This is about the need for dialogue in the church. The springboard consists of two essays I read recently that dealt indirectly with women’s ordination; but the real topic was the effort of two great American bishops who courageously pursued the discussion. They sensed that the ordination might not take place in their lifetimes, but they knew it had to be discussed, because it was intimately connected with other issues that kept the church from being true to its mission, including the patriarchal attitude of the leadership and the second class status of women which, even 20 years ago, was perceived as an injustice in the church.
The articles: Christopher J. Kauffman, “Bishop P. Francis Murphy Proposes the Ordination of Women Priests,” in U.S. Catholic Historian (Fall 2011) and William McDonough, “Bishop lived teachings of Lumen Gentium for 37 years,” National Catholic Reporter, July 6-19, 2012.
The articles struck me because I have been working on an essay on the Suppression of the Society of Jesus (1773-1814) in the United States when the first American Bishop John Carroll found himself the elected head of about 22 “former” Jesuits, then all the priests in America, and had to decide how “American” the American church would be. He was adamant it resisting top-down orders that would compromise the freedoms Americans cherished, including both freedom of religion and freedom of speech, and insisted that newly-arrived priests study and embrace local culture. These two bishops, now deceased, used their American freedom of speech as freely as they could for what they saw as the good of the church.
Bishop Murphy, born in 1933, went through the standard training of one seen as apt for promotion: Baltimore seminary, the North American College in Rome, the Gregorian University, briefly an assistant in a Baltimore parish, back to Rome as assistant rector of the North American College, an enthusiast for the Vatican Council in 1962-65. Then back to Baltimore as Bishop Shehan’s secretary, to auxiliary bishop in 1976. I list all this to stress that he was hardly a radical. But he chose as his motto: “To listen to God speaking in human words.”
Women’s ordination came to the fore while the American bishops were working on their third major pastoral letter — following The Challenge of Peace (1983) and Economic Justice for All (1986), considered masterpieces largely because the authors had consulted widely, held hearings, listened to experts. This was on the role of women. It went through several drafts, without outside consultation, and the fourth draft, wrote McCarthy in “Let’s Start Over,” in Commonweal (September 25, 1992), “underscores the old dual-model whereby men define their own roles as well as those of women. Patriarchy: Of all the weaknesses of this system operating in the church, this system of dominance excludes women from presiding at the table where the community is fed.”
The article inspired strong response, including personal letters from 5 bishops (including Bishop Matthew Clark of Rochester, Joseph Ferrero of Honolulu, Charles Buswell of Colorado, Walter Sullivan in Richmond, and Howard Hubbard of Albany) praising his leadership and courage. Murphy died of cancer at 66 in 1999. A woman friend noticed at the end that he had a hearing aid. “Has he over-taxed his hearing in being such a good listener?”
Bishop Raymond Lucker, of the New Ulm diocese in Minnesota, died of cancer in 2001. He had been devoted to the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium, which states that the whole body of the faithful, who “have received an anointing from the holy one,” cannot be mistaken in their belief. Shortly before his death he was talking about the debate between Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and Cardinal Walter Kasper on the relationship between the local and universal churches and was yearning for the church to come together and talk about the issues that divided it. Recently he had been quoted in the NCR as being in favor of ordaining women, but that, he said was inaccurate: He was for talking about it in free and open discussion, all theological schools. Then all should listen to what the Holy Spirit is saying to the church. Whatever consensus the church came to he would support. One wonders today what all the bishops, given a chance to speak freely, would say.
Recently I heard an essay on NPR about the rhetoric of Winston Churchill that carried England through the war. One idea that might apply to the church stuck: A civilization where every man cannot speak his mind cannot long endure.
Raymond A. Schroth