressed if the church is to bear a truly prophetic witness in the world. The church’s prophetic teaching Over the span of my lifetime, official church teaching on sex has remained both severe and consistent. When I was a child, the church forbade masturbation, divorce, adultery, fornication, abortion, and artificial birth control. Male and female members of religious orders took a vow of chastity and ordained priests were obligated to celibacy. As I approach the age of sixty, none of these positions has been substantially modified. This Catholic sexual ethic is, moreover, countercultural within an American society that, over the same sixty-year period, became ever more profoundly individualistic and pervasively sexualized. In this cultural milieu, the church’s teaching on sexuality can be regarded, in important ways, as prophetic. It speaks of a vision of the world defined by God over against practices that distort creation. Demanding fidelity in marriage challenges a contemporary ethos in which easy divorce testifies to the erosion of a sense of mutual obligation and covenant. Insisting that religious and clergy be celibate is a witness to the power of the resurrection against a culture whose lust for pleasure and acquisition proclaims that this mortal existence is the only life to be had. Restricting licit sexual activity to marriage declares that sexuality is first meant to be covenantal and mutually responsible, not an exercise in personal gratification. Most striking, the church’s unwavering stance against abortion stands in the classic prophetic tradition of the protection of the powerless. The church’s sexual teaching can, in short, be regarded as a necessary moral challenge to American culture. The teaching of any religion on any moral subject, however, must always involve more than words from a pulpit or statements in the press. Teaching is real and convincing only to the extent that it is actually embraced by believers, embodied in their practices, coherently and consistently expressed by the community of faith. The reception of Catholic sexual teaching by Catholics themselves-both clergy and lay-is an essential ingredient of that teaching. Only to the degree that moral teaching is expressed by the attitudes and actions of Catholics themselves can it challenge anyone. Only if a prophet’s message is clear, consistent, internally coherent, and corresponds to the prophet’s own manner of life should a prophet be heard. It is precisely here that a profound change has occurred over the sixty years of my life, a change that has compromised and perhaps even discredited the church’s sexual teaching. Before taking up my argument, I should make two disclosures. First, I am a lifelong Roman Catholic. My five older siblings have a total of twenty-four children. I was a seminarian at thirteen, a Benedictine monk for nine years, a priest for three years, and have been a married layman for twenty-eight years. My wife, Joy, and I have seven children, ten grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. I am therefore not a detached analyst but rather speak as an all-too-sinful participant in the changes I describe. Second, my report as a participant-observer is more anecdotal than statistical. There are certainly exceptions and countertendencies to the ones I describe, but I think my overall perception is nevertheless accurate. Many young Catholics today, for example, are seeking a return to the ethos of the preconciliar church, but even that reaction is defined by the dramatic social changes of the last half of the twentieth century. That was then From 1940 through the mid-1960s, Catholic teaching on sexuality was remarkably consistent. More impressive, in the United States it was embodied by a clergy and laity who wore their rigorous sexual code as a badge of honor. The prohibition of artificial birth control, of divorce, of premarital sex, and of mixed marriages marked Catholics, we fondly thought, as the serious Christians. Protestants had capitulated to Freud and Kinsey and Americanism in general. Practicing Catholics not only obeyed the strict sexual teaching of the church, they extended that teaching through attitudes and actions that comprehended the minutest aspects of everyday life. Humorous and bitter memoirs of growing up Catholic recall how the prohibition of fornication, for example, led logically to a complete semiotics of modesty in dress that was spelled out by highly specific norms, from loose blouses to nonreflecting shoes. Modesty was so internalized that the possibility of becoming an occasion of someone else’s sexual arousal-called “impure thoughts”-was taken as seriously as actually having such impulses oneself. The Legion of Decency’s ranking of films was more than a list tacked to the bulletin board. It provided a guide to moral discernment in the home. I vividly remember an argument between my mother and my teenage sisters when I was around eight years old about viewing Joan of Arc. My sisters argued that it was about a saint. My mother countered that it starred Ingrid Bergman, who had abandoned her husband; attending this