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Chicago Tribune

Women Expect Little Change on Core Issues


The election of the fiercely dogmatic Pope Benedict XVI dashed the dreams of many moderate American Catholics for a softening of the Vatican’s staunch opposition to female ordination and artificial contraception, two of the most challenging and divisive issues involving women and the church.At the same time, however, some Catholics hold out the possibility that the new pope might consider altering the church’s stance against the use of condoms to prevent HIV/AIDS, out of compassion for the victims, and a married priesthood, out of sheer necessity in the face of declining vocations.

“In spite of his traditionalism and very doctrinal conservatism, he still has to address the church’s very modern problems,” said Angela Bonavoglia, author of the recently published book, “Good Catholic Girls: How Women Are Leading the Fight to Change the Church.”

Among the most pressing problems that she, along with others, listed: “The crushing priest shortage–I think there is a crying need to ordain married men and women. The damage done by clergy sex abuse and the impact of the church’s controversial sexual teachings, like the ban on condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS. The last thing is the clamor of both the laity and the bishops for a voice in local church matters.”

In the new pope’s view, the issues of female ordination and artificial contraception are “not just off the table for now, but off the table, period,” said John Grabowski, associate dean of graduate studies at the Catholic University of America’s School of Theology and Religious Studies in Washington, D.C.

“During the last couple of decades, there have been too many issues taken off the discussion table. This has been very unhealthy for the church,” said an editorial in the current issue of America, the influential, Jesuit-published national Catholic weekly magazine. The editorial specifically pointed to the role of women.

“The pope will also face a growing population of educated Catholic women who feel alienated from the church. … Losing educated women in the 21st Century will be even more problematic, since it is most often women who pass on the faith to the next generation as educators and mothers. The church has made much progress in the treatment of women since the Second Vatican Council, but a greater sensitivity on women’s issues must be a sine qua non for the pope or anyone who attains leadership in the church. Women’s ordination must be open for discussion,” said the editorial.

Discussion of that subject is possible, but change is unlikely, said Sister Sara Butler, a theologian at the archdiocese of New York’s St. Joseph Seminary. Butler last year became one of the first two women appointed to the International Theological Commission, the Vatican’s top theology group, which was overseen by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger before his elevation to the papacy. As such, she is proof of some of the advances women made under Pope John Paul II.

Celibacy not dogma

Butler doesn’t expect to see female ordination or approval of artificial contraception soon. Polls long have indicated that the majority of American Catholics disagree with and ignore church teaching on contraception.

Butler said a married priesthood might receive consideration because priestly celibacy is not a matter of dogma, but of a discipline. Indeed, St. Peter, the first head of the church, was married and celibacy was not adopted until the 12th Century.

“I think people mistakenly think the pope is free to change his mind about things,” said Butler of dogmatic issues. “He doesn’t have the authority to change what is the apostolic teaching. There’s something called doctrine, which is really the firm teaching of the church, maintained consistently,” she said, referring to the ban on female ordination.

Grabowski and others are equally pessimistic about the ordination of women, or even consideration of women as deacons. If anything, they said, the stance against women priests appears to be hardening.

“In terms of the ordination issue, Cardinal Ratzinger was very clear in issuing a response to a question concerning John Paul II’s statement on the ordination of women. He was asked specifically whether this was a definitive statement, whether this belonged to the deposit of the faith, in other words, a dogmatic statement that can’t be revised or changed. He answered in the affirmative,” said Grabowski.

He was referring to the 1995 Vatican declaration that the ban on female ordination was infallible, made by Ratzinger in his former role as enforcer of church teaching as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It is, however, a declaration questioned by some theologians.

Church and the nuptial story

“It’s faulty theology and there’s a growing consensus among theologians around the world that there is no theology against the ordination of women that is credible,” said Sister Kathleen Dolphin, director for the Center for Spirituality at St. Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Ind.

“In refusing to ordain women, the Roman Catholic Church feels that in the nuptial story, the marriage between Christ and the church, in some way, only men can stand for the Christ part,” said Nancy Dallavalle, associate professor of religious studies at Connecticut’s Fairfield University. The belief also is rooted in Christ’s choice of 12 men to be his apostles.

