Sex and the clergy have never made a good combination, and when the nation’s Catholic bishops wrote a draft letter on the status of women, we could just about predict the outcome. The time has passed when clergymen shepherded flocks or attended to questions of the eternal. Men of the cloth now keep busy scrambling to keep up with the latest in progressive fashion. In previous letters the bishops have accused America of militarism, racism, and (in the Rev. Jesse’s phrase) “economic violence.” In this missive they discover a sin that was somehow left off the Seven Deadliest list: the “sin of sexism.”

As the bishops reveal, they have “collectively” undergone “a profound examination of conscience” and have found that “sexist attitudes” have “colored church teachings for centuries.” In penance, the Church must embrace feminism. The bishops endorse daycare centers, parental leaves without loss of job status, affirmative action laws, and “flex-time, job sharing, and comparable pay for comparable worth.” They note sympathetically that “many Catholic women” find the Church’s traditional emphasis on the permanence of marriage, the value of motherhood, and the importance of chastity to be “countercultural” bulwarks against social trends. Far be it from the bishops to resist the trendy; teaching on sexuality now must be “compassionate,” “practical,” and aware that “as sexual beings” men and women find themselves “in unique, diverse, and complex circumstances.”

Abortion—that great obstacle in the way of the bishops’ progress in liberal circles—gets only the briefest mention in the 35,000-word draft letter. By their next sentence, they are falling over themselves to make amends, apologizing for the “pain and uncertainty” provoked by the Church’s teaching on contraception. They want it known that “we especially encourage a spirit of compassion toward those who in good conscience have not lived in accord with the ideal set forth by the Church.”

Pastoral letters usually consist of episcopal meditations. A large part of this draft letter consists of testimony submitted by “women’s groups.” The format resulted from objections that an all-male group has no business writing anything on women. No one was similarly troubled by the spectacle of men without wives or children lobbying for day care and a host of other measures disruptive of family life. The bishops know their audience, and they know that insensitivity to traditional families—unlike, say, insensitivity to lesbians—does not constitute heresy to the Powers That Be of the here and now.

The bishops urge that the Church ordain female deacons and otherwise move women into new “leadership roles” such as distributing Communion, serving on team ministries, providing “spiritual direction,” teaching in seminaries, and holding top administrative positions in dioceses. But there has to be some limit to reform. Like the congressmen who vote for “civil rights” laws from which they have exempted themselves and their staffs, the bishops continue to bar women from their own ranks. Although they promise that in the future all male priests will be properly docile (“sexist attitudes” are “negative indications for fitness for ordination”), NOW will not be appeased. There is a principled argument to be made on behalf of the status quo, one based on Christian doctrine, natural law, and Catholic traditions. But clergymen who grow fat on praise from the Church’s enemies are in no position to appeal to principle. (MK)