Bishops reject document on ordination of women

November 19, 1992|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- The nation's Roman Catholic bishops failed yesterday to adopt a controversial pastoral letter on women that was intended to end discussion in the church of women being ordained as priests.

While a simple majority of the bishops -- 137 of the 247 who voted yesterday -- did approve the letter, its failure to achieve the two-thirds majority needed to become a formal teaching document of the church was hailed as a victory by several Catholic lay groups seeking the ordination of women.

Ruth McDonough Fitzpatrick, national coordinator of the 4,000-member Women's Ordination Conference, said the division of the bishops on the worth of the 100-page document "sent a clear message to the Vatican" that many American Catholics will continue to press for female priests.

"The very issue that they [the bishops] tried to avoid ended up as the central issue of the debate," Ms. Fitzpatrick said. Especially jubilant was Sister Maureen Fiedler, representing the liberal Catholics Speak Out organization based in Hyattsville, who called the vote against issuance of the pastoral letter "a major victory."

The language of the fourth and final draft of the proposed letter -- the result of nine years of studies and revisions by a committee of bishops and their advisers -- was viewed as firmly closing the door on authorized discussion of the possibility that Catholic women could ever be ordained as priests.

The pastoral letter fell 53 votes short of being adopted. It was the first time that a drafting committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops has been unable to win approval of a pastoral letter.

A message to the bishops signed by 450 Catholic priests who favor discussion of women's ordination argued that the first draft of the letter was more open to the inclusion of women in the ministry.

By the time the final version was put to a vote, "even the issue of altar girls is yielded away," said the group Priests for Equality.

Pressure from the Vatican influenced the revisions of the document, making it more faithful to orthodox teaching on the priesthood and other issues.

After yesterday's effort to adopt the draft as a formal pastoral letter was defeated, the bishops passed by a 185-to-51 vote a motion by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago to refer it to the executive committee of the conference as a source of further study of women's concerns and selective adoption of some of its recommendations.

These generalized recommendations include "loving support for unmarried parents and their children," promotion of "the equality and dignity of women" and "special care for the widowed."

Cardinal Bernardin said after acceptance of his motion that he "in no way challenged the content of the pastoral," including the teaching that the priesthood is reserved for men."

He acknowledged, however, that the sometimes heated debate over the language of the document and the dozens of amendments before the final vote "turned into a referendum on the ordination of women."

Many bishops urging adoption of the pastoral letter argued that failure to do so would send mixed signals to the laity, suggesting the inability or reluctance of the bishops to take a clear stand against women's ordination.

Nearly all the bishops, even those most critical of the letter, publicly adhere to the teaching that priests must be male. But many believe that there should be discussion and scholarly study of the issue.

Opponents of passage of the letter cited other issues raised by ** the fourth draft. An example was the watering down of a clear statement in the original version that "sexism is a sin."

Explained Cardinal Bernardin, "By the time we got here [for the four-day meeting in Washington that began Monday], the document had gotten so controversial and so politicized that many felt it could not be used as an instrument for teaching."

The cardinal told the bishops his purpose in urging them to return the letter to the executive committee was not "to challenge or contradict the teaching" that the priesthood is reserved for males but "rather to clarify it, to support it, and to articulate it in a way that will make sense in our contemporary climate and culture -- in a way that will elicit assent rather than dissent."

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