A Revolution? Not So Fast.

For a brief moment last week American cardinals and bishops spoke openly of their problems and even aired their differences over the fairest way to handle priests accused of child abuse. Acknowledging internal differences is something that Roman Catholic hierarchs are trained not to do in public, lest they encourage division and partisanship within the church. As such, their candor was startling--and refreshing. But the emergency meeting had another unintended result: by taking their problems to the pope himself, the U.S. bishops fanned unrealistic expectations--much of them prompted by untutored newspaper reporters and editorialists--of swift and simple solutions.

Inevitably, anger over the present scandal has reignited calls for a married clergy and the ordination of women. Obviously, the middle of a crisis is the wrong time to consider fundamental change--especially since this pope is of a closed mind on both counts. Worse yet, he has discouraged the kind of conversation necessary to any major decision within the church. But if the American bishops are really pledged to "transparency" in their relations with the laity, they should encourage serious study of these and other concerns that affect the entire Catholic Church.

The practical argument for opening the priesthood to women and to married men is that there are not enough priests. Clearly, these steps would provide the church with a wider pool of candidates. But I happen to think that a married clergy, while possibly solving one problem, would create others in its place. Pastoring a congregation is stress-ridden work. The pay is low and the hours rough on spouses and children. There is no reason to believe that many married men--or their wives--would be attracted to the priestly ministry. Moreover, Catholics typically give less on Sunday to the church than Protestants. Are they willing to treble their donations to provide a living wage for families? And how would the church handle divorced and remarried priests and bishops?

In many ways, I think, Catholicism owes its universality, its coherence and its uniqueness as an international church to the freedom and mobility that celibacy makes possible for priests. But the church might consider using married priests in parishes, as the Orthodox do, and reserving higher church office to celibates. The New Testament, after all, regards celibacy as a gift, not given to everyone who serves the church. Ordaining women presents even greater problems. Would married women with children be included? If not, once the novelty of female priests wore off, would many single women choose the low-status job of parish priest in lieu of high-status careers? Or would they all aim for the job of bishop? My main concern is that ordaining women would fatally feminize a religion that already appeals far more to women than to men. On any given Sunday, in Protestant as well as Catholic churches, there are always more women than men. More women than men study for the ministry in the major divinity schools. Most Christians do not get their formation in the faith from men but from women: Mom, the Sunday-school teacher or the nun who prepares kids for their first communion. As I see it, the last bastion of male presence in the church is the altar and the pulpit. I would hate to see the priesthood turn into an essentially female calling. Neither would I like to see it become an overwhelmingly homosexual calling, which is what many priests fear is already taking place. Since celibacy is demanded of the gay as well as the straight priest, the Catholic Church has since the '70s welcomed gays for ordination. But I do think the church runs greater risks with gays ignoring their vows, and with failing to achieve the psychosexual maturity required of the clergy.

In all of these issues, the question is what arrangement would best serve the mission of the church. It is not about "allowing" priests to marry, as if they were children, but whether the demands of marriage and family are compatible with the nature and structure of the priesthood. But within that structure, it is the laity who are supposed to lead in making Christ present to the world, with the priests and bishops in roles of support. If the next pope were to risk making that idea a reality, there would really be a revolution in the church.