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Women react in anger and pain: Pope's statement called 'arrogant, patronizing.' (papal document, 'Ordinatio Scaerdotalis')(includes related article of women's quotations on the document) (Cover Story)

FAIRFAX, Va. -- "This is the ultimate power play of a desperate monarchy that sees its time has gone," said Ruth McDonough Fitzpatrick, national coordinator of the Women's Ordination Conference.

Rome had spoken. As the Chicago Tribune headline May 30 put it: "Pope: Case closed on ordaining women." In a 1,146-word May 30 instruction to the world's bishops (see accompanying story), Pope John Paul II said there must be "no more discussion" of women priests.

But the old Vatican proverb Roma locuta, causa finita (Rome has spoken; the case is closed) no longer carries much weight in some circles, certainly not with much of the laity. The papal pronouncement, in words described by women around the country as "arrogant," "condescending" and "patronizing," appears instead to have given the argument for ordaining women greater prominence and to have created an increased sense of grievance, pain and frustration among vast numbers of Catholic women who support women's ordination and married priests.

The topic remains particularly volatile in the United States. Within 72 hours of the papal statement's release, Fitzpatrick, for one, had appeared on several television shows, participated in numerous radio call-in programs and done "more than 50" telephone interviews with journalists, from the BBC in London to Anna Quindlan of The New York Times.

The WOC conference room is cluttered with the paper debris of a working weekend, for the organization is midway through the process that will culminate in next year's 20th anniversary gathering in Arlington, Va. The conference room enshrines the debate over Catholic women's place in the church. In fact, the entire office, across the corridor from the Center for Smart Learning, on the second floor of a shopping strip 17 miles outside Washington, is a happy clutter of women-world, Catholic and otherwise.

Thirty-dollar teal sweatshirts profile a woman raising the Eucharist and carry the legend, "Priestly people come in both sexes." Carefully hung stoles are woven with women's names; one draped over a door had "womenchurch" embroidered in several languages. Posters announce "Feminism in the '90s -- Bridging the Gap," and "Discover a New World -- Women's History." (WOC refers to its progress over the years as "herstory.")

"We knew a papal statement was coming," said Fitzpatrick. "We had been told it was to be released the same time the women were being ordained in England (March 12). We were surprised when it didn't come.

"Then the girl-altar-servers letter arrived. We knew they were throwing the bone to hush the puppies as they prepared the main meal. How appropriate it was released on the anniversary of the day Joan of Arc was burned at the stake as a heretic."

In the first three days after the papal statement, Fitzpatrick, at home, and the WOC office logged a total of more than 200 telephone calls and more than two dozen faxes from "frustrated and angry and supportive women, and men, too," said Benedictine Sr. Teresa Anderson, who works "full time and then some" at the WOC office.

A major worry for many callers is that the younger Catholic women -- who already are fleeing the church -- will exit at an ever greater rate.

Typical of the callers was Mary Puccinelli of suburban Chicago, who asked: "Is there any action planned?" Puccinelli described herself to Anderson as "just a laywoman, not a WOC member, but should be."

Later, Puccinelli told NCR, "I was horrified when I read what the pope said. It was a slap in the face to women, basically. ... To say this will never happen is just unconscionable, extremely arrogant."

Puccinelli, who went through Catholic grade schools, acknowledged that her mother probably supports the pope on this, but she worries about its effect on "younger people, the younger Catholic women. My 25-year-old daughter was a very strong Catholic and still wants to be one. But it has become a question of does she want to baptize her daughters into this church?"

One outraged male called a radio talk show Fitzpatrick was on. The man, a Protestant, said he and his fiancee, a Catholic, had planned to be married in a Catholic church but had changed their minds. "We don't want our children to be raised in a a church like this," he said. They will wed in the Episcopal Church.

Fitzpatrick interpreted what some of the calls meant. "One woman said, 'I'm on the phone because my daughter can't call. She's a medical student. She's brilliant, a gem of the church, but she's been on the edge and this is it. She's leaving.'"

Every time the pope demeans women or a bishop says no to female foot-washing, said Fitzpatrick, "people call. They telephone us because they want to say good-bye to somebody who cares."

A key element, as Fitzpatrick sees it, is the question of decision-making in what she sees as an increasingly dysfunctional church. "Until we have women in major decision-making roles in the church, it is going to remain patriarchal -- no matter how much they try to incorporate women at the local level. Those women are going to be chewed up or co-opted or both." Some woman are really hurting, she said.

