Release date: Oct. 11, 2002
Contact: Elaine Justice, Associate Director, University Media Relations,
at 404-727-0643 or ejustic@emory.edu

Luke Johnson Says Women Can Make or Break Catholic Church


Women may not fully realize it, but they are a powerful force in American Catholicism, according to Luke Timothy Johnson, Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Emory University's Candler School of Theology. The current crisis in the American Catholic Church demands reform of its authority structure, he says, which means including women and married people's perspectives in its teachings.

"Everyone knows that most Catholic parishes in this country would have to close up tomorrow if it weren't for women," says Johnson. "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 in this country. 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," says Johnson. "And if Catholic women finally get angry enough to walk out, then the game is close to over."

Johnson made the remarks at the university's annual Currie Lecture in Law and Religion. 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."

"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," says Johnson.

In explaining how the American Catholic Church arrived at such a state, Johnson cites 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, says Johnson, "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, Johnson says 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, he says, 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."

"The church's way of dealing with divorce and remarriage, for example, lacks any moral coherence," says Johnson. He points 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," says Johnson. "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."

What is needed, says Johnson, is a serious examination of conscience about church practices and a serious process of discernment about church teaching. "And unless that process involves women and those who are married, then neither the teaching on sex and marriage nor the integrity and credibility of the clergy can hope for much improvement."

Johnson is the author of 19 books, including "The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation," "Living Jesus: Learning the Heart of the Gospels" and "The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels." He also is a senior fellow at Emory's Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Religion, which is in the midst of a two-year research project on "Sex, Marriage and Family and the Religions of the Book."

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