film would countenance adultery and divorce. Catholics of my age well remember the totalizing character of the Catholic ethos of the fifties. Devotion to Pius XII and to the Blessed Mother, abstaining from meat on Friday, keeping the eucharistic fast, avoiding blasphemy (any use of “Jesus” without bowing the head), masturbation, and impure thoughts were all pretty much at the same level of obligation, woven together in a single, unquestioning and unquestionable fabric of belief and practice, of fear and love, of resentment and pride. Weekly confession on Saturday afternoons punctuated our lives. Yes, it was terrifying to acknowledge every impure thought and act. In adolescence, who can keep count? Still, it all made sense, not least because the confessional line each Saturday included family and friends and neighbors. Catholics, we told each other, were unlike Protestants also in this respect: Protestants had-and needed-psychotherapy. We had the confessional. Catholic sexual mores during those years marked the church as an immigrant religion out of step with an America whose postwar affluence and freedom saw Hugh Hefner and Marilyn Monroe give way to more spectacular and sinister entrepreneurs of sex. Yet Americans also paid a certain respect, reflected in Hollywood’s cautious and usually positive portrayal of Catholic priests and nuns, to the Catholic insistence on remaining aloof from the sexual mainstream. Catholic sexual mores may have been alien but they were impressive. The priests portrayed by Bing Crosby and Spencer Tracy in the 1940s were virile, socially confident, unequivocally committed to the good of humanity. The portrayal of nuns (Deborah Kerr in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, and Audrey Hepburn in The Nun’s Story) were notable for the seriousness with which religious vows and the desire of religious women to seek God’s will were taken. Hollywood producers were neither Catholic nor particularly moral, but they knew that Catholics voted at the box office. This is now One way of measuring the seismic shift in the practice and perception of Catholic sexual teaching is to view more recent Hollywood portrayals of Catholics. When not simply silly (Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act) or horrifying (Meg Tilley in Agnes of God), the presentation of Catholicism tends toward the puerile (Keeping the Faith, Dogma). It’s not just films. In live and televised drama, characters are presented positively when they struggle against Catholic teaching and negatively when they conform to it. Stand-up comics, a disproportionate number of whom seem to be, in the current phrase, “recovering Catholics,” treat traditional sexual teaching as self-evidently ludicrous. Religious women are, in comedic routines, systematically held up for ridicule. In a world of pervasive political correctness, Catholics are among the few safe targets for mockery. Attacking Catholic sexual mores, however, seems increasingly arbitrary and even irrelevant. Most of the young people in a comedy club laughing at jokes about sexually neurotic nuns have never met an actual nun, much less had one for a teacher. The formerly monolithic Catholic sexual ethos has all but disappeared. American Catholics now divorce about as often as non-Catholics. Catholics are not notably better at avoiding adultery and fornication than non-Catholics. Young Catholics sleep together before marriage with little sense of “living in sin.” Masturbation is of course practiced as often as it ever was, except that few now confess it as a mortal sin. With clear conscience or not, married Catholics practice artificial birth control. Enough Catholic women have abortions to make postabortion counseling and reconciliation a substantial ministry. Vocations to religious orders demanding chastity are scarce. As for a celibate priesthood, the lack of vocations has once again made the United States a missionary country. If Catholic sexual teaching includes the willing reception, glad enactment, and unquestioning proclamation of that teaching by Catholics themselves, then that teaching is, in the year 2003, far less coherent, consistent, and clear than it was in 1950. Catholics themselves simply don’t believe it or practice it. A time of turning How and why did American Catholics change their behavior and their minds about sexual morality? I think the shift can be traced to factors both external and internal to American Catholicism. The clue to understanding this transformation is the fact that Catholics in America truly became American at a moment when America itself was undergoing a startling cultural revolution. It has become a cliché to “blame it on the ’60s,” but the cultural changes effected in the United States from the middle of that decade to the present are not trite. Doubtless, a more adequate analysis would show unsuspected complexities and ambiguities, but it would also show that the transition itself was real and profound. At least six elements help explain what happened in the cultural upheaval of the 1960s. First, it was a period of sustained material prosperity unparalleled