A Bishop Willing to Dissent


September 27, 1992|By SARA ENGRAM

Bishop P. Francis Murphy, auxiliary bishop for Baltimore, is now wearing a less comfortable label -- dissenter. But contrary to much popular thinking, dissenters have an important place in the rich history of the Roman Catholic Church.

After all, no institution could survive for two millenniums in lock-step agreement, particularly one that treasures its presence and influence around the globe.

But viewed in light of current pressures for Catholics to conform, Bishop Murphy's article in the September 25 issue of Commonweal magazine is bound to make him a hero to some Catholics and a heretic to others.

Here's a sample:

"In our failure to come to grips with the questions of patriarchy, we bishops seem to be buttoning up a coat that has the top button in the wrong button hole. No matter how carefully we button the rest of the coat, it will not fit. We cannot adjust by skipping a button. We can't pretend it fits -- no matter how nice the coat."

Of all the tough issues for a bishop to tackle in public, Bishop Murphy has probably picked the thorniest -- women and the church. From the challenge to a male-only priesthood to persistent dissatisfaction with Vatican dictates on contraception, issues affecting women's lives and faith present awkward questions for the bishops, who serve as the teachers and guardians of church doctrine.

After a nine-year effort to address issues concerning women and the church, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops is now trying to find the best way out of an awkward situation. Having solicited the opinions of 75,000 Catholic women around the country, they ran into opposition from Rome and now are widely expected to abandon their attempt to produce a pastoral letter on women's concerns.

The first three drafts of the letter varied significantly, but each of them urged the inclusion of women in liturgical ministries, short of ordination as priests. They also included information about women and poverty and examined what each draft referred to as the "sin of sexism."

The fourth draft, mailed to bishops recently, takes on what Bishop Murphy describes as a "new tone -- one of caution, fear and even blame for the victims of sexism."

Moreover, the "sin" of sexism has vanished. Conservative bishops charged that the document was inventing a sin. To that, Bishop Joseph L. Imesch of Joliet, Ill., who chaired the drafting committee, replied, "We didn't invent anything. We just named what was already there."

What went wrong?

For one thing, unlike the process used to craft letters on peace and on the economy, this project did not include a serious scholarly study of issues critical to women -- especially the central issue of ordination. Because the Vatican made it clear that it considered that issue out of bounds, the bishops did not undertake serious theological examination of the church's position.

Bishop Murphy's article is getting national attention largely because of his stand on this issue: "Today I can say that I am personally in favor of the ordination of women into a renewed priestly ministry," he writes. "I believe this issue to be as important as the issue Paul raised with Peter; namely, the admission of Gentiles into Christianity."

Many theologians, as well as many women who are convinced that their call to the priesthood is as genuine as any man's, agree with Bishop Murphy. But as things now stand, their voices, well as the eloquent voices of thousands of Catholic women or many other issues, still lack a serious hearing in the church.

The bishops' failure to overcome their own divisions in order to speak coherently about women in the church and in society casts an interesting light on their teaching responsibilities. Church historians note that Catholic theological tradition speaks not just of ecclesia docens, the teaching church, but also ecclesia discens, the learning church. Can teachers really teach if they cannot also listen?

As Bishop Murphy says: "After almost a decade of listening to voices of women (and men) . . . can we keep insisting that those views have no meaning, express no truth? Can we keep using arguments from tradition to support our resistance to change, denying historical reality, when history teaches us that many Catholic traditions have changed over the centuries? Do we bishops truly believe that our teaching will be accepted by persons of faith and good will if only we work harder to clarify the teaching?"

Good questions for bishops.

Good questions for all of us who assume the truth is something we can own, something that will never change us.

Sara Engram is editorial-page director of The Evening Sun.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.