Let women hear confession and grant absolution, says bishop
By Jonathan Petre, Religion Correspondent
Women should be allowed to hear confessions and absolve sinners, a Roman Catholic bishop has suggested.
Bishop Vincent Malone, auxiliary bishop in Liverpool, said that the Church should consider choosing lay women to be confessors because some people might prefer disclosing their sins to a woman rather than a man.
Writing in a new book, he also said that other sacraments reserved for the all-male clergy might be opened to lay people, including the annointing of the sick.
Bishop Malone said he was merely raising questions rather than "starting a revolution", and stressed that any reforms would have to be agreed by the whole Church before they could be implemented.
But his radical views will challenge the traditional image of the male priest hearing confessions and reignite the debate over the role of women in the Church.
Bishop Malone's comments will carry particular weight because he is the liaison between the English and Welsh Bishops' Conference and the National Board of Catholic Women.
In his contribution to Healing Priesthood: Women's Voices Worldwide, he said the Church's tradition "may sometimes seem only to inhibit the freedom to engage with difficult questions".
But some practices could be varied. Although the Pope had ruled out women priests, the Church had "not so ruled in other areas which might yield surprising fruit".
He added: "It is not difficult to conceive circumstances in which a female minister could more appropriately than a man be the receiver of the humble confession that opens a soul to hear the glad words of the Lord's forgiveness.
"Common practice in our society today would expect equal access in many professions to either a man or a woman at the client's choice. It would be an unusual medical practice that did not have both male and female practitioners. Similarly with a firm of solicitors or a team of counsellors.
"Has the time come to expect a similar availability in even more sacred areas of our lives - without thinking that this is impossible without the ordination of women?"
The bishop argued that the Church broadly decreed that only priests could administer the sacraments, and yet lay people were involved in the sacrament of marriage and, in cases of necessity, the sacrament of baptism.
He told The Catholic Herald that he was "not banging a drum" or trying to prompt disobedience among Catholics, but was merely issuing a "gentle invitation to reflect".
Such reforms might "in part answer the complaint that women can't do anything" in the Church.
But while liberals, including fellow bishops, will welcome his ideas, the newspaper said in an editorial: "The simple answer is that the time has not come for such a thing."
The bishop's comments follow the decision by some churches and cathedrals to introduce glass-fronted confessionals after a series of sex scandals in the Church.
The aim is to allow others to see what is happening, protecting children and adults from any risk of abuse by priests and to protect priests from false allegations.