01/03/2013 07:14 GMT | Updated 01/05/2013 06:12 BST

It Needs Mending But It Doesn't Need Men

Where once the public might have been duped into believing that the moral compass of the religious was faithful and true, it is now painfully apparent that this compass is not only unreliable but has been tossed overboard.

Let's not beat about the bush - it is amusing to see the Catholic Church in such dire straits. Hypocrisy and lies are being uncovered at every turn and the Church is beginning to recognise their severity. These revelations ought not to surprise anyone because they have come about, as have a great number of the institution's other problems, as a direct result of its morbidly bizarre attitude toward sex and toward women.

As an atheist discussing religion I always struggle to reconcile two conflicting impulses: on the one hand I believe religion to be a seriously detrimental and divisive ideology, but on the other I feel a duty to speak up for those believers against whom religion discriminates stupidly and relentlessly: Christian women wishing to be bishops; homosexuals; Muslim women denied fundamental human rights. It would be foolish to make life harder or more unfair for these individuals by insisting that religion stop changing the meaning of its supposedly holy texts in order to accommodate them. I believe that one can do duty to both impulses, pointing out in this instance where the Catholic Church has so obviously been going wrong for centuries while suggesting simple ways in which it could be improved for everyone.

Whether it admits it or not, Catholicism is "obsessed with sex", in Stephen Fry's words. Even by religion's standards it spends an inordinate amount of time worried about or condemning what is perhaps the most natural human urge. Senior clerical figures feel that they would be distracted from their duties were they to have sex; Joseph Ratzinger has levelled the most inhuman slurs at great swathes of the population because they wish to be joined with members of the same gender; and the Church believes that contraception is "intrinsically an evil". I've said it before and I'll say it again: why on Earth would one look to this institution for advice on matters of sexuality? I don't wish to condemn anyone for remaining a virgin their entire life - though needless to say they are seriously missing out - but the very least that can be asked in return is that these individuals don't preach about sex as if they know what they're talking about.

On the matter of celibacy, surely it is evident that maintaining this practice has in itself been a much darker distraction for many priests than marriage would have been, and has served only to transform intercourse into a sordid deed to be practised with shame. Catholicism has been dogged by hideous child rape scandals for the past fifty years, and it is clear that we have only really glimpsed the tip of the iceberg. But is anyone honestly surprised that such sexual abuses of power have been committed by clergymen who spend their entire lives believing both that their relationship with God is undermined if they wed, and that putting a condom on the end of one's penis is in some bizarre way "evil"? Again to quote Fry, "this is not natural and normal, ladies and gentlemen". It must be stated clearly: the celibacy of the clergy has contributed in a very real sense to the disgrace in which the Catholic Church now finds itself. I don't think it too simplistic to assert that, were the Church to revise this doctrine, a much healthier attitude towards sexuality would emerge. Even the loathsome Keith O'Brien is beginning to recognise this - although of course someone ought to remind him that if this type of revision is permitted, denying homosexuals the right to marry is hypocrisy of the highest order.

Similarly distorted and unhealthy is the Church's attitude toward women. Here it is far from the sole culprit, of course, as I have written previously, but it is obvious to all but the most conservatively religious that its treatment of women is simply embarrassing. A recent Guardian article by Joanna Moorhead (a Catholic) rightly points to a need for the Church to devolve power amongst the multifarious members to whom it can lay claim, including the women who are so integral to its survival. Has it really taken people until 2013 to recognise this palpably obvious point - that granting women the opportunity to attain an equal footing with men would be a progressive step? Would this genuinely pass for an epiphany in Catholic theology - that explicitly barring women from senior positions of authority might have engendered an unhealthy power dynamic between the sexes? It is not simplistic nor is it heresy to suggest that the introduction of women into senior clerical positions would bring about a serous positive change in the Church.

Where once the public might have been duped into believing that the moral compass of the religious was faithful and true, it is now painfully apparent that this compass is not only unreliable but has been tossed overboard. The Catholic Church is the epitome of this phenomenon and is in urgent need of transformation. These amendments may come about sooner rather than later (they will happen eventually), but in the Catholic Church, where a pope would be considered a radical if he changed the colour of his slippers, it might be advisable to strap in for the long haul. This delay would be a great shame for Catholics, because without these fundamental revisions I cannot see the Church escaping with much dignity if it wishes to be a member of a progressive and enlightened society.