Women as Catholic Priests

October 10, 1992

The weekly newspaper of Baltimore's Roman Catholic archdiocese recently took the unusual step of airing a difference of opinion between Archbishop William H. Keeler and Auxiliary Bishop P. Francis Murphy. The issue was women as priests.

In the Sept. 23 Catholic Review, Archbishop Keeler backed the church's "unbroken tradition" of ordaining men only. Bishop Murphy, reiterating a view he had expressed in a piece for a national Catholic magazine, said women should be ordained as part of "a renewed priestly ministry."

Credit archdiocesan leaders for going public with a high-level debate over one of the most controversial topics facing the church. The issue is so charged that the 300 American bishops have wrestled since 1983 with three drafts of a pastoral letter on the ordination of women. The bishops are scheduled to vote on a fourth draft next month.

There is little question that the final version of the letter, whenever it may come, will uphold the church's centuries-old position that only men can be priests because Jesus and his apostles were male. To do otherwise would constitute unthinkable defiance of the Vatican. That hasn't stopped some of the more liberal members of the bishops' conference from publicly urging the church at least to consider ordaining women and married men.

No doubt these bishops are motivated by a commendable concern about equality for women. However, they are probably also driven by a fear that the church is on a calamitous course if it continues to lose priests as it gains rank-and-file members.

During the past two decades, the Catholic population in the United States has increased from 48 million to 57 million. At the same time, the number of priests has dropped from 59,000 to 53,000. The Miami archdiocese grew so desperate over the shortage of priests that it launched an aggressive marketing campaign last year to attract recruits.

Equally troublesome, the average age of American priests climbs annually, while the number of priesthood candidates at the nation's seminaries has been declining for more than 30 years.

The effects of the shortage range from burn-out among parish priests -- who must handle many more tasks than their earlier counterparts ever did -- to the necessity of flying priests to remote locales to perform baptisms, weddings, funerals and other basic ceremonies.

In the long run, the question might not be whether the church should ordain women and married men, but whether it can afford not to.

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.