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Women's pastoral buried after 10 years.

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. bishops' pastoral on women because the first proposed letter ever defeated after a core of progressive bishops persuaded prominent moderates that passage could do serious damage among Catholic women.

Once the critical case had been made, the letter, 10 years in the making, lost much episcopal support. As late as last June, when the bishops met at the University of Notre Dame to discuss a third draft, the proposed pastoral was in a trouble but still had a chance of passage, bishops and other observers told NCR last week.

However, when the vote finally came, two days into the bishops' Nov. 16-19 meeting here, 137 bishops voted in favor and 110 voted against. According to conference rules, 190 votes, or two-thirds of the 285 eligible voting bishops, were needed for approval.

Never before in the history of the bishops' quarter-century-old conference had a pastoral letter -- the most authoritative conference teaching statement -- been rejected. The bishops prefer to work out of consensus. In the past, the most pastoral letter dissenters might muster would be about 30 votes.

Other factors leading to the pastoral's defeat, according to key observers, included the fourth draft's sharp move to the right, which assured there would be no moderate base to gather substantial support; heavy lobbying by Catholic groups, especially women, who told local bishops of their opposition; and a strong resentment among many U.S. bishops that Rome had inserted itself too forcefully into U.S. deliberations.

Third draft shift

The third draft, discussed by the bishops at Notre Dame, received mixed reviews among the bishops. Of those who spoke up, the majority appeared to want it to take a more conservative track.

Archbishop William J. Levada of Portland wrote the fourth draft. At Notre Dame, he, along with Auxiliary Bishop Alfred C. Hughes of Boston, had issued a minority report to the third draft, objecting that it had not adequately upheld official church teaching on women.

Since 1990, at least seven bishops said they wanted the whole pastoral letter stopped: Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland, Baltimore Auxiliary Bishop Francis Murphy, Richmond Bishop Walter Sullivan, Brooklyn Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Sullivan, Saginaw Bishop Kenneth Untener and Sacramento Bishop Francis Quinn.

This core opposition group, according to insiders, later grew to include bishops such as Oakland, Calif., Bishop John Cummins; Hartford, Conn., Auxiliary Bishop Peter Rosazza; Juneau, Alaska, Bishop Michael Kenny; and New Ulm, Minn., Bishop Raymond Lucker.

But the most critical shift came in the weeks just before the bishops' November meeting, when these bishops persuaded three key conference leaders, all former National Conference of Catholic Bishops presidents -- Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin; Youngstown, Ohio, Bishop James Malone; and St. Paul and Minneapolis Archbishop John Roach -- to back off from supporting the fourth draft, as written.

"There was a wedding of the ideologically opposed (to the letter) and pastorally opposed bishops," one remarked. "It was pressure from the public, fear of alienation, the work of women activists that did it."

The shift of Bernardin, Malone and Roach had much to do with a wider erosion witnessed when the bishops gathered to debate the matter this month, a key source stated.

After the proposed pastoral faile dto gain the required two-thirds margin needed for passage, the bishops scrambled to save face, agreeing to refer the letter's recommendations to the U.S. bishops' executive committee. It was a recommendation Bernardin had earlier made in an effort to appease both sides and avoid open conflict. That earlier effort did not carry.

National lobbying

Many Catholic women said they were pleased by the vote. One was Loretto Sister Maureen Fiedler, of Catholics Speak Out, which lobbied against the pastoral She said that "massive grass-roots lobbying" led to its defeat, adding that Vatican pressures only further separated the bishops from Catholic women and, in the end, helped assure the pastoral's defeat.

Before the meeting, various national and local groups made last-ditch efforts to influence the bishops' views on the pastoral. A five-page ad signed by Catholics across the country, for example, appeared in the Nov. 20 issue of NCR. It was published the weekend before the start of the meeting, calling the fourth draft "a real source of scandal," and urged the bishops to reject it.

Less than a week before the bishops gathered, the Anglican Church voted its approval of women's ordination. That vote assured that the ordination of Catholic women could not be divorced, in anyone's eyes, from the bishops' deliberations.

About 30 U.S. bishops now favor women's ordination, according to several bishops. As many as 100 would express sympathy for the idea were it not for Pope John Paul's strong insistence the subject remain a forbidden fruit, one bishop estimated.

As the debate unfolded, rightly or wrongly, progressive bishops were seen as arguing against the pastoral, a sign of hope to women to keep the ordination discussion going; conservatives, meanwhile, were seen as arguing for the passage of the pastoral, a means of upholding the ban on women priests.

At one point, Bernardin admitted to this division, saying: "In all honestly, we must admit that the central question which has emerged and is driving our discussion regarding the pastoral is that of the ordination of women."

Divergent views

Early in the debate, Weakland spoke against passage, warning it could create a reaction within the church as vast as that caused by Humanae Vitae, the 1968 papal encyclical prohibiting artificial contraception. Passage, be said, "would lose another generation, especially another generation of very wonderful women."

