As the cardinals of the American Catholic Church return from their meeting with Pope John Paul II this week, expect the drumbeat to increase for the Church to abandon its teaching on human sexuality. Though cloaked in legitimate concern about the sex abuse scandal among Catholic priests, many of those leading the charge for reform have far broader aims than ridding the Church of pedophile priests.
For some 40 years now, elite opinion leaders have been openly contemptuous of Catholic teaching on sexual morality and would like to use this opportunity to prove their point. Some critics contend that it is the Church's attitude toward sex, which they believe fosters sexual repression, that is the root cause of the problem now plaguing many parishes. The solution, they argue, is for the Church to become more like other institutions, including other religious denominations, that have adopted a permissive attitude about sexual morality.
These so-called reformers' chief aim is not simply to convince the Church to abandon its position on priestly celibacy but to change its position on artificial birth control, divorce, homosexuality and abortion, as well.
The problems the American Catholic Church has gotten itself into lately didn't come about because it resisted the sexually permissive culture in which it finds itself. To the contrary, the problems stem from priests who have decided to embrace that culture, despite their vows of celibacy -- and bishops who ignored -- or worse, enabled -- what these errant priests were doing.
Most of the abuse cases now receiving such attention are not recent, however. Most stem from the period between 1965 and the early 1990s, and involved priests who were trained at a time when many American seminaries were awash with post-Vatican II "reformers" who disagreed with the Church's traditional teaching on human sexuality. As lay theologian Michael Novak has written, "In the name of this airy and future Church, all sorts of opinions and actions and policies were countenanced as 'forward-looking' that in other ages would have been seen as wanderings far from authentic faith."
We live in a society in which sexual images are all around us. Scantily clad women -- and men -- peer down from billboards on street corners and buses, and leap out of family newspapers in small-town America. Network television has become a non-stop dirty joke, with almost every sitcom relying for humor almost exclusively on sexual innuendo and tension -- and cable has gone increasing hard-core. And just last week, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that buying, selling and possessing computer-generated images made to look like real children engaging in sexual acts -- no matter how depraved -- were protected under the First Amendment.
Anyone who resists the sexualization of our culture is labeled a prude, or worse, a sexually repressed neurotic. The culture condones, indeed encourages, premarital sex -- including homosexual sex -- even for teenagers. Illegitimacy has gone mainstream, with out-of-wedlock births accounting for about a third of all U.S. births today. Marriages rates are down, and divorce rates remain at historic highs.
This atmosphere can't help but infect everyone who lives in this society, even those who reside in rectories. And there is virtually no institution in American life aggressively resisting these trends -- including, unfortunately, not even the American Catholic Church.
Despite the Church's reputation and its official teachings that sex is permissible only with marriage -- I can't remember the last time I heard anything about personal sexual morality from the pulpit Sunday morning. I've heard plenty of homilies on social justice, lots on the dangers of materialism, an occasional mention of the general poor state of the culture, but almost nothing about personal sexual morality. I have the feeling too many priests are worried about alienating their congregants if they bring up private morality -- and perhaps some have guilty consciences themselves.
Perhaps the current crisis will have the salutary effect of a return to orthodoxy by the faithful -- those Catholics who attend Mass weekly, not just nominal Catholics whose identification with the Church is more cultural than religious.
But it can't begin until the bishops themselves make Catholic teaching on these matters a priority.