The Sex-Obsessed Church Should Focus on Justice Instead

The ever-darker clouds of revelations about criminal sexual conduct by hundreds of Catholic priests may contain a silver lining. For they may inspire the Church to abandon its current obsession with sex and reclaim its more compelling focus on social justice.

The timing is felicitous. Pope John Paul II is increasingly frail. Speculation about a successor is emerging. The current debate about changing the Church's thinking on sexual topics could blossom into the kind of full-throated debate about the Church's mission that shook doctrinal foundations a generation ago.

Forty years ago, Pope John XXIII convened Vatican II, the first general council of bishops for almost a century. He asked the Council to engage in an aggiornamento -- a bringing up to date of the Church to make it more relevant to the needs of the modern world. The results were nothing less than revolutionary. Church services began to be conducted in native languages. The Church began to formulate policy from the bottom up. Priests and nuns and laity were given more participation and authority. "Let the layman not imagine that his pastors are always experts," the Pope proclaimed. "Rather, enlighted by Christian wisdom let the layman take on his own distinctive role."

One of Pope John XXIII's goals was to increase the authority of women in the Church. In his groundbreaking encyclical, "Pacem in Terris," the Pope declared, "Since women are becoming ever more conscious of their human dignity, they will not tolerate being treated as mere material instruments, but demand rights befitting a human person both in domestic and in public life."

Pope John XXIII also sought to align the Church with movements for social justice. Under his urging and the Vatican II's tutelage, the Church would begin to teach its members -- and the world -- that it was not God's will that poor children died of malnutrition, but the result of sinful man-made structures. The names given to this new Catholic doctrine reflect its emphasis on improving the lot of those most in need -- "liberation theology" and "the preferential option for the poor."

Pope John XXIII's reign was brief, but his aggiornamento bore fruit for almost two decades. I personally witnessed the dramatic effects in Latin America in the 1970s. Vatican II spawned Christian movements throughout that region that challenged the existing inequitable and oppressive order.

When the Church began preaching justice, it was met with savage brutality by those who fomented injustice. More than a thousand bishops, priests and nuns were killed or tortured in Latin America. No rank was safe. In 1980, the archbishop of San Salvador was gunned down on the steps of his Cathedral after he spoke out against military repression.

The highest levels of the Church were not indifferent to the courage demonstrated by their lowest rungs. When Leonardo Boff, along with two other Dominican priests, spent four years in prison for giving shelter to urban guerrillas, Pope Paul VI sent an inscribed crucifix to him in his prison cell as a symbol of solidarity.

In 1978, in the midst of this growing partnership between the Church and the outcasts of society, Pope John Paul II assumed office. His background was unique. As Archbishop of Krakow, Poland he had witnessed, and indeed, grown up under Soviet tyranny. To him, liberation theology -- with its Marxist overtones -- played into the hands of a grasping Soviet empire. He moved to eliminate its influence.

The first step occurred in 1984 when the Church issued its Instruction on Certain Aspects of the Theology of Liberation. The Instruction reversed the teachings of Vatican II by insisting that the cause of injustice is sin, not social inequities. "(L)iberation is first and foremost liberation from the radical slavery of sin," it declared, "the source of injustice is in the hearts of men."

From then on the Church would struggle to change the hearts of those in power, but would no longer aggressively challenge power itself.

Pope John Paul II's second step was to replace the advocates of liberation theology within the Church hierarchy with those actively opposed to it. In Latin America, home to 40 percent of the world's 1 billion Catholics, 10 Archbishops named by Pope John Paul II last year were known for their conservatism.

Pope John Paul II re-centralized power in the Vatican. He stood firm against giving women more authority within the Church. Instead of social justice, the Church turned its focus once again on personal sin, and personal sin almost always is equated with sex. There are, to be sure, homilies about justice. But the greatest proportion of the Church's resources, both personal and moral, are invested in the battle against sex in all its guises: homosexuality, divorce, birth control, adult bookstores.

And now, suddenly, with a clarity unprecedented in religious history, the Church has been stripped of its moral standing to lecture us about sex. Indeed, as the Economist magazine has warned, "by mishandling sex, or trying to ignore it, the Church has hurt its authority in general."

To be sure, the Church must get its sexual proclivities under control. But at the same time, it should redirect its energy away from a sex-based theology and toward a justice-oriented theology.

The Soviet empire is no more. Poland is independent and free. A new pope will soon be installed. It is time for the Church to rekindle the spirit of Vatican II -- time for the Church to help Catholics and non-Catholics alike struggle against human-made structures that make life miserable for billions of people.

David Morris is Vice President of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

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