COL Is anybody in church listening?

Let's hope the cardinals who are meeting with the pope this week don't think they merely have a problem with pedophilia. The problem with the Catholic hierarchy is that it doesn't listen.

To be sure, it will be a good start if the bishops come up with new rules to handle incidents of sexual abuse by priests. That problem has been hushed up too long. But it should be just the first step away from secrecy and toward openness to other reforms.

The debate about sexual abuse has been provident in that it has heightened discussion about other issues that Catholics have been raising for years to deaf ears:

75 percent of Catholics say they favor allowing Catholic priests to marry.

71 percent favor allowing women to become priests.


No, those changes wouldn't eliminate pedophilia in the priesthood. But they would give the church a much larger pool of applicants to consider for the priesthood. That would allow the church to screen more carefully for people who might be extremely sexually immature or troubled.

And it would help solve the drastic problem of the declining number of priests, caused in part by the reluctance of many to take a vow of lifelong celibacy. The number of priests has been going down while the number of Catholics is going up. Twenty-seven percent of parishes in the United States have no resident priest. Two-thirds have only one priest, who may serve as many as 10,000 people.

While it might sound like a drastic change to allow women and married men to administer the sacraments, there are precedents for both. The first pope was married. Peter, the rock of the church, had a wife named Perpetua. And throughout its early years, the church welcomed married men with the proviso they married only once. Attempts to require celibacy were made in the 4th century, and the first written, binding rules making holy orders incompatible with marriage were passed in 1139. Yet that edict was as much in response to nepotism as to theology. Some priests had been leaving property to their families, and some were promoting their sons to positions of influence in the church.

And, as was recently pointed out by a panel of clerics on "Meet the Press," there are some married priests in the Catholic Church now -- married Anglican priests who convert to Catholicism can maintain their families. Priests in the Eastern Catholic Church are married.

A "big tent" approach would let those who want to marry and have a family do so. They can bring broader insights to their faith, just as married Anglican priests and Protestant ministers and Jewish rabbis do. Let those who want to remain celibate do so.

As for women, early church history is full of examples of women who were leaders, teachers and deacons. Lydia, a businesswoman who sold prized purple dye, was one of the earliest leaders in the church of Philippi. Phoebe was described by Paul as a deacon in the church at Cenchreae. Priscilla ("Prisca") operated a church in her home in Corinth.

Such relevant details ought to be brought up in a vigorous debate about ordaining women. But the church hierarchy has forbidden talk about women in the priesthood since 1993. But there was a recent sign that the silence is becoming uncomfortable for the hierarchy in Rome.

Sister Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun and highly popular author, was invited to give a major address in Ireland on the issue of ordination of women last year. The Vatican warned there would be a serious reprimand if she attended. Sister Joan, who is in her 60s, went to Ireland, risking her position. She delivered a brilliant speech. The Vatican backed down.


Sister Joan, who often uses humor to deliver her views, noted afterward that it has been only after great turmoil that the church has discovered that "organs are no closer to God than guitars ... that boys are not more capable of carrying water across a room than girls ... that women, too, can read …; and that men have no monopoly on divinity, grace or God."

She compares the church rigidity to the old lady who always turned right from the left lane. When the old lady would crash into a car, she would explain, "Because, Sonny, I always turn here."

As the nation learned in Watergate and Monica-gate, the church is learning that a cover-up makes matters worse. In Texas, it is a crime to not report evidence of sexual abuse of a child. That should be a core part of whatever policy the Vatican adopts.

It is heartening that in the current scandal, painful as it is, the laity is speaking up for the honesty and openness that will keep the faith alive and authentic. The laity is teaching the clergy here.

Until now, when problems about abuse have come up, the church bureaucracy has said shhhhh. When the issue of marriage has come up, the bureaucracy has said shhhhhh.

When the issue of ordination of women has come up, the bureaucracy has said shhhh. Perhaps now, the church will listen.

Pederson is the editorial page editor of The Dallas Morning News.

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