Bishop P. Francis Murphy, an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, has spoken his mind as a 12-year member of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops' committee on Women in Church and Society -- and his thinking doesn't conform to current Vatican teaching. Writing in Commonweal magazine, he states forthrightly his support for the ordination of women to the Roman Catholic priesthood.
The Catholic Review, the newspaper of the archdiocese, reprinted some of Bishop Murphy's comments, along with Archbishop William Keeler's reiteration of the church's official position on the issue -- a commendable service to Baltimore Catholics. An institution with as rich a tradition as the Roman Catholic Church not only can survive dissent, but can also thrive on hearing and considering a multitude of voices.
For several years, Bishop Murphy has been counted among those theologians who believe that Catholic teaching and tradition can accommodate the ordination of women to the priesthood. Day-to-day operations in many parishes could profit from it. In the Archdiocese of Baltimore, the number of active diocesan priests has dropped from 256 to 242 in the past three years, and the clergy shortage here is not as severe as in some other places.
The declining number of priests is often cited as a compelling argument in favor of ordaining women and married men. In fact, however, Bishop Murphy and other supporters of ordination for women see the issue not as a question of how best to staff parishes, but rather as a matter of justice. In their view, the church's current teaching is based on a unjustifiably narrow interpretation of theology, scripture and tradition.
Ordination is not the only women's issue that has proven difficult for the American bishops. A nine-year effort to craft a pastoral letter on women and the church has turned into an embarrassment. After four drafts -- and some pointed objections from Vatican officials -- the bishops are farther than ever from reaching a consensus on what they can say to and about women and their roles in the church and in society. Most observers expect the bishops to abandon the effort at their annual meeting in November.
That's exactly what they should do. Until the American bishops can produce an in-depth, coherent examination of issues regarding women -- including ordination -- their message would not receive the respect it deserves.