Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Catholic Women Still Press for Ordination

By RACHEL ZOLL, AP Religion Writer

VATICAN CITY - Despite a 26-year papacy that shut down talk of changing the all-male priesthood, progressive Catholics are convinced that the ongoing clergy shortage and rising number of female lay leaders in American churches will eventually create pressure for the Vatican to ordain women.

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Until then, many women activists hope to build their influence with appointments to higher-ranking positions in dioceses, Catholic universities and even the Vatican.

"I basically think the next generation will see the ordination of women," said Lisa Sowle Cahill, a theologian at Boston College and past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America. "That change will not emanate from the top, but from the grass roots or local churches which the Vatican will then recognize."

Catholics who support this view say they are speaking mainly about trends in North American and European churches. In the United States, at the end of Pope John Paul II's pontificate, more lay people than clergy were working full-time in American parishes and many of those lay leaders were women. They served, for example, as Eucharistic ministers, who distribute Holy Communion in places where there is no priest. In Europe, the push for women's ordination is supported by the Catholic reform group We Are Church and others.

Advocates are aware that women in parts of the world where Catholicism is growing fastest — Africa and Latin America — have dramatically different concerns and may not think about becoming priests. Poverty, domestic violence, education and health are more pressing issues for Third World Catholic women, many of whom adhere to a very conservative view of faith and embrace traditional roles for men and women.

Also, no one expects the next pope to change course from John Paul, who unequivocally backed a men-only priesthood.

However, in churches in the United States, many progressives believe numbers and time are on their side. Most religion instructors are women, and more women are becoming diocesan chancellors, canon lawyers and theologians. The two top lay people that U.S. bishops appointed to help them respond to the clergy sex abuse crisis were women: Illinois Justice Anne Burke led the National Review Board, a watchdog panel the bishops set up, and Kathleen McChesney, a former FBI agent, was the first director of the bishops' Office of Child and Youth Protection.

Whether any of these gains translates into power over the long term is in dispute, since men remain the ultimate authorities in the church. But the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the Jesuit magazine America, who has written extensively about the structure of the American church, said the new appointments for women are a step toward even broader roles for them in church.

"Most of the cases I see when a woman has a job, it's not a real powerful position," he said. "On the other hand, she sat at the table. When the bishop met with his cabinet she was there."

For more traditional Catholics like Pia de Solenni, talk of gaining equality by changing the priesthood is off the mark. Solenni, a moral theologian who worked at the Vatican and studied at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, said progressives failed to acknowledge what John Paul did for women.

Last year, he appointed a nun to the No. 3 post in the congregation that governs religious orders worldwide, the highest position ever held by a woman in the Vatican. The same year, he appointed Mary Ann Glendon, a Harvard University law professor, to the highest advisory position held by a woman in the church, leading a panel on social policy.

Solenni credited the pope with trying to expand the public discussion about women's needs from just reproductive issues to access to health care and poverty. In fact, she pointed to the greater role women are playing in church life to refute the progressive argument that the priesthood — and Catholic teaching on it — should be changed.

"So few women in the big picture feel a deep desire to be in the priesthood," Solenni said.

But Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, former editor of the progressive Catholic magazine Commonweal, said individual appointments to Vatican congregations do not translate into equality for women in the church.

She said many women see the church as a sexist organization, with a "deeply patriarchal culture" that rejects input from lay people. As one example, she pointed to Vatican opposition to gender neutral language in English translations of the Bible and liturgical texts.

She said a more glaring example of women's exclusion was now on display before the world. Next Monday, 115 men will enter the conclave in Rome to choose the future leader of the church.

"At this very moment and for the next two weeks, men the average age of 68 or 69 are making critically important decisions for the church in the future," she said. "This is not a body that is consulting anyone."


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