Women and the Bishops

November 19, 1992

As Baltimore Archbishop William H. Keeler was elected president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, his fellow prelates gave him a reprieve of sorts by tabling a controversial nine-year effort to write a pastoral letter addressing issues concerning women and the Catholic church.

After four drafts, each one increasingly conservative, the letter was put to a vote yesterday and fell short of the needed two-thirds majority. The bishops then agreed to a compromise study of the issues in committee. Those actions helped defuse a situation that many Catholics feared could have alienated thousands of women from the church.

Catholic theology speaks not just of ecclesia docens, the teaching church, but also of ecclesia discens, the learning church. So it was appropriate the bishops began this effort by soliciting the opinions and hearing the concerns of 75,000 Catholic women around the country.

But once they had prepared an initial draft of their letter, they ran into problems with Rome. In introducing the most recent version on Monday, Bishop Joseph L. Imesch of Joliet, Ill., noted that the project had managed to "alienate at one time or another every identifiable male or female group."

At the heart of any discussion of women and the church is the issue of ordination, and the Vatican insisted that the letter reflect the church's steadfast opposition to change on this issue. Last week, when the Church of England voted to ordain women to the priesthood, the Vatican warned that the move put a serious obstacle in the path of efforts to reunite the two churches.

Even so, Anglicans are moving ahead to resolve an issue that has rankled their membership for almost two decades and one that in recent years has divided them from their American counterpart, the Episcopal Church. Although traditionalists who oppose the move are threatening a schism, demographic evidence suggests the greater threat to the church lies in refusing to change. Great Britain is largely a secular society today. Regular attendance at services of the state-supported church has dropped to about 1.1 million -- less than 3 percent of the adult British population.

Theologians -- Catholic and Protestant -- who examine the scriptural and traditional basis for the ban find the case against women priests less and less convincing. So even if the American Catholic bishops have found a relatively graceful way out of their current dilemma, virtually no one assumes that the issue has been resolved for all time.

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