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RELIGION: New Pope May Have to Reconsider Role for Women

Elisa Marincola

ROME, Apr 18 2005 (IPS) - A new pope will have to reconsider the position of the ‘other half of the faithful’, women leaders in the Catholic Church say.

All key positions in the Roman Curia as the Vatican administration is called, have remained in the hands of males. The apostolic letter ‘Ordinatio Sacerdotalis’ (‘retaining priestly ordination for men alone’) of 1994 had affirmed that the ban on women priests is definitive and not open to debate among Catholics.

Pope John Paul II’s stand on women has been controversial. He defended women’s "equal dignity", but said men and women have complementary natures and that their role in church, family and society must reflect their true natures.

This view of complementary roles became the basis of a ‘Letter to the bishops about collaboration between men and women’ published in October last year by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith within the Church. The letter strongly reaffirmed traditional church positions on women such as opposition to feminism, and a ban on ordination of women.

The document says differences between the sexes are a part of God’s plan for creation, and not social constructs. The document denounces what it calls the gender ideology of feminism of United Nations policies on women and the family.

But differences have arisen over this position within the Church, and these have often been silenced. "The atmosphere of silence and threat in church institutions has increased to such an extent that it has stifled freedom of thought and research, and made dialogue impossible," Adriana Valerio, president of the European Society for Women in Theological Research (ESWTR) told IPS.

Bishops and male theologians too have expressed strong doubts about the Church position. Many among them say the Church has failed to keep pace with the times, and that the young have begun to question traditional Church views on morality. The number of the faithful going to Mass in western nations is declining, they say.

Women theologians say the 2004 apostolic letter does not even mention the work of Catholic women scholars.

They are looking for a radical shift in the Church view of women. "Women’s bodies and sexuality cannot be seen any more as sources of sin and temptation," Valerio said.

In response to such charges John Paul II sent Mary Ann Glendon, president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences to lead the Vatican delegation to the conference of women in New York last month. Glendon maintained the position of the Church against making the right to reproductive health a human right.

But despite the papal decree that ordination of women is not open to debate, and a warning in 1998 to "excommunicate every dissenter" on this issue, debate has spread within the Church. In 2002 a renegade bishop in Austria ordained seven women. Supporters of women priests went on to launch a website of their own.

The 2004 letter from the Vatican had sought to put down such demands. It stressed that even minor offices within the Church such as deacon (an ordained member below the rank of priest) must be "strictly reserved for men." Another order said that women must not be involved in celebration of Mass even as altar servers or pastoral assistants unless authorised by bishops.

Two European groups, the Women’s Ordination Conference and the European Women Theologians Synod have openly urged the Church to revise such positions.

Concern is rising also over the decline in the number of men entering priesthood. According to the Vatican, the number of Catholics has risen 40 percent between 1975 and 2002, but the number of priests has remained the same. About half of all parishes and missions do not have a resident priest.

Informal women ministers are already working to hold the Church together. About 783,000 women are serving the Church compared to 405,000 male priests. The Catholic Church has a following of about 1.07 billion.

A 1997 survey found 58 to 70 percent support in Spain, Ireland, Italy and the United States for the ordination of women. Later surveys by Gallup, Newsweek and the National Catholic Reporter produced similar figures.

A stronger role for women could alter the basic tenets of religious belief because many women theologians find traditional explanations inadequate. "It is right to grant more space to women, not just to fill up for the lack of male priests but to give new impulse to the Church’s pastoral life," Valerio said.

The decrees of Pope John Paul II could be tombstones over any demand for a new role for women in Church. But Valerio is still optimistic, because every Pope has his own views, and because the Church simply needs women.

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