U.S. bishops still torn over ordination of women Concerns of women, Vatican stance at odds in debate over pastoral letter

November 09, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

Faced with insurmountable differences among themselves and doctrinal limits imposed by the Vatican, the nation's Roman Catholic bishops have all but abandoned a long effort to address rising demands for the ordination of women priests.

Despite intensive efforts during the last six months to salvage a controversial draft statement on the role of women in society and the church, U.S. bishops appear nowhere nearer agreement than they were when they met to discuss it last June. Many bishops believe that the statement, known as a pastoral letter, will be tabled when the National Conference of Catholic Bishops meets in Washington next week.

If that happens, it will signal an end to a long and often fractious attempt to reconcile the competing claims of modern society with a tradition of the all-male priesthood.

"No one was calling for it," Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles, said of the letter. "It has minimal amount of ownership and has created an enormous amount of controversy and conflict."

For nine years, the nation's 275 Catholic bishops have grappled with the issue of women's ordination -- many of them torn between a desire to address the concerns and discontent of Catholic women in America while remaining faithful to vows of obedience to Rome.

At the same time, there has been a widening chasm between Catholic lay people and the church's bishops over issues as diverse as birth control and the ordination of women as deacons, priests and bishops.

A Gallup Poll of U.S. Catholics last June found that 67 percent of those surveyed favored women priests, 58 percent supported women bishops and 80 percent supported women deacons.

Pope John Paul II has repeatedly said that women cannot be ordained. In 1976 the Vatican affirmed "an unbroken tradition in the churches of the East and West of calling only men to ordained priesthood."

Last June, when the bishops met at the University of Notre Dame, a third draft of the letter clearly lacked enough support to be approved. The revisions made since then appear to have picked up few votes.

The latest version is not only viewed as more doctrinaire in barring women from the priesthood -- in large part because of pressure from Rome -- but far more muted than earlier drafts in voicing the concerns of women on the subject.

"The bishops who want to see a more open document are going to vote against it. And those who wanted a tighter document say even this is not tight enough," said Bishop Joseph L. Imesch of Joliet, Ill., who chairs the committee that produced the latest draft.

While there has never been any realistic expectation that U.S. bishops would depart from church doctrine and call for the ordination of women, there was hope among church reformers that the bishops would not foreclose dialogue, as the letter seems to do.

Since the first draft was issued in April 1988, the text has nudged closer to official church teaching. The first draft drew heavily on the testimony of women during a series of consultations. In later versions, the quotes were dropped.

"There are significant changes in the fourth draft, all for the worse," said Sister Maureen Fiedler, co-director of a church reform group known as Catholics Speak Out.

For example, the latest draft, quoting Popes Paul VI and John Paul II, states that there are limits to even the church's authority to reinterpret God-given sacraments, one of which is the sacrament of ordination.

"The priest is a sacramental symbol of Christ . . . ," the letter states. "The sacrament relies on the natural symbolism of gender to signify the relationship between the priest and Christ, the head and bridegroom of the church."

"The clear meaning of that," Sister Fiedler complained, "is that women may not have a leadership role in the church. This smells to me like a contribution from the very, very conservative hierarchy in Rome."

Others, however, applaud the more restrictive language. Among them are the St. Louis-based Women for Faith & Family, a group that supports traditional Catholic teaching.

"The latest draft represents a pretty significant departure from earlier drafts," Helen Hull Hitchcock, a leader in the group, said approvingly. She said that almost all of the changes bring the letter into conformity with church teaching.

Few believe the letter's demise will bring an end to the debate over admitting women to the priesthood. With women continuing to make strides in other aspects of national life -- in the workplace, in politics, and in laws that strike down social inequalities -- pressure will continue to mount on the church's hierarchy to respond.

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