America’s Roman Catholic bishops decided to steel themselves against the rising howl for change in the church’s standards for priests. In so doing last month at the semi-annual conference in Detroit, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) appeared to reject the findings of a $500,000, four-year study of the priestly life that the NCCB itself had commissioned.

The most visible issue in the conflict between the hierarchy and the priests, both at the three-day assembly of the 230 prelates and for several weeks beforehand when the study results were leaked to the press, was celibacy. But the controversy goes far deeper, relating to the very nature of the church and the priesthood itself. And judging from the stance of the bishops in Detroit, for now at least they have chosen a hard-line approach that emphasizes the sacerdotal aspects of the priesthood and the traditional authority. This approach flies in the face of what surveys—including their own—indicate the majority of priests believe is right.

John Cardinal Krol, head of the bishops’ committee for Study of Priestly Life and Ministry, said the study was “the most massive single examination of the priesthood in history.” Its purpose was to take an in-depth look at the priesthood today and to fit the contemporary view into the permanent, theologically based understanding of the role and ministry of priests. Studies were made in the areas of theology, history, sociology, psychology, ecumenism, spirituality, and pastoral ministry. The first four were released to the bishops in mid-April. The press wasn’t to be let in on the findings until the Detroit meeting, but the New York Times obtained the reports and the cat was out of the bag twelve days early.

The sociological ...

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