How do porcupines make love? About the same way one writes a column about a religion that is not one’s own: With utmost caution.

Yet when it comes to the Roman Catholic Church and the drama of Benedict XVI’s resignation, this is no mere parochial event. The church is a pillar of the West. The pillar is trembling. It is trembling because so much of what defines the church is also so much of what ails it. When the thing that makes you is the thing that breaks you, you have a tragic flaw. You cannot expect salvation through reform. Something closer to rebirth is required.

Maybe this is what Benedict had in mind when he chose to give up his ministry—not simply as an act of weary abnegation by the oldest pontiff in more than a century, or even as an effort to set a pragmatic precedent by which future popes might be guided. Maybe what he meant to say was: “The church must begin wholly anew, starting, but only starting, with my own leave-taking.”

It didn’t take long to be reminded of the reason why. Last week, Cardinal Keith O’Brien of Scotland, Britain’s top Catholic cleric and an outspoken denunciator of the “grotesque subversion” of homosexuality, admitted to “sexual conduct [that] has fallen below the standards expected of me as a priest, archbishop and cardinal.” Specifically, he is accused of having made unwanted advances on three priests and a seminarian several decades ago, though the careful language of his admission (he only became a cardinal in 2003) suggests sinning of more recent vintage.

That’s just the Catholic sex scandal of the week. In January, former Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony and Bishop Tom Curry were removed from all public duties after being implicated in an effort to cover for priests accused of sexually abusing children. Also in January, Msgr. Kevin Wallin of Connecticut was accused by his diocese of “acting out sexually—with men—in the church rectory.” (He’s also on trial for dealing meth.)

In December, a report commissioned by Germany’s Catholic church implicated 66 clergy in 576 cases of sexual abuse. One German priest was accused that month of molesting three boys nearly 300 times.

AFP/Getty ImagesThe helicopter carrying Benedict XVI flies past St Peter’s square, Feb. 28.

And so on and on and on, now culminating in a swirl of rumors and reports from the Italian daily La Repubblica that the pope made up his mind to leave after reading a confidential dossier about a gay sex ring within the Curia. The Vatican denies the stories, but the denials inevitably ring hollow. The church lost its presumption of innocence long ago. When did you last read a news story about a Catholic priest not in connection to a sex scandal?

This is a tragedy for all the obvious reasons. It is also a tragedy for every priest who is innocent of any kind of sexual misconduct. In 2004, the so-called John Jay report on priest abuse, commissioned by U.S. Conference of Bishops, found “4,392 individuals who had been the subject of at least one allegation of sexual abuse while serving in ecclesiastical ministry between 1950 and 2002.” More than 80% of the victims were boys. These are stunning figures.

But the report also found this: “This count of priests with allegations was 4.2% of all diocesan priests in ministry for that time period and 2.7% of all religious priests in ministry.” Double that figure, and it still acquits more than 90% of the priesthood of criminal sexual misconduct.

But it doesn’t acquit the church.

First, because it is a church: No institution whose existence rests on moral teachings can be so populated by sexual predators, or so complicit in their predations. Second, because the church can preach either that homosexuality is sinful, or that hypocrisy is sinful. But this church can’t preach both. And third, because a faith already so eroded by continuous tides of secularism hastens its own decline by seeming to confirm every secular prejudice against it.

The obvious and needful solution is to abolish the celibacy of the priesthood, a stricture that all but guarantees the sorts of sordid outcomes described above. But that’s a matter for Catholics to judge for themselves.

What non-Catholics can say is that the world benefits from a church capable of wielding moral authority for the sake of great things. John Paul II showed that individual dignity and faith could overmaster a totalitarian regime bent on eradicating both. That courageous work goes on now, particularly in China, where the reclamation of moral conscience remains the chief threat to the efficient autocratic state.

To do that, however, the church’s moral authority must be unimpeachable. It isn’t, and it won’t be until the church learns that to require the unnatural means, too often, to reap the despicable. In retiring, Benedict did what any normal man in his age and position would do. It is an example of ordinary human naturalness his successor would do well to emulate in other ways, too.

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A version of this article appeared March 5, 2013, on page A17 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: A Church, If You Can Keep It.

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