Another woman, who works in a chancery, said she was calling first because she did not know whether to quit and take the entire women's commission with her. She was so angry she could not go to work.

"This letter is like a wake-up to people who did not know it was this bad," said Fitzpatrick. "We knew it was, but a lot of people didn't."

In his first U.S. visit, in 1978, Pope John Paul II told U.S. seminarians that women would never be ordained. A few years later, in 1983, he told U.S. bishops, during their ad limina visits to Rome, not to associate with those working for women's ordination and not to give them any money.

At their next annual conference, some of those bishops took Fitzpatrick and Sr. Teresa Kane out to dinner to report what the pope had said. "We're very protective of our friendly bishops," said Fitzpatrick, but at least three of them that evening were the late Bishop Maurice Dingman of Des Moines, Iowa; retired Bishop Joseph Breitenbeck of Grand Rapids, Mich.; and Richmond, Va., Bishop Walter Sullivan.

Other U.S. bishops known to have been supportive of dialogue on women's ordination over the years have included retired Bishop Charles Buswell of Pueblo, Colo.; Syracuse, N.Y., Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Costello; the late Memphis, Tenn., Bishop Carroll Dozier; former Brownsville, Texas, Bishop John Fitzpatrick; Detroit Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton; Covington, Ky., Bishop William Hughes; Juneau, Alaska, Bishop Michael Kenny; New Ulm, Minn., Bishop Raymond Lucker; Baltimore Auxiliary Bishop P. Francis Murphy; retired Sacramento, Calif., Bishop Francis Quinn; Hartford, Conn., Auxiliary Bishop Peter Rosazza; St. Augustine, Fla., Bishop John Snyder; Brooklyn, N.Y., Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Sullivan; Saginaw, Mich., Bishop Kenneth Untener; and Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland.

By 1988, the U.S. bishops' proposed pastoral letter on women was being coopted by Rome. That led to the U.S. bishops' voting against issuing any pastoral at all. This new letter comes, Fitzpatrick contended, "because in the U.S. especially, but also in Canada, Africa and Latin America, bishops have been speaking out, saying, 'We've got to ordain women,' and that's a no-no. They broke the silence."

What is Rome most afraid of?

"Community, I think," said Fitzpatrick. "The thought of people developing strength together in community terrifies them. The whole Roman thing has become so perverted; they're just interested in self-survival." On the strength of what issues from the Vatican, she said, "I don't know if the gospel message could be understood there."

To Fitzpatrick, the new instruction is a move to do what Humanae Vitae -- Paul VI's 1976 encyclical that continued the ban on artificial contraception -- attempted: to warn that anyone who advocates women's ordination is teaching error. "So there could be a lot of Charlie Curran-type bishops around and professors at Catholic colleges and women religious being subject to this very strong litmus test of whether they are a faithful Catholic or not," she said. (Moral theologian Fr. Curran was terminated from his teaching position at Catholic University for his allegedly unorthodox views.)

"This makes a difference to the bishops with whom we have worked very carefully over a number of years to get the courage to speak out and write out," said Fitzpatrick. "That's who it's going to hurt, because if they continue the way they have so far, then something is going to happen to them."

The Vatican has previously moved against women ordination supporters in other ways. The women religious whose orders funded the WOC's 1985 meeting in St. Louis, "Ordination Reconsidered," received letters from the apostolic delegate, Archbishop Pio Laghi, asking what the sponsorship meant and who gave them the authority to do it. Nothing happened except that the WOC received more money from many of the religious orders than otherwise would have been the case.

A variation on that theme applies to this latest papal directive.

Said Sr. Maureen Fiedler, who arrived at the WOC office during the interview, "There'll be a new level of audacity in attending next year's anniversary -- so a lot more people will go." Said Fitzpatrick, "The short-term thing is that we'll get more money and many more members. Long term, I just don't know."

What about action?

"We thought of taking out a Baltimore newspaper ad when the pope visits in the fall," said Fitzpatrick, "but what we really need to do is grassroots organizing -- and I think that will pick up. Mainly though, we should be encouraging all kinds of retreats because this is a spiritual crisis for women.

"My initial reaction is tremendous pain, and not so much anger as sorrow. But we've lived through the reigns of three popes; we'll be here for the fourth. We're not turning back. We are at a new point in history."
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Author:Jones, Arthur
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Jun 17, 1994
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