It is overwhelmingly obvious, after reading the first draft of their latest pastoral letter on the role of women in the Church, “Partners in the Mystery of Redemption,” that the American bishops have set themselves an impossible task: appeasing feminist demands for more power in the Church while remaining faithful to Catholic teaching and doctrine. Predictably, the “pastoral response to women’s concerns” successfully accomplishes neither. The draft document, the culmination of a process initiated sixteen years ago in “talks” between bishops and the Women’s Ordination Conference, is over long (164 pages), deeply ambiguous, flawed in its methodology, and basically incoherent.
Although some sections of the draft restate official Catholic teachings (albeit with little enthusiasm and negligible effort to help readers deepen their understanding of them), the bishops’ conclusions and recommendations often fail to follow consistently from the Church’s unified position. The document omits forthright discussion of the real divisions and confusion within the Church regarding central Catholic teachings, and alludes neither to the dangers of feminist excesses nor the link between feminism and abortion. In their repeated references to the “sin of sexism” and in their social criticism in general, the bishops adopt an ideological viewpoint—and even language—reminiscent of the early women’s liberation movement.
The pastoral fails truly to address the needs of most American Catholic women, and reflects primarily the interests (and the considerable influence) of a small minority of mostly professional religious women. It does not adequately address genuine concerns of Catholic women and their families, such as the lack of authentic and authoritative moral and religious education for children, the subtle and overt discrimination against women who choose to devote their lives to raising their families, and the pervasive anti-religious influence of contemporary society.
The bishops evidently believe, following their ‘consultation process’ which was clearly calculated to elicit maximum negative response, that large numbers of Catholic women are now unable to accept the Church’s teaching on birth control, abortion, human sexuality and marriage, ordination, etc. If this is true—even if it is partly true—what is needed is apologetics, not apologies. What is needed is a massive catechetical project to help people understand what the Church teaches and the reasons which underlie those teachings. For example, many people apparently confuse “equality” with “being identical” and seem to believe that “equal dignity” of men and women implies interchangeability of function. This devalues both womanhood and manhood, and undermines the distinct qualities and gifts which each sex contributes to the Church and to society.
The bishops, who have responsibility for providing both spiritual guidance and temporal leadership of Catholic people in a society which often contradicts basic Christian truths, need to face their teaching task courageously. This, rather than an attempt to achieve a false harmony by an essentially impossible compromise, would be the loving, healing, and genuinely pastoral approach. However, to give the impression by their contradictory recommendations that it is the Church, not people, which is in need of “conversion” and change reflects seriously misplaced compassion which compounds the problems of women the bishops are attempting to help and which increases confusion, alienation, and malaise.
The bishops should be aware of the effect that their recommendations about “sexist language,” “altar girls,” and ordination of women to the diaconate will inevitably have on most Catholics. The pastoral’s suggestions cannot fail to be perceived as concessions to feminist demands. Even if this is not the message intended, when representatives of the hierarchy seem to respond only to the complaints of feminist women, they convey the impression that only these women and their ideological views are worthy of consideration. This causes deep distress among the majority of faithful Catholics—both men and women—whose desire to cooperate with bishops and whose need for support from officials and leaders of the Church is exceeded only by their love for the Church and their willingness to fulfill their proper mission in the Church and in the world.
Change in the present rules regarding altar servers and opening “discussion” on the ordination of women to the diaconate will be regarded by many as the first step in the process of radically changing the structure of the Church. Such changes can only give false hope to feminists and other liberationists that it will only be a matter of time before their goals are accomplished, and can only exacerbate, not alleviate, the current divisions in the Church.
We can hope that the revised draft of the “pastoral response” will more realistically reflect the genuine needs of the majority of American Catholic women and their families, and will thoroughly incorporate the findings of Pope John Paul II following the recent Synod on the Laity. Since the synod addressed many issues contained in the pastoral letter, and since the Pope’s “Apostolic Exhortation” is expected soon, it seems odd that the bishops did not defer issuing the pastoral for a few more months. As it now stands, it seems inevitable that it will generate further division and disunity within the Church in the United States, and contribute to the erosion of the evangelical witness of the Catholic Church to the modern world.