It's like watching a great friend who keeps slipping into the same old, self-destructive pattern of behaviour. You warn them not to, but somehow they always let themselves down. So it is with the Vatican and sex.
Liberal anti-war protesters were grudgingly beginning to admit that the Pope has emerged as the most consistently eloquent opponent of the war in Iraq. Many argue that, come the end of the conflict, the Catholic Church may prove an essential force for rebuilding relations between the west and Iraq. And even before the end of the war, the presence of the Papal Nuncio in Baghdad is regarded as a restraining influence on excesses in either camp.
I basked in the liberals' praise: finally, here was recognition of the Church's long record of helping the poor and the oppressed. But before I could congratulate them on their ability to transcend their ancient, inbred prejudices, their admiration had been replaced with anger. A few days ago, the Vatican issued a book on social issues that once again condemns homosexuals. They have no social value, it says - whatever that means. Bring up sex, and the Church loses its claim to be universal and instead pursues an agenda that excludes. Whether it's sex before marriage (verboten) or condoms (not even to protect yourself from Aids) or homosexuality (useless), the Vatican, confronted by sexuality, takes the fundamentalist approach of a mad mullah.
Because ours is a sex-centred era, these issues arise again and again, and set the Church against the majority of potential recruits (and, in the west, against most adherents). Jesus campaigned against miscarriages of justice, greed, envy and pettiness ; but it is hard to imagine that the man who said the greatest commandment is "love thy neighbour as thyself" would deploy great energy to castigate an expression of love.
Yet the princes of the Church persist in casting stones at anyone who has a "partner" rather than a spouse, practises birth control rather than produces eight children, or even just canoodles before their wedding night.
As encyclicals, pastoral letters and edicts pile up on the subject, it is not only the liberal west that harbours the suspicion that these men who vowed a lifetime of celibacy are, frankly, obsessed with sex. They must get over this addiction: the future of their Church depends on it.