IN 1983, the U.S. Catholic bishops issued a pastoral letter on war and peace in a nuclear age. The Reagan administration and political hawks tried to weaken the document, but they failed.
In 1986, the bishops issued a pastoral letter on economic justice. Some powerful business leaders tried to weaken that document and they, too, failed.
But while the bishops were working on those two pastorals, they were also beginning to work on one that was really tough -- one on women in church and society. While few questioned the bishops' right to speak out on peace and prosperity, many women, and not a few men, questioned the ability of a group of several hundred celibate males to speak for or to women.
The bishops were scheduled to vote on the final version of the women's pastoral at their general meeting in Washington this November. But the bishops' administrative committee voted in September to postpone final action and to simply discuss the document as an "information" item.
Some observers and some critics interpret this action as a scrapping of the pastoral. A spokesman for the bishops' conference says they may turn out to be right, but that's not the bishops' intention right now.
The bishops' conference president, Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk of Cincinnati, offered two reasons for delaying the pastoral.
First, he said, the Vatican had suggested that, because the subject was so important, the U.S. bishops consult with bishops from other countries before completing action.
This should have come as no surprise. The Vatican had also suggested that the U.S. bishops consult with bishops from other countries on the peace and economic pastorals. The American bishops have been working on the women's pastoral for seven years, and they should have anticipated the Vatican's suggestion.
But foreign consultation will not kill the women's pastoral. If the pastoral is killed, it will be the result of the second reason Pilarczyk cited for the delay -- the reactions the bishops have received to the second draft of the pastoral. They released the 99-page draft last April.
That reaction was highly negative. Several bishops, including the influential Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee, who chaired the committee which drafted the economics pastoral, urged the bishops to drop the whole project.
The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the organization of presidents of women's religious orders, opposed the project from the very beginning. LCWR said the pastoral should be written about men and women, not just women.
A group called Priests for Equality, which has 241 members, urged the bishops to drop the pastoral. They said the second draft was "guilty of misogyny."
There was much in the second draft that women of all persuasions could support. It called sexism a "sin." It attacked male insensitivity to women's needs. It said, "equality is not a privilege to be earned by women, but a right which belongs to them by virtue of their creation in the image of God."
But the bishops ran into a major problem. There is no way they could avoid the question of the church's ban on ordaining women as priests and its ban on the use of artificial means of birth control.
Those are issues on which there is considerable opposition among American women. Three in four reject the church's birth control teaching and a majority favor women's ordination.
In the first draft, the bishops seemed to go about as far as they could in showing sympathy for women who oppose the church on those issues. But the second draft seemed to many to back off and to be stronger in its defense of church teaching. That further angered many people who had been tolerant of the first draft.
The bishops are between a rock and a hard place. It may not be fair to judge the entire pastoral on the basis of two issues over which, on a practical level, the bishops have no control.
But you don't have to be a woman to feel uncomfortable when reading a document that seems to be trying so hard to answer the question "What do women want?"
The bishops began by trying to support women by writing a pastoral letter. Rightly or wrongly, the perception is growing that the best way the bishops can support women is by not writing that pastoral.