Some welcome letter as 'unchangeable forever.' (papal document against women's ordination) (Cover Story)
Loretta Hoffman, who heads the Alliance of Catholic Women, had nothing but praise for Pope John Paul II's recent letter reaffirming the ban. "I am very pleased with it because I believe that he has been delegated by Christ to be spokesman for the church's teaching," said Hoffman, whose group represents 25,000 Catholic women in the United States. "He is simply upholding teachings that have been around for 2,000 years."
Hoffman echoed other conservative Catholics who said there is "plenty of room in the church for women's gifts."
"There is a place for us. We are not upset that it does not include the ordained priesthood," she said. "I don't believe we have rights per se. I believe if the church calls women to serve in a position of authority, we should consider it a privilege, not a right."
Many conservative Catholics welcomed the pope's declaration that the matter is no longer open for debate.
"One cannot help but be impressed by the degree of solemn urgency with which the letter from the Holy Father states that Rome has spoken and the issue is settled," said Fr. Richard Neuhaus of the Institute on Religion and Public Life, a neoconservative think tank. The institute publishes First Things, a monthly journal of opinion.
Despite the pope's call for an end to debate on the issue, Neuhaus said he suspects that those "unpersuaded or dissatisfied" with the papal letter will continue to press the question.
Thus, discussion is likely to continue. "Even among the most faithful Catholics," he said, "there will have to be continuing discussion, simply in response to others who continue to discuss it, unless we live in separate churches and don't talk to one another."
Helen Hull Hitchcock, president of Women For Faith & Family, which claims to have about 50,000 adherents in the United States, said the papal letter is timely because of recent challenges to the church relating to the new catechism and the ruling allowing female altar servers.
"A lot of people felt symbolically the ruling on female altar servers was connected to efforts by feminists to achieve ordination for women," she said. "This statement quells all doubt. ... If they want to be ordained to ministry, they will not be able to achieve that in the Catholic church."
In the church, the roles of men and women are not interchangeable, she said. "The pope is making it clear that although roles of men and women are of equal value and importance, the distinctions between the two cannot be obliterated just because people want them to be."
For women who have long sought ordination, "things are much clearer now," she said.
"The teaching is not going to change, ever. It is now part of the constitution of the church," she said. "Any hopes they have for lobbying or wearing down resistance won't work. ... It is unchangeable, forever."
Rita Greenwald, president of the National Council of Catholic Women, said the organization takes no sides publicly on the issue but is sympathetic toward women who feel called to ordained ministry. In 1978, the NCCW issued a public statement urging that the diaconate be open to women. "I am very much aware of women who have been hurt by this issue," she said. The council is made up of 7,000 Catholic women's groups in 123 U.S. dioceses.
"We have supported women in ministry within the church, but always in keeping with what the church says," she said. "But I am sure there are women in our organization who have a desire to be ordained. I sympathize with those who feel it is their calling."
The question remaining for many Catholics on both sides of the issue is one of fairness. What about the Catholic women who feel the issue of women's ordination is a matter of justice and that they are being denied a seat at the hierarchy's decision-making table?
Neuhaus said the issues of women's ordination and equal access to power within the church have to be separated from one another. Questions relating to ministry, ordination, service and power have become entangled in a way that is probably confusing to people on all sides, he said.
"It is going to take a while to sort out these questions. One would hope that in the end of the sorting out, the dignity and inescapable influence of women in the church is going to be enhanced," Neuhaus said. "That is obviously a hope. Whether in fact it works out that way, we will just have to wait and see."