in human history, one that produced both the microchip and a reliable birth-control pill, and seemed to make possible a war against communism abroad and against poverty at home. Second, the sexual revolution swept first across college campuses and later into homes and elementary schools. Masters and Johnson brought the orgasm into polite company. Alex Comfort brought The Joy of Sex to the local bookstore, with drawings that a decade earlier would have required a brown wrapper. Post-pill and pre-aids, sexual activity was preached and practiced as a matter of fun and freedom. Increasingly, sex and procreation were seen as quite separate concerns. Third, commerce embraced the sexual revolution through the media, above all in advertising. As movies and rock ’n’ roll tested the boundaries of sexual expression, each risky extension of sexual frankness was domesticated with breathtaking speed by television. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, every form of sexual exploitation, including soft-core child pornography, had been adapted by advertisers. As for hard-core pornography, it has become the most lucrative branch of filmmaking, and parents must make a special request in motel rooms to keep such films from being offered to their children. Pornography and prostitution are for sale on the Internet. The distinction between using sex to sell things and selling sex has virtually disappeared. The fourth element was the impact of the political scandals of the 1960s, especially on the Boomer generation, whose outsized path through life has had such a disproportionate cultural effect. The late 1950s and early 1960s encouraged among the young a sense of political optimism. Involvement in the civil-rights struggle, the Peace Corps, and the war against poverty could make a difference. Subsequently, the assassination of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr., the secret war in Asia uncovered by The Pentagon Papers, the Watergate cover-up, had two profound effects. One was the emergence of widespread political skepticism, even cynicism. America emerged from a cocoon of political naiveté. More and more Americans saw that politics was about power and power was most often self-interested, and that politicians lied out of both habit and choice. The other effect was a shift in the sense of what was morally essential. The Eisenhower generation had cultivated sexual propriety but had winked at racial, class, and gender inequities. The Boomers (before aids) saw nothing wrong with sexual promiscuity, so long as the right social issues were engaged. This was a dramatic and little-understood shift in moral consciousness. The fifth element was the women’s movement, which drew upon and extended each of the other elements. An economic prosperity based on laborsaving technology freed women from domestic servitude. The pill liberated women from the constant threat of pregnancy and childrearing, enabling them to pursue careers once reserved to men. The sexual revolution saw women as well as men seeking sexual adventure apart from commitment. At the same time, women’s bodies were simultaneously glorified and degraded through the media’s marriage of sex and commerce. In response, many women concluded that if all politics is personal, everything personal is also political. The validation of women’s experience required the demystification of patriarchal structures constructed for the suppression of women. Women translated the equation of private and public morality into an advocacy of the legality of abortion, so that the killing of a fetus was interpreted in terms of “women’s rights over their own bodies.” In short, the women’s movement, the most controversial and threatening element in the cultural revolution, forced all Americans to recognize that sex is also always about gender, and that our ideas about gender have much to do with social and economic power. Finally, the 1960s saw the birth of the gay- and lesbian-rights movements. The relatively small portion of humanity whose identity had always been defined by others in terms of deviance discovered its right to speak for and to define itself. As a result, more and more Americans discovered that they or their children or their spouses or their priests were homosexual. And what should they think or do about that? These six elements of cultural revolution are, in moral terms, a mixed bag. America’s material prosperity brought obvious blessings but also shaped an entitled population. Political cynicism and detachment have undermined civic participation. The pill gave women freedom but its long-term health effects remain uncertain. The sexual revolution, however inevitable, had disastrous consequences on several fronts. The sexualization of identity in the media has coarsened the American soul. Yet it was past time for Americans to mature politically, past time for moral consciousness to embrace the social as well as the domestic sphere, past time for women and homosexuals to receive full recognition of their humanity and place in the world. However we might evaluate the effects of each of these changes