Sex, Women & The Church

The need for prophetic change

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...

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About the Author

Luke Timothy Johnson, a frequent contributor, is the R.W. Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University. Two of his most recent books are Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity (Yale) and Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church (Eerdmans).