WASHINGTON -- When the nation's 300 Catholic bishops gather in Washington for their annual meeting tomorrow, the most controversial topic within the U.S. Catholic church, the role of women, won't be a major point of discussion.
The bishops delayed a position paper on women for another year because of opposition from both conservative and liberal Catholics.
In controversial areas outside the church, the bishops take clear stands, putting them in direct opposition to recent Bush administration policy on drugs, gun control and the death penalty.
The bishops condemn America's drug policy and will vote on a statement criticizing "the increasing militarization of the U.S. drug program" in Latin America. They also criticize America's efforts to eradicate the South American coca crop by spraying peasants' fields with herbicides. That policy "may do more harm to the peasant farmer and to a fragile environment than to drug criminals," the bishops say.
They oppose increased use of the death penalty for drug-related crimes and urge limits on the sale of handguns, with the goal of banning them.
The statement on women, which was dropped from the voting agenda, will be discussed by the bishops, who have spent seven years trying to craft a position that will satisfy different factions.
Feminist Catholics plan a demonstration in opposition to the church's prohibition on women's becoming priests and to its condemnation of abortion and artificial forms of birth control.
The statement would have staked out a new position on women's role in society, opposing sexism, supporting government-paid child care and condemning the hardship society imposes on single mothers.
But the statement closed the door to discussion of allowing women to become priests, further angering Catholics who feel the church's male-dominated structure cannot empathize with the needs of women.
Catholicism is America's largest Christian denomination, with more than 57 million members.
During the three-day meeting, the bishops will also discuss the financial problems of parochial schools, which in the face of a declining number of nuns are having trouble affording lay teachers.