individually, the more important point is that they occurred simultaneously, and over a very short period of time. In combination, they profoundly altered American culture. This social analysis is pertinent to how American Catholics now view sex and sexual morality. First, this cultural upheaval occurred at the very moment when American Catholics finally felt themselves to be fully enfranchised as Americans. Second, it coincided with the greatest cultural upheaval within the Catholic Church since the sixteenth century, generated and symbolized by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Inconsistency & confusion John F. Kennedy’s election as president signaled to American Catholics the turn away from an immigrant and second-class status to equal ownership of American institutions and culture. It may be difficult now to appreciate how vibrant and confident the American church was in the early 1960s. Catholicism in the United States was prosperous, was growing together with the suburbs, was becoming American in its hierarchy, was increasingly assertive intellectually, and was attracting so many young men and women to religious vocations that huge new seminaries and convents were being built across the country. Few noticed that American Catholics were also thereby being carried into the cultural maelstrom of the times. As much as the Kennedy presidency, Vatican II seemed to symbolize the newfound confidence of American Catholicism. The American Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray spearheaded the passage of the council’s decree on religious freedom. Imagine: The church of the Inquisition recognizes the supremacy of the individual conscience before God! The council advocated strong lay leadership, consultation, and decentralized decision making by national organizations of bishops. Distinctively American values appeared to be influencing the universal church. Notably, the council did not address the sexual revolution. It said nothing about the role of women. It did not acknowledge the existence of “homosexuals.”Emphatically, it changed nothing in the rule of priestly celibacy. Still, it raised expectations, especially concerning the issue that was existentially most pressing for married American Catholics-artificial birth control. Among these expectations was the promise that the decision on this difficult issue would be reached on the basis of the values inculcated by the council itself. Change was possible because the authority structure of the church appeared to be changing. Vatican II had explicitly called the church to engage modernity. In moral matters, though, the council offered little to help Americans through an overwhelming flood of change. By the late 1960s, while awaiting a decision that many thought could reasonably go only toward approval of birth control, American Catholics found themselves caught up in a cultural revolution with little moral guidance. Catholics did not suddenly become sexual adventurers. Yet they were-many of them-sexually confused in a way they had not been before. Some priests and nuns went through a delayed adolescence of sexual experimentation. Some lay Catholics-confused by the news that eating meat on Friday no longer assured a place in hell-began to reassess other items on the code of forbidden behaviors. In the 1960s, moreover, the most respected Catholic moral theologians had begun to shift from using a language of rules and law to a language of relationship and discernment, especially in sexual matters. They spoke of sex in marriage as serving relational values as well as procreation. At the same time, the most powerful new theological movement within the church, liberation theology, emphasized that Scripture is more concerned with ameliorating social oppression through economic and political systems than with how people arrange themselves sexually. In hindsight, it is scarcely surprising that American Catholics-now more American than ever in their individualism and consumerism-began to choose teachers and tenets for themselves. Small wonder, also, that priests in the pulpit and in the confessional exhibited considerable variety of opinion on issues like birth control. It was at this moment that American Catholicism began to become, in effect, the largest mainline Protestant denomination in the country, precisely in its loss of a single vision and a single voice. Within the span of a decade, American Catholicism went from a clear and confident sense of sexual morality to a state of confusion and loss of self-confidence. Everything seemed to hinge on Paul VI’s clarification of the matter of birth control. Married Catholics, in particular, had high expectations, for the media had already made widely known that the process of consultation had pointed to the need to change the rules. Incoherence & corruption The decisive moment was Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae vitae. Not only did the papal letter reaffirm, on the basis of patently poor logic, the prohibition of all forms of artificial birth control; it was above all an act of papal authoritarianism in the face