CHICAGO. — Chicago -- Catholic bishops in the United States, meeting at Notre Dame University to approve the draft of a statement on women in the church, could reach no conclusion. This draft has been in the works for nine years, and agreement on it is still so distant that there is a growing movement to drop the whole matter. That has never happened before where such ''pastoral letters'' are concerned.
What is the problem? Very simply, the Roman Catholic Church -- my church -- has nothing meaningful to say to women. It has made itself so irrelevant, so illogical, so trivial on matters such as contraception, artificial insemination and women priests, that any professions of concern or respect for women ring hollow and hypocritical. The letter's early drafts all condemned ''sexism'' while blatantly practicing it. Even these bishops, who have issued absurd statements before, cannot bring themselves to say these things with a straight face.
A Gallup Poll just released helps explain the bishops' problem. Church officialdom has lost all credibility in matters related to sex. That has long been true on issues of contraception and divorce, but now other points, once considered settled, are treated as open by Catholics.
For instance, only 13 percent of Catholics think abortion is always wrong. Forty-one percent think it is wrong except in rare instances. But an equal 41 percent think it is morally acceptable in most or all cases.
Roughly half of Catholics (48 percent to 46 percent) think that gay relationships can be morally acceptable. A whopping 83 percent of the people disagree with their bishops on the distribution of free condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS.
Seventy percent of Catholics think that priests should be allowed to marry, and almost as many (67 percent) favor the ordination of women priests. That disposes of the old argument that the people actually want a celibate male clergy.
The argument one often hears is that the Catholic Church must not yield to polls or popular opinion, but stay true to the revealed doctrines put in its care. But revelation is not at stake in most of these sexual matters. There is nothing in scripture or the early creeds about abortion, contraception or a celibate priesthood.
It is true that St. Paul recommended celibacy, but with many provisos, and he did not recommend it to men only, or to a non-existent clerical class. He recommended it to all Christians who cared to follow his example. St. Peter, on the other hand, was married, and so probably were most of the early disciples. That is not explicitly said in the Gospels, but neither is it explicitly denied, and the normal probabilities are therefore not to be dismissed. If Peter was, why not James?
The interesting thing is that a celibate clergy arose precisely because the church did ''give in'' to popular feeling. The moral authority of ascetics and virgins in late antiquity meant that people listened more to some celibate hermits or to women virgins than to married priests; so the clergy heeded this demand for contemporary moral authority. Celibacy became a symbol, and the point of a symbol is that its meanings are read by people at large.
The reasons for a call to celibacy were mixed, some good, some bad -- like the reasons given for the current attitudes on sexual reform. Celibacy was not a uniquely Christian ideal in late antiquity, but a widely shared cultural value -- based in part on a view of women's inferiority (so that men should not yield to them), in part on the idea that sex was itself an evil or a sign of evil.
So it is not an argument against the laity's current views that they are ''contaminated'' by contemporary values. That is always the case in a morally complex situation. That is why the church has had to adjust and change so much in the past. It will change in the future, since change, as Cardinal Newman said, is the sign of life. Only dead things do not change. The bishops are trying to kill their own church, to induce that dead state of changelessness. In the long run, they will fail, but in the meantime they will cause much human loss and hurt.
Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.