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Women Critics Say Pope Left Them Out


NEW YORK (Reuters) – Pope John Paul II won a reputation as a crusader for human rights during his long papacy, butreform-minded Catholic women think he left out half of humanity along the way.

The Polish pontiff was a staunch defender of traditional Church policies on women, refusing to consider ordaining thempriests or approving contraception, condoms or abortion.

At times his and his conservative advisers even tried to roll back reforms from the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965)that gave women a more active role in the liturgy and allowed altar girls to serve Mass.

Liberal women are a minority in the Church, mostly educated westerners far outnumbered by their more traditionalsisters in the Third World, but they rank among the pope’s staunchest critics on issues that pit the Church against themodern world.

Their discontent points to a wider issue challenging the Church — will Catholic women continue to accept a lesser statusin their religion now after many barriers to equality have tumbled in school, work and the home?

“He will go down in history as a pope who didn’t understand and who wasn’t friendly to women,” Frances Kissling,president of the liberal Washington D.C.-based activist group Catholics for a Free Choice, said of John Paul.

“He couldn’t have slammed the door shut more loudly on the question of the ordination of women. He will go down as afifth-century pope in terms of who women are.”

The Vatican reaped criticism and scorn from women in 2004 for issuing a long-awaited document on men and womenthat charged that feminists were “adversaries of men” who undermined families and paved the way for acceptance of gaymarriage.

“That letter could easily have been written by an imam of al-Azhar,” said former European Commissioner EmmaBonino, referring to Sunni Islam’s top university in Cairo.

Separate but Equal

A fervent follower of the Virgin Mary, the pope argued that his stand actually honoured women by underlining the dignityof their God-given “separate but equal” role in the Church.

Many Catholic women have no problem with this and feel only a small minority — mostly older women influenced byfeminist movements a generation ago — is pressing for sweeping change.

Helen Hull Hitchcock, head of the conservative Women for Faith and Family in St. Louis, Missouri, said all John Paul didwas “reaffirm the church’s constant teaching for 2,000 years.”

The pope’s supporters also discount Catholic feminism as largely a concern of women in rich countries such as theUnited States, Canada, Britain and Germany and less appealing to women in traditionally Catholic countries and in theThird World.

In Argentina, for example, Catholic women mostly approved of the pope and have not protested or seriously questionedthe structure of the church or its stand on matters such as birth control, said Dr. Zelmira Bottini de Rey, a researcher at theBioethics Institute of Argentina’s Catholic University.

Women “have their place in the church, and it’s an important place, and they feel good about that,” she said. “The churchis hierarchical and has a very clear order. What’s important is that everyone has a place in that order.”

Outdated View?

Others, though, say the pope’s conservative positions on women’s issues alienated both religious and lay women whofeel he ignored them. They point to the dramatic drop in nuns’ orders in the United States — from 179,954 in 1965 to73,316 in 2003 — as a sign of this discontent.

In Ireland, where the once all-powerful clergy opposed reforms allowing divorce and contraception, the church’s rapidlydeclining influence was partly due to the pope’s traditional attitude toward women, said law professor Ivana Bacik.

“It’s increasingly seen as being irrelevant to people,” she said. “Its outdated view of women and sexuality obviously hasa lot to do with that.”

The pope’s feminist critics round on him for opposing the use of condoms to combat AIDS in Africa, artificial birthcontrol to curb the Third World population explosion or abortion for Bosnian women — mostly Muslims — raped by Serbsoldiers.

The pope has not only stood by the ban on women priests, but even issued a ban on discussing the issue.

This view sits especially badly with critics who note that the Church hushed up for years the scandal of priests whosexually abused children — an issue many Catholics say women would have aired far earlier than the all-male priesthooddid.

Proponents of women’s ordination cite the letters of Saint Paul, some of the earliest texts of Christianity, to show thatwomen played important roles in the early church.

“Almost any woman you would stop on the street would say the question of giving women a greater role in thegovernance of the church is an obvious one,” said Phyllis Zagano, religious studies professor at Hofstra University in NewYork.

“I find tremendous positive reception to the concept of women being restored to the ancient tradition of the church, whichis ordained women deacons.”

But the Vatican shows no interest in women deacons. As for ordination, the Church excommunicated seven women fromGermany, Austria and the United States ordained in Austria in 2002.

Risk of Alienation

Some Catholic leaders have taken a more liberal stand. In 2003, Belgian Cardinal Godfried Danneels, tipped as apossible successor to John Paul, said he favoured appointing more women to top functions in the Vatican hierarchy.

But he stopped short of saying women should be allowed to become priests. Another prominent liberal, Italian CardinalCarlo Maria Martini, has warned that ordaining women would lead to a schism in the Church.

These debates risk alienating a wider group of women who, as mothers and teachers, transmit the faith to youngCatholics, including potential future priests. With vocations to the priesthood falling, this role has become crucial.

“The Church has to be extremely careful that women do not become anticlerical, because if they do, then we’re in realtrouble,” said Father Thomas Reese, editor of the U.S. Jesuit weekly America.

This article courtesy of Reuters.

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