Two leaders of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore, Archbishop William H. Keeler and Auxiliary Bishop P. Francis Murphy, are disagreeing publicly over one of their church's most divisive issues: the proposed ordination of women as priests.
The Catholic Review, weekly newspaper of the archdiocese, published statements by the two clerics side by side this week. In them, Bishop Murphy favored women's ordination and Archbishop Keeler defended the church's long-standing opposition to it.
Bishop Murphy is one of a small number of American bishops who had previously gone on record in support of more study of the issue by the Vatican, but Pope John Paul II closed the door on any discussions of the possibility of such ordinations.
What prompted this week's open discussion is an article that Bishop Murphy wrote for the national Catholic magazine, Commonweal.
In it, the Baltimore bishop says, "For 15 years, I have experienced and felt the profound pain of women over their exclusion from the sacrament of Holy Orders. I am also well
aware of the widespread disagreement among members of the church over this issue. Today, I can say that I am personally in favor of the ordination of women into a renewed priestly ministry."
The Commonweal article discusses a proposed pastoral letter about women that the nation's nearly 300 Catholic bishops have struggled with since 1983. A fourth draft of the letter will be up for a vote by them in November.
Bishop Murphy believes the document, restating the church's traditional opposition to women as priests, should be scrapped in favor of continued scholarly investigation of the theological and practical reasons for the prohibition. The chiefreason is that Jesus and his apostles were men.
Archbishop Keeler released this statement:
"In connection with the current public discussion of a National Conference of Catholic Bishops document on women's concerns, I believe there is a strong need to state the church's teaching on the question of ordaining women to the priesthood. In this area, our church's doctrine, which I personally accept and uphold, is very clear.
"As the writing committee's latest draft points out, this teaching reflects 'an unbroken tradition' in the Roman Catholic Church of the West and the Orthodox Church of the East 'of calling only men to the ordained priesthood.' This tradition, rooted in the church's reflection on the scriptures, is to be 'considered normative.'
"The important concerns of women in society and in the church will continue to be the subject of serious discussion by the bishops of our national conference in November. Together with them, I stand in gratitude for the women and men, religious and lay, who have worked together in our committee's study of the evolving witness and leadership of women in the church."
At last November's meeting of the hierarchy, Bishop Kenneth Untener of Saginaw, Mich., risked Pope John Paul II's censure by becoming the first member of the national conference to call publicly for the ordination of women.
"I won't waffle on this," he said. "I've studied this and, as far as my eye can see, I can't see any reason why women should not be ordained. And as far as I'm concerned, I think women ought to be ordained."
A few others among the more liberal members of the conference, including Baltimore's Bishop Murphy and Detroit Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, said then that their church should remain open to further consideration of women's ordination.
Bishop Raymond Lucker of New Ulm, Minn., said, "I'm very much in favor of an open discussion of this subject by competent people."