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MONTEVIDEO, May 4 2005 (IPS) - Catholic women waiting for the day when they too can be ordained as priests will undoubtedly have a longer wait ahead of them following the recent designation of conservative Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI.
Some believe that the ordination of women is only a matter of time, because the Roman Catholic Church will need to turn to women to compensate for the dwindling number of men entering the priesthood, a phenomenon that is threatening the very survival of the Church in some parts of the world.
During the pontificate of John Paul II (1978-2005), the number of Catholics in the world rose from 758 million to just over 1.07 billion, as measured by the number of baptisms, reflecting a rate of growth similar to that of the world’s population in general.
During the same period, however, the number of priests fell by 3.7 percent, and that of nuns by 20.9 percent, according to the Pontifical Yearbook.
But some women do not care much for this reasoning.
"This is the first time I’ve heard that we who are in favour of the ordination of women are doing it for the survival of the Church," said Uruguayan theologian Gladys Parentelli, coordinator of the Venezuelan branch of the international movement We Are Church (IMWAC), and a member of its international council.
"That would be an argument that could be raised with the Church hierarchy, because it is deeply worried about the lack of a vocation to the priesthood among boys and men. However, we women who are fighting for ordination are doing so because we have a calling, and since we have been baptised, we have every right to it, despite what the Vatican says," Parentelli told IPS.
Popes Paul VI (1963-1978) and John Paul II effectively shut the door on this demand, alleging reasons of theology and tradition and insisting that women have other areas in which to pursue their religious vocation.
Why is being a nun or a catechist not enough? IPS posed this question to Ivelisse Colón Nevárez, a Puerto Rican designer and active aspirant to the Catholic priesthood.
"Because it’s something you feel as a call from God. If I had received a call to become a nun, believe me, I would have been in a convent long ago, instead of writing this," she responded by e-mail.
"The callings of priests and nuns are different. A priest is ordained for numerous purposes: to celebrate the Eucharist, which is at the core of the Catholic faith, to minister to people’s souls, to ensure the spiritual welfare of the faithful, to hear confession and give absolution, to provide spiritual guidance, counsel and consolation," she noted.
"The life of a nun is one of service, but from a different perspective," she explained.
"The priest is like the head, monks and nuns are the heart, and lay brothers and sisters are the hands and feet of the Church," added Colón Nevárez, who is a member of Women Priests, an international network that campaigns for the ordination of women, and of the Secular Franciscan Order.
This order was founded in the early 13th century by St. Francis of Assisi, and is defined as secular because its members live "in the world" and are not bound by public vows like members of orders who live in religious communities.
For some women, however, it is not enough to be the heart, hands or feet.
In 2002, Argentine Archbishop Rómulo Braschi, who belongs to a "breakaway" Catholic Church not recognised by the Vatican, ordained seven women – four from Germany, two from Austria and one from the United States – on board a boat on the Danube River in Austria.
The seven women were ordered by the Vatican to "repent" and renounce their ordination, and when they refused, they were excommunicated.
They subsequently appealed the decision, and sent open letters to the Vatican reporting that they were exercising such priestly duties as celebrating mass and performing marriage ceremonies.
Their appeal, however, was rejected by the Vatican watchdog, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, because of the "gravity of the offences committed" by the women in "rejecting formally and with obstinacy" the Church doctrine on women priests.
In 2004, the ban on the ordination of women was reiterated in a Vatican letter, "On the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and the World", signed by the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the time, who was none other than Cardinal Ratzinger, the man now leading the Catholic Church.
For some theologians and Catholic movements, however, allowing women to become priests and revoking the requirement of mandatory celibacy could help to remedy the significant drop in the number of men entering the priesthood today.
"We tend to think that this problem is even more serious in Latin America (home to almost half of the world’s Catholics), because poverty and the lack of roads and communications make contact between priests and the faithful even more difficult," commented Colón Nevárez.
In Mexico, there is one priest for ever 7,200 Catholics, and the average age of parish priests is 65.
In Brazil, the country with the largest number of Catholics in the world, the ratio of Church members to priests is 7,300 to one, despite the fact that the number of priests has grown in the last decade from 14,000 to 17,000 thanks to a national policy of actively encouraging young men to enter the priesthood.
There are also 37,000 nuns in Brazil, although their numbers have failed to grow like those of priests, according to researcher Silvia Regina Fernandes of the Centre for Religious Statistics and Social Research.