“The prohibition on naming women priests under John Paul II is now seen as part of what we call the deposit of faith and therefore non-negotiable. That is a new interpretation of this prohibition that John Paul II set in place, a new and much more dogmatic prohibition,” she said.

“What I think and hope for is the new pope is going to deal with this reality that over half the billion Catholics in the world are women,” said Dolphin. “The church is going to have to pay attention to what women are saying and also what men are saying about women. There are men within the church who are saying this has to change. Poll after poll indicates that people in the pews are ready for ordained women.”

Indeed, according to a CBS News survey of American Catholics taken in the days leading up to the conclave of cardinals, 60 percent support women in the priesthood. But, as Dallavalle pointed out, “There’s no pressure from the rest of the world,” and Americans represent only 6 percent of all Catholics.

“Again, we’ve had an articulation of what women can’t do, but we haven’t had an articulation of what they can do,” said Catholic University’s Grabowski. “The question then is how do women fully participate in the church, what are their distinctive gifts and ministries and how do they exercise leadership in the church?”

There is no argument that women play an increasingly important, if not crucial, role in the life of the Catholic Church in this country. According to a study by the National Pastoral Life Center, women represent 82 percent of parish ministers, who take on such duties as overseeing youth groups and organizing religious instruction.

Although some function as parish directors for congregations that have only a visiting priest, most are limited in decision-making and frustrated by that, according to findings by the National Association of Lay Ministers. “The relationship of jurisdiction to ordination creates a glass ceiling for women in the church,” said a 1996 Leadership Conference of Women Religious Benchmarks report.

Nonetheless, said Dolores Leckey, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center of Georgetown University, “It’s not so much about ordination, but about women having a voice and having that voice taken seriously.” For example, she said, “There are many roles in the church that do not require ordination but, by custom, have been filled by men, such as the diplomats of the church, the nuncios.”

Eric McFadden, president of Catholics for Faithful Citizenship, a 5,000-member national group that seeks to keep the Democratic and Republican Parties accountable to Catholic social doctrine, agreed that women need a greater voice in the church.

“What I’d like to see [Pope Benedict] do is open up a dialogue and conversation and listen more to the laity, especially in the Third World, on women’s issues.”

McFadden, like many moderate Catholics, particularly is eager for the church to lift its ban on the use of condoms to fight HIV/AIDS and is hopeful that change may come in the short term. He noted that in many places, women, married or not, are sexually submissive to men and find themselves and their children increasingly vulnerable to the deadly disease.

“It’s definitely a life issue and it’s come to the point that the church, as it has many times in the past, should evolve to the times and confront this. Up to 1854, the pope said that God allowed slavery. Slavery was a great threat to humanity, but AIDS could be an even greater threat,” said McFadden.

Condoms as disease fighter

There have been rising calls within the church for permission to use condoms as a barrier to the virus that causes AIDS. Cardinal Gottfried Daneels of Brussels has called condoms “a lesser evil” than AIDS and Cardinal Georges Cottier, a papal theologian, said earlier this year that in certain circumstances condoms are justified when used against disease, not to prevent conception.

A conference of Spanish bishops this year also declared condoms a legitimate weapon against the disease, although the Vatican swiftly overruled them. And, just days after the election of Pope Benedict, South African Bishop Kevin Dowling again urged the Vatican to discuss condoms in relation to HIV/AIDS, which infects 25 million people in Africa, two-thirds of the world’s AIDS victims.

Frances Kissling, president of the progressive group Catholics for a Free Choice, said she is hopeful on the issue of married priests. Like others, she pointed out that not only is celibacy not a matter of Catholic dogma, but the church already accepts married Episcopal priests.

Said Kissling, “The married priesthood is essential to the survival of the church and the use of condoms to prevent a deadly disease is essential to the survival of the world. If we get those two changes, we position ourselves for further changes 20 years down the road.”

This story originally appeared in the 28 April 2005 edition of the Chicago Tribune.

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