In Catholic theology, the bishops are the successors of the apostles. On Good Friday, reading the account of Jesus' trial and death, we Catholics were reminded that on the night before Jesus' death, his apostles all fled from him. If the bishops had utilized those passages to begin their own contrition--indeed, if they had acted with even a semblance of humility over the years--they could today seek cover behind the surely truthful observation "We are all sinners." But they did not, and they cannot.

The third cause of the bishops' inaction--both the most complicated and the most important--is the culture of silence and denial about human sexuality within the Catholic Church. Two years ago a well-known priest and seminary rector in Cleveland, Father Donald Cozzens, wrote a book about the priesthood in which he dealt candidly with sexual issues, discussing "taboo" subjects like the ratio of heterosexual and homosexual clergy. Cozzens did not question the Church's teachings on sexual ethics, but he did say that the Church must begin to talk about the sexual inclinations and behaviors of the clergy. The word went out that his career was over. Cleveland has been a "bishop factory" throughout the twentieth century; and under John Paul II, seminary rectors often have been tapped as new bishops. But Cozzens was not made a bishop, nor was he even given a second term as rector of the seminary. Similarly, in 1987 Father Charles Curran was stripped of his tenured professorship at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., for his liberal views on divorce, masturbation, and other questions of sexual ethics. It is one of the ironies of John Paul II's pontificate that while the Church has opened dialogues with Protestants, Jews, and Muslims to a degree unthinkable 50 years ago, discussion within the Church has been quashed. This elimination of discussion, in the name of stifling dissent, is an affront to a cornerstone of the Church: veracity. "In the beginning was the Word," opens the Gospel of John--not the half-truth, nor the evasion, nor the knowing wink. Watching the bishops squirm in front of the cameras over the past few months, we are reminded that sexuality is best discussed in more intimate and personal settings than a press conference. But if sexuality is not discussed at all, the things that eventually emerge from the dark are exactly those that land one in front of cameras or on the witness stand. An aversion to discussion inevitably leads to a fetish for secrecy that is spiritually and morally corrupting.

There is a reason the Church hierarchy fears honest discussion: It fears it will expose a crisis of belief. There is a pervasive sense within the Church that no one really believes its teachings on sexuality anymore--not the laity, not even the clergy. In a strict hierarchy, no one wants to say the emperor has no clothes. When discussion is not permitted, and honest questions avoided, the Church must assert its teachings on the basis of "authority" alone; and if those teachings do not cohere with the people's lived experience, a regime of hypocrisy and indifference arises that does more to undermine "authority" than any honest discussion possibly could.

The Church's lack of credibility on questions of sexual ethics is especially disheartening because the Church has a lot to say to a culture in which sexuality is dehumanized, commodified, and generally seen as less than the beautiful thing the Catholic Church's best theology insists it is. It is more than a little ironic that a culture awash in images of underage sexuality--the same culture that gave Oscars to American Beauty and where Britney Spears albums go multi-platinum--is now struck with horror at the revelation of priestly molestation. The irony, however, is grim. When the Church is most needed to remind our culture that sexuality can and should be humanizing, a giving of self in freedom and love, a participation in God's ongoing creative work, the Church instead finds itself in court.

But the church cannot preach sexual ethics in a vacuum; one reason its message has failed so utterly is because American Catholicism has reduced religion to morality and specifically to sexual morality. Unfortunately, because the liberalism of the public sphere requires that we set our dogmatic claims aside, the Church's cultural position invites just such a reduction. In an article in the Catholic quarterly Communio, theologian Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete commented: "It is a great temptation for the Church to reduce its mission to that of an ethical authority in order to gain access to the public forum."

Few would argue that the Church's moral teachings, standing on their own, are persuasive in today's culture. But they were never meant to stand on their own. What is distinctive about Catholicism is not the manner in which its members copulate, but how we pray and to whom. This core sense of wonder at the admittedly large claims of the Catholic faith--that God himself came down from Heaven, was born of a virgin, walked upon the Earth, died, and rose from the dead--and the wonder they must necessarily inspire to those who hold them, are what the Church must reclaim if its credibility is to be restored. Unless a bishop or theologian can trace his views on moral issues to the empty tomb of Easter morning, there is nothing distinctively Christian or Catholic about them.