It is unusual for nuns to pursue higher studies, like priests do, which places them in a position of "intellectual inferiority," added Fernandes.
This lack of growth in the number of nuns is the result of a difference in treatment, activist Regina Soares of Catholics for the Right to Decide told IPS.
Women in the Catholic Church are not only denied a role in decision-making. In addition, seminarians are supported by the Church and can devote themselves to study, while women must study and work to support themselves at the same time.
Once they are ordained, priests are assigned to a parish where they earn a salary and enjoy comfortable living conditions, which sometimes include "a cell phone and even a car," noted Soares.
In the meantime, Brazilian nuns and lay sisters have become responsible for an even wider range of duties than their traditional work in hospitals and schools, following the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).
In fact, these women became the mainstay of the ecclesiastic base communities in the shantytowns on the outskirts of large cities and in isolated rural settlements, said Soares.
A prime example is Dorothy Stang, a U.S.-born Catholic missionary who was murdered Feb. 12 for her efforts to defend the peasant farmers of the Brazilian Amazon region.
In Brazil, there is no organised movement of women fighting for the right to ordination, only isolated demands spurred by the discrimination that women face, said Soares.
Colón Nevárez believes that poverty and isolation make it more difficult to organise movements like these. "I myself don’t know of a single group in Latin America devoted to the ordination of women. Most of the people who have contacted me have done it on their own, without any kind of group to back them," she remarked.
Parentelli said she knows "a legion of women who would have liked to be priests, but they never even really considered it, because they realised it was a lost battle."
Moreover, "most of the women theologians I know, in all of the countries of Latin America, got their degrees in Protestant universities, like the Latin American Biblical University in Costa Rica, or else they studied in Europe or the United States," she added.
In Venezuela, "the number of young men entering seminaries has grown so much that they are turning applicants away because of a lack of space," she added. However, "it’s been said that a significant proportion of them have no way of going to a university," noted Parentelli.
In the rural areas of Venezuela, she noted, baptisms were traditionally carried out by lay members of the Church, because there were a limited number of priests.
Given this shortage, the Church hierarchy "decided to ordain married lay brothers as deacons, and to call on women to take on the duties of priests," she said.
"In marginalised communities in the countryside and the cities, the role of the parish priest has been taken over by nuns and lay sisters who carry out almost all of the functions involved (except for conducting ceremonies like mass, consecrations and marriages). They also organise Bible study groups and provide spiritual guidance to the community," she added.
For their part, priests "devote themselves to more intellectual activities like being the rector of a university, directing research centres, serving as military chaplains, supporting the government or the opposition, writing books, or serving as experts on legal or technical matters," said Parentelli.
Some claim that in the first centuries of the Christian era, both women and men performed the duties of priests. As evidence of this, they point to frescoes and mosaics, sacred writings, and the very fact that the ordination of women was officially prohibited in the 10th century.
"In the early church, women served as deacons, and there may be evidence they even presided at what we now call celebrations of the Mass. Tradition does not stop at a designated point in history; it embraces the present also," U.S. priest John J. Egan wrote in a letter shortly before his death in 2001 at the age of 84.
But the Vatican does not share this view. In a 1976 declaration, "Inter insigniores", the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith stated that "the Church, in fidelity to the example of the Lord, does not consider herself authorised to admit women to priestly ordination."
Pope Paul VI, in his 1977 "Address on the Role of Women in the Plan of Salvation", alluded to the fact that Jesus Christ chose only men as his apostles, and as a result, "in giving the Church her fundamental constitution, her theological anthropology – thereafter always followed by the Church’s Tradition – Christ established things in this way."
These dictates were staunchly upheld by Karol Wojtyla during his pontificate as John Paul II.
"Very little or nothing can be expected of the new pope," said Colón Nevárez, given his promotion of the idea that the impossibility of ordaining women "is an ‘infallible teaching,’ which is incorrect," she added.
Mercedes Carrizosa, a Catholic from Spain who aspires to the priesthood, told the Madrid newspaper El País in 2002 that "when it’s left with no other choice, the Church will turn to women or to married men or whoever it can."
Carrizosa, who has a degree in theology, said that her frustration is "not only mine, but of the people of God." She described a visit to Peru, where small isolated communities are attended to by nuns, and have to make due with taped masses. "They have to travel by river for six hours to bring back a canned version of Jesus," she remarked.
* With additional reporting by Mario Osava in Brazil.
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