Mathematical certainty is elusive, but here's a number that I can cite with absolute confidence: So far, 100 percent of the truly bad homilies I have ever heard at Mass have come from the male half of our species.
Could women give bad homilies at Mass? Theoretically, of course. It just takes lack of preparation and a dearth of talent, and presto: a homily that puts the faithful to sleep or makes them want to run from the church, screaming. In fact, a lot of Catholics have already quietly run from the church. Surveys of lapsed Catholics -- numerous enough to qualify as the second largest denomination in America, after the church itself -- show bad preaching as one strong reason for their exit. And the perpetrators? All men.
In future surveys of lapsed Catholics, here's another factor that may help explain the exodus: The Vatican is investigating nuns; American bishops have launched an inquiry into the Girl Scouts organization. To many women, this looks a lot like sexism and feels like the last straw.
So, here's a grand unified theory for easing the preaching problem, slowing the disappearance of people from the pews, and making a bit of peace between the hierarchy and the women who keep the church running: Let women preach the homily at Mass.
Yes, in small settings apart from the Mass, women may preach. But at the Mass itself -- the marquee moment when the vast majority of us Catholics get our only exposure to preaching -- the homily is reserved for the ordained.
This is a strange restriction, given the obvious truth that the gift of preaching does not automatically descend on a man at the moment of ordination. Too often, in fact, it never arrives. Like a priest I dubbed "Father So," who started every homily with "So," and then completely made it up as he went along. Zero preparation, content-free.
One way around the prohibition against women preaching the homily is to let women preach it, but call it something else. I've seen it. The priest gives a really brief one, like: "God is good," then introduces the woman who is really intended to give the homily and says that she will be delivering a "reflection." This, of course, puts a wink and a nod -- some would say a lie -- at the heart of the Mass. It also runs the risk that someone in the congregation will report the conspiring priest to the hierarchy. So it doesn't happen that often.
The more honest solution is this: Change Canon 767 in the church's Code of Canon Law. It says that the homily, as part of the liturgy, is the most important form of preaching "and is reserved to a priest or to a deacon." All you have to do is lop off those 10 words and add this: "It is the pastor's responsibility to see to it that the most gifted and theologically well educated persons preach it."
This would honor the attitude of Jesus, who listened to women more than men of his time did. It would not put heretics in the pulpit, but laypeople, both men and women, who have the training and the skill to read the signs of the times through the lens of the Scriptures. It's not that easy. It requires a deep grasp of both the world and the Scriptures, and it doesn't hurt if the homilist has a touch of the poet in her.
Some people just can't do it. So, why not let more people who do have the gift, regardless of sex, step into the pulpit?
Unless there's a sudden rush of men into the priesthood (I have a grand unified theory for that problem, too), pastors will be getting ever busier, serving more than one parish. They'll have much less time for homily preparation. So: More bad homilies, more lapsed Catholics.
At a time when the hierarchy looks as if it doesn't much care what women think, and it isn't ready to utter those two little words -- "I'm sorry" -- erasing 10 wrongheaded words from Canon 767 makes sense.