WASHINGTON -- The nation's Roman Catholic bishops wound up their annual meeting yesterday with a tense discussion of a pastoral letter on women, indicating that the role of women in the church is almost sure to be a matter of violent controversy for years to come.
In their four-day meeting, the bishops dealt with women in a statement on sexuality, in the new guidelines for the use of gender-neutral language in some church readings, and in a proposed pastoral letter condemning sexism in society and in the church.
But the letter did not change the church's prohibitions against women becoming priests and against birth control and abortion -- policies that many Catholic women say must change if they are to feel part of the church.
The depth of the divisions within the church on the role of women emerged in a heated debate between conservatives and liberal bishops over the seemingly innocuous effort to substitute gender-neutral language in places where the Bible uses gender-specific words. For instance, when appropriate, the word "mankind" would be changed to "people."
"Current translations discriminate against half of all Catholics," said Bishop James Malone of Youngstown, Ohio.
"I'm opposed to where the changes to inclusive language lead," said Auxiliary Archbishop Austin Vaughan of New York City. "There are people who claim that women should be ordained. . . . I say it will not change, not in this pontificate, not in the next pontificate, it will not change in the next century," he said.
Conference leaders, however, generally steered clear of the controversy in assessing the meeting.
"I am pleased with the way this week has gone," said Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk of Cincinnati, the head of the National Conference. "As religious leaders [we] have wrestled with some of society's greatest concerns . . . with the ominous threat of war in the Persian Gulf, with the need for sex education that is wholesome and value-laden, with the tragedies wrought by drug abuse."
While bishops generally echoed Archbishop Pilarczck's assessment, some said they remained concerned about the church's prohibition of artificial birth control, which they say may alienate many Catholics.
Women's groups and academics had a mixture of praise and criticism for the bishops' work, saying that it was more empathetic of women than in past years but fell far short of dealing with the roots of women's alienation from the church.
After a closed-door discussion, a letter also was sent to President Bush, urging a peaceful resolution of the Persian Gulf crisis.
In a letter delivered to the White House, Archbishop Pilarczyk wrote: "Because of the serious moral and human factors involved, we ask you . . . to intensify the determined and creative pursuit of a peaceful solution that seeks to bring justice to the region without resort to war."
Archbishop Pilarczyk also wrote that a military offensive against Iraq could violate the church's "just war" standard -- that its probable gains outweigh the resulting costs in lives, that civilian areas not be targeted and that war be a last resort.