ONE cheer for the Roman Catholic hierarchy on the wrenching issue of clergy pedophilia.
Eight years of media attention, a spate of lawsuits and vast disaffection among the Catholic laity have finally forced American bishops and Pope John Paul II to act.
With their newly formed committees to confront sexual abuse of children, the prelates are moving beyond their earlier denial that a problem existed.
But to move further forward, the bishops must now look back. They must honestly and openly examine all causes of priestly abuse and the historical pattern of institutional cover-up.
An examination of causes would demand serious answers to questions concerning the spiritual and psychological training of Catholic priests.
Evaluating the cover-up pattern would give answers to persistent questions involving the structure of the clerical order itself, viewed by growing numbers of Catholics as in a state of collapse.
Collapse? Many priests have dropped out. Others are burned out. Seminaries continue to close. Only a fraction of retiring priests are replaced by new recruits.
A good number of priests under the vow of celibacy privately admit to sexual activity. Disproportionate numbers of young priests and seminarians, relative to the general population, are commonly said to be gay.
The illegal sexual misconduct of some priests has visited the worst burden of all on the remainder: suspicion.
The Catholic Church will not escape this morass until it re-examines its overall approach to human sexuality: its distaste for sex and its idealization of virginity.
It is an approach peculiar to Catholicism and it leads church teachings into sexual absolutes. Significantly, this is not the case with issues such as war and economics, which the church views in terms of relative morality.
This month, the church is commemorating the 25th anniversary of the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae, which reaffirmed the church's ban on artificial contraception for married couples and was very much a product of Catholic sexual absolutism.
The anniversary provides a window through which to view a deeply ingrained distortion.
Catholic priests and theologians widely dissent from the document and 9 of 10 U.S. Catholics disregard it altogether.
Yet that has not caused the hierarchy to budge an inch. Humanae Vitae is not to be taught as an ideal. No, it is an absolute -- and cannot be reconsidered. Such rigidity suggests an institutional neurosis that has seriously eroded episcopal credibility and moved many Catholics to question other church teachings.
Many Catholic theologians, often led by the first generation of Catholic women theologians, understand the depth and breadth the crisis in the church that goes beyond Humanae Vitae. Their research and writing reflects that knowledge.
Many of these women are often viewed from the Vatican as serious threats, but the foundation for a healthier and more balanced spirituality is quietly being built through their persistent efforts, even as they are written off as "extreme feminists."
In this context, then, pedophilia is but one warning sign -- critical, but not key. For too long, the hierarchy has been relying on unreasonable and unreasoning authority on sexual matters, clerical and nonclerical. The laity has been amazingly patient and loyal, especially as it sees its younger generations drifting away, largely because of these teachings.
The restoration of church health is unlikely to be achieved, however, if the focus is limited to structural questions. Nor will it come about if church critics simply use the crisis to press for personal agendas that frequently involve calls for optional celibacy or women's ordination.
Those reforms might help, but they fall short of the soul of the matter.
The laity knows there will be little or no movement toward realizing a fully vigorous Catholicism without dealing with the vital element of life that the Catholic hierarchy has seriously misread: human sexuality.
Thomas C. Fox is editor of the National Catholic Reporter, an independent news weekly published in Kansas City.