Gossman chafed at ban on female priests

August 21, 2013 

There have been many fine tributes to Bishop F. Joseph Gossman, who was laid to rest this week. Opinion pieces praised him as a good shepherd, a beloved pastor, a collegial leader, a humble servant. All of these are true.

I would add another virtue: a champion of women. As a religion reporter for The News & Observer during the last 15 years he served as bishop, I could find no greater fans of Gossman’s leadership style than the nuns who worked with him.

They adored him.

Gossman was one of those mature, secure priests who saw women as equals, enjoyed their company, valued their contributions and believed in their leadership skills.

When Gossman arrived in Raleigh in 1975, several of the religious order nuns were living underground, working outside the diocese’s direct control. They avoided Gossman’s predecessor, who ruled the diocese in an autocratic style that clashed with their desire to work among poor migrant workers, immigrants, the homeless and prison inmates.

Gossman asked one of the sisters to hold a supper meeting so he could learn about the work they were doing. They were reluctant, but after the bishop arrived at the home of one of the women in Chapel Hill, their fears soon dissipated. He sat among them, plate on his lap, and listened intently.

Later, as the Catholic Church struggled to find priests to serve its ever-expanding churches in Eastern North Carolina, Gossman turned to the sisters for help. During the 1990s, he appointed a dozen nuns to supervise churches where there was no resident priest. These “pastoral administrators” did everything but celebrate the sacraments, such as communion, baptism and confirmation. They were, for all intents and purposes, pastors.

Gossman saw no reason they shouldn’t be full pastors. In his own respectful way, he repeatedly expressed his frustration with the church teaching that women can never be priests.

“When you have those kinds of exclusions, it’s important to talk about it and help people understand why they’re there,” Gossman said in 2001. “The reasons are terribly hard for the ordinary person to understand. There are times when I’m not sure I understand it myself.”

That kind of candor is almost unimaginable among today’s U.S. bishops. The church has changed dramatically since the days of the Second Vatican Council, which met in Rome from 1962 to 1965 and opened the church to a series of reforms. Gossman was a product of that council, and it shaped him decisively.

There’s a reason Gossman remained bishop of Raleigh for virtually his entire career; he didn’t feel comfortable with the conservative direction of the church, and its leaders probably didn’t want to promote a bishop who wasn’t willing to advance a hard-line agenda.

Gossman might not have been what many would consider a liberal. He kept his views mostly to himself except, perhaps, when it came to his favorite social justice causes: worker rights and economic opportunities for the poor. A canon lawyer, he spoke carefully and in measured tones.

But at a time when many bishops would like to suggest that the church will never change or that anyone holding a contrary opinion is a heretic, it’s important to remember there was a time when leaders spoke candidly and expressed their frustrations with church teachings – even the ban on women as priests.

Recalling Bishop Gossman now, at his death, it’s worth pondering whether his vision of pastoral leadership – and the church – might find new life.

Yonat Shimron, who covered religion for The News & Observer from 1996 to 2011, is the managing editor at Religion News Service.

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service