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October 21, 2002

Luke Johnson: Women can make or break Catholic church

By Elaine Justice

Women may not fully realize it, but they are a powerful force in American Catholicism, according to Luke Johnson, Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins in the Candler School of Theology. The current crisis in the American Catholic Church demands reform of its authority structure, which means including women and married people’s perspectives in its teachings, Johnson said in the 2002 Currie Lecture, held Oct. 9 in Cannon Chapel.

“Everyone knows that most Catholic parishes in this country would have to close up tomorrow if it weren’t for women,” Johnson said. “I mean this in the very specific sense that women are carrying out most of the work of ministry in many if not most parishes. And this exploitation takes place even while such women are denied ordination with the argument that only males can really represent Christ.

“But an increasing number of American Catholic women see that the rejection of women lies at the heart of a great deal of the church’s twisted and confusing sexual practice,” he added. “And if Catholic women finally get angry enough to walk out, then the game is close to over.”

In a wide-ranging talk on “Sex and American Catholics,” Johnson cited controversies over birth control, divorce and remarriage, celibate priesthood and sexism. At the outset, Johnson reminded the audience that he is a lifelong Catholic, a seminarian at 13, a Benedictine monk for nine years, a priest for three years, and a married layman for 28 years with seven children, 10 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

“I am, therefore, not a detached analyst but rather speak as a participant in the changes I am about to describe,” Johnson said. “At the beginning of the 21st century, American Catholics are increasingly suspicious of—and hostile toward—a hierarchy that appears, in the harsh light of publicity, as no longer credible because of incoherence and even corruption.”

In explaining how the church arrived at such a state, Johnson cited the massive and relatively quick cultural upheavals of the last 50 years, coupled with the lack of guidance from the Second Vatican Council. While Vatican II was a call for modernity, he says, in moral matters it “offered little to help Americans through an overwhelming flood of change.”

At that point, Johnson said, “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.”

For example, he said, the church’s equation of artificial birth control with abortion did not strengthen the moral argument against birth control but instead weakened the church’s prophetic stand against abortion. The birth control issue began to breed suspicion among many American Catholics, “enabling them to see and name many other forms of inconsistency and corruption that they had formerly allowed to pass in the name
of loyalty and obedience,” Johnson said.

“The church’s way of dealing with divorce and remarriage, for example, lacks any moral coherence,” Johnson said, pointing to the fact that some Catholics can divorce and remarry within the church as long as they (or their ecclesial lawyer) can make a case for annulment, while the poor or lawyerless “can find themselves in disastrous or abusive marriages without hope of divorce and remarriage in the church.”

“Equally inconsistent and incoherent is the fiction of a totally celibate priesthood,” Johnson said. “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, but to more and more American Catholics, it appears as suicidal and self-delusional.”

Johnson is the author of 19 books and a senior fellow at the Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Religion.