But there was another, perhaps equally embarrassing, prism through which the debate was being viewed by some. Roach said that, unfortunately, the debate had evolved into a question of "two litmus tests that we didn't want -- the ordination of women and our role as teachers." Despite the pastoral's defeat some observers said the whole matter had tarnished the bishops'credibility (see related Drinan column, page 2).

One of the pastoral's staunchest supporters was Auxiliary Bishop Austin B. Vaughan of New York, who said during the debate that the "American bishops were told explicitly in a talk in Rome that the Holy See did not want any kind of communication of the notion that this (women's ordination) was still an open question."

"I believe the doctrine is unchangeable," said Vaughan. "Which means if the world lasts to the year 2000 or 20,000 or two million, we are still going to have a Catholic church and we're still going to have a male clergy, because that's the way God delineated it. A woman priest is as impossible as for me to have a baby!"

Other strong feelings were expressed. Some bishops said they did not like the way Rome pressed so hard to shape the pastoral. Others complained Rome was unduly handcuffing them on the ordination issue, a matter of great concern to their flocks.

Said Bishop Joseph L. Imesch of Joliet, Ill., chairman of the pastoral's ad hoc writing committee: "A number of bishops are very uncomfortable with the prohibition on discussing the issue of women's ordination. They have difficulty with saying this is a nondiscussable issue." The debate on ordination of women in the Catholic church "will proceed with or without us."

The fourth draft version of the pastoral, titled "One in Christ Jesus," decried sexism and other evils adversely affecting women. Among other evils, it cited the sexual revolution, some forms of feminism and social laws and policies that try to treat men and women alike. It called for advancing the rights and dignity of women in society and the role of women within the church -- provided they do not go beyond the strict limits set by official church teaching.

Seeds of pastoral

Some track the pastoral's genesis to the late 1970s and efforts by Missionary Helper of the Sacred Heart Sister Mariella Frye, then a bishops' conference staff member on the women's committee, who began meeting with Ruth McDonough Fitzpatrick, who represented a group called Women of the Church Coalition.

Fitzpatrick, who later founded the Women's Ordination Conference, worked with Frye in 1983 to organize a workshop for the bishops on the subject of women.

With the initial support of several bishops -- including Francis Murphy; Charles Buswell of Pueblo, Colo.; the late Maurice Dingman of Des Moines, Iowa -- Imesch introduced a motion recommending the writing of a pastoral on women's concerns.

The first draft, issued in 1988, was built on responses from women at hearings in dioceses throughout the country. It included statements by women consultants -- theologians, sociologists, educators -- as well as testimony from housewives and workers.

But as draft followed draft, it became apparent that women's voices were being supplanted by men's voices, official teaching voices and, increasingly, by Vatican voices. Imesch became visibly less committed to the pastoral with each passing draft.

By the time the fourth draft was written, activists were calling for its defeat. Some called it "a stark embodiment of the sin of sexism itself."

Bernardin's motion

It is unlikely the bishops will spend much energy flogging the dead pastoral anytime soon. They want to forget it. Officially, however, Bernardin's motion sends the pastoral to the bishops? executive committee -- a measure passed by a vote of 185-51. It has three key elements. Each is designed to appeal to a different episcopal faction.

The first is that the executive committee will assign the document's 25 specific recommendations to advance the dignity and equality of women to appropriate conference committees "as a basis for action."

The second is that the executive committee use appropriate conference structures to assure "further study and dialogue regarding the philosophical and theological principles underlying the church's teaching on a number of issues addressed in the document."

The third is that the executive committee carry out a study and dialogue explicitly "for the purpose of clarifying and supporting that teaching and presenting it more persuasively."

In commenting on his proposal Bernardin stressed several times that his call for study and dialogue was meant to strengthen and deepen church teaching, not to abandon it. Several times, he reiterated that he and the body of bishops support the 1976 Vatican declaration that "the church does not consider herself authorized to admit women to the priesthood." "We are not ambiguous about this," he insisted.

However, Imesch said at a press conference following the pastoral's defeat that "the genie was out of the bottle" and further study and debate among the laity and hierarchy regarding women's ordination would definitely follow.

WOC national coordinator Fitzpatrick said, "We are elated the bishops voted the pastoral down. It is clear," she said, "that what was silent and secret is now out in the open." Fitzpatrick said her group would continue its dialogue and study with anthropologists and feminist theologians on the issue of women's ordination.

Helen Hull Hitchcock, executive director of Women for Faith and Family, a conservative group, said: "We will continue to support church teaching." She said the debate would help bishops focus on reasserting their authority against "radical feminism."

"I think the bishops realize for the first time bow serious a problem they have," Hitchcock said.

Dominican Sister Maria Riley, Center of Concern resource person on women in church and society, said: "The bishops' vote against the pastoral is a wise move, but it will not end the debate. Women will continue to challenge the patriarchy that shapes church life and structures until significant change occurs."
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Title Annotation:women's pastoral letter; National Conference of Catholic Bishops; includes chronology of drafting process since 1982
Author:Vidulich, Dorothy
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Dec 4, 1992
Words:1900
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