of a participatory process of discernment the pope himself had supported. Contrary to the pope’s expectations, the encyclical’s linkage of artificial birth control and abortion did not strengthen the moral argument against birth control, but tended instead to weaken the persuasiveness of the church’s prophetic stand against abortion. The subsequent strenuous efforts by John Paul II to shore up Humanae vitae through a “theology of the body” have only sharpened the perception that, lacking a convincing theological basis, the magisterium’s intractability on this point is really about keeping women in their place and maintaining the aura of papal authority. The birth-control issue enabled many American Catholics to see and name other forms of inconsistency and corruption in the church that, in the name of loyalty and obedience, had previously been ignored. The church’s way of dealing with divorce and remarriage, for example, lacks moral coherence. The prohibition of divorce is not really absolute. Everyone knows that some Catholics are allowed to divorce and remarry with the approval of the church, so long as they (or their ecclesiastical lawyer) can make a case for annulment even after years of cohabitation, or if they are rich or prominent enough. The poor and the legally unrepresented, in contrast, can find themselves in disastrous or abusive marriages without hope of divorce and remarriage. The moral incoherence is revealed particularly by the exception. If a first marriage was not really “in the church,” then it can be dissolved without consequence. People with serial nonsacramental marriages are still free to marry in the church and enjoy the benefits of full communion. Only if a sacramental marriage fails are faithful Catholics unable to seek another sanctified partnership. Equally inconsistent and incoherent is the fiction of a totally celibate priesthood. I leave aside the anecdotal evidence that reminds us that theoretical celibacy is not always translated into actual chastity. What challenges logic is Rome’s insistence on a male celibate clergy in the face of the contrary evidence from Scripture and tradition, in the face of the experience of Protestant and Orthodox communions, and while accepting into the Roman priesthood men who are married, but who have converted from the Anglican or Lutheran denominations. Celibacy is a great charism and witness to the resurrection for those so gifted by God. It is not a prerequisite to faithful and holy ministry. The Roman church’s willingness to lose an ordained priesthood altogether-and with it the sacramental heart of Catholicism-rather than ordain married men or (horrors!) women may appear noble to some. To more and more American Catholics, it appears suicidal self-delusion. The willingness to ordain older men who are widowers to the priesthood, and married men to the diaconate, looks like a desperate avoidance mechanism, an expression of fear and loathing toward ordinary sexual behavior and even toward women’s bodies altogether. It is now no longer even permissible for theologians to speak in favor of women’s ordination, despite the fact that theological arguments advanced for an all-male clergy are laughable (at best) and blasphemous (at worst). No wonder the suspicion grows that the obsessive protection of this male privilege owes something to its capacity to provide cover for homosexual men using their priesthood (and perhaps their episcopacy) as an extremely effective closet. I mean nothing slanderous by this statement. Nor do I join in the ugly scapegoating of homosexual priests for the present abuse scandal. Some influential Catholics suggest that homosexual men are morally incapable of chaste behavior or of maintaining celibacy. I hold exactly the opposite view. There is every reason to think that many fine and holy priests in the past and the present have been homosexual. My point, rather, is that if homosexuality among the clergy were to be honestly faced by the hierarchy, then other things would have to be addressed honestly as well. The magisterium might then need to assess the implication of the behavior of archbishops who have had long-term affairs with female staff members, or affairs with male friends, or bishops who decide they want to get married and stay bishops, or African priests who carry out a campaign of rape against nuns. The current sexual-abuse scandal is only the latest variation on a theme of clerical sexual duplicity that goes back centuries. The only thing that has changed is the capacity of the clerical culture to sustain the duplicity. Are such long-standing patterns of behavior an indication of something more than predictable human weakness? Do they, in fact, point to a deeply distorted understanding of sexuality? Do they, in fact, indict an ecclesiastical practice that virtually guarantees a sexually immature clergy, or at the very least, one that encourages a caste mentality that is removed from and insensitive to the cares and concerns of those who are married and raising children? Finally, the all-male magisterium has not grasped that its profound, deliberate, and systemic sexism compromises the capacity of the church to speak prophetically about the sexual dangers now posed by the larger society. Everyone knows that most Catholic parishes in this country would close up tomorrow if it weren’t for women. I don’t mean this in the sense that women have always been more loyal and religious than men, attending Mass while their husbands waited outside smoking cigarettes. I mean this in the very specificsensethat womenare carrying out most of the work of ministry in many, if not most, parishes. The same abuse of power with which the male clergy exploited but never fully honored the ministerial labors of vowed religious women in parishes, hospitals, and schools is now being perpetuated in the exploitation of single and married women in local parishes. This exploitation takes place even as such women are denied ordination with the argument that only males can really represent Christ! Not all parishioners in the United States have yet awakened to this pattern of sexism. They worry over the fact that their parish now has one priest though it formerly had three. Yet they know they are better off than parishes that can celebrate the Eucharist only when a priest visits. They are so pleased to see (and to be) women acolytes and lectors and eucharistic ministers and catechists that they do not yet appreciate how such accommodation simply continues with slight variations the traditional exploitation of women under male leadership. An increasing number of American Catholic women do see the pattern, and they are angry. They correctly see that the rejection of women lies at the heart of much of the church’s twisted and confusing sexual practice. While many of them fervently support the church’s opposition to abortion, even they find it increasingly difficult, in the shadow of this pattern, to respond cogently to non-Catholic feminists’ charge that the church’s objection to abortion is only the most radical form of its demand above all that women be controlled. And if Catholic women finally get angry enough to walk out, the game is close to over. Reform means change My argument is that although the words about Catholic sexual morality have stayed the same, the actual content has not. The combination of cultural upheaval, inconsistent teaching and practice, and the corruption and abuse of authority has led to a patently fraudulent situation. The prophetic teaching of the church on sexuality is prophecy compromised. If my analysis is even partially correct, hope lies not simply in the priesthood’s becoming more holy (although that is always essential) but in a more coherent and clearly expressed sexual teaching, and a reform of the church’s structures of authority. The two go hand in hand. A more coherent sexual teaching will be one that maintains the church’s firm rejection of porneia (sexual immorality) and the taking of innocent life, but it will be able to make distinctions between the essential and accidental. Such distinctions require discernment of God’s activity in the world as well as-and even more than-logical argument based on prior opinion. The way toward such discernment is careful attention, not to people whose opinions support an indefensible lifestyle, but to persons within the church whose lives of holiness and witness command respect. What do the lives and service of holy women teach us about ordaining women? What does the witness of the faithful married tell us about true openness to life within the complexity of an actual sexual relationship? What does the devoted and effective (and holy) ministry of married clergy within and outside Catholicism say to the argument that celibacy is necessary for the priesthood? What does the practice of covenanted and faithful love among persons of the same sex teach us about the moral character of homosexuality? Such discernment, and such growth in coherent sexual teaching, will not happen if the conversation remains within a closed clerical circle. Here is where the reform of structures must be considered. This is not an argument, as self-proclaimed “orthodox” Catholics often insinuate, for a democratic church. It need not, indeed, mean radical changes in hierarchical structure. Let there be a pope, and bishops, and priests. It does demand participation in that structure by all of the baptized faithful-this means women, too-and it does demand of the hierarchy a genuine appreciation for and response to the experience and witness of ordinary priests and the laity. Unless the leaders of the church begin a serious examination of conscience with regard to their practice and a serious process of discernment with regard to their teaching, the situation will only deteriorate further. Unless that process of discernment involves women and those who are married, neither the teaching on sex and marriage nor the integrity and credibility of the clergy can hope for much improvement. At a time when a seriously disordered world most needs a prophetic word concerning humans as sexual creatures before God, the church’s ability to speak and embody that prophetic word will be hopelessly compromised.