Women's role in church divides Catholic bishops


SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Underscoring the widening chasm between ordinary Roman Catholics in the United States and the church hierarchy, a new Gallup Poll has found that two out of three Catholics believe that women should be admitted to the priesthood, and 75 percent say that priests should be allowed to marry.

The poll's dramatic findings were unveiled as nearly 240 U.S. bishops meeting at the University of Notre Dame deadlocked on a proposed pastoral letter on women's role in the church. A pastoral letter is an authoritative teaching of the church.

In the making for nine years, the draft letter re-affirms the centuries-old Catholic tradition -- and the strongly held view of Pope John Paul II -- of a male priesthood even as it condemns what it called the "sin of sexism" and said women should be treated with equality.

An unlikely coalition of church liberals, who charged that the letter did not go far enough in advocating the ordination of women, and conservatives, who thought the draft went too far, appeared to doom its chances of adoption in November, when a vote of the bishops is scheduled in Washington.

In an unusual and dramatic straw vote yesterday, it appeared that more than one out of three bishops could not support the draft. Bishops voted by standing up, but no formal count was taken.

Minutes later, the chairman of the drafting committee, Bishop Joseph L. Imesch of Joilet, Ill., told reporters that it would take "a miracle" to salvage the proposal before the bishops' next meeting.

"Realistically, I don't see how that's possible," he said, adding, "We're going to give it a try."

It seemed probable that if the letter is issued at all, it will be downgraded to the status of a less authoritative working paper or committee document. Vatican officials had suggested such a move last year.

The poll of 802 Catholics across the nation released yesterday is the latest from Gallup to track church opinion on such volatile issues as women's ordination and a married priesthood, and points to growing support for change among the laity. In 1974, 29 percent of those polled supported the ordination of women. That figure grew to 58 percent in 1985 and 67 percent in 1992.

The poll also found that 58 percent supported the ordination of women as Roman Catholic bishops. There was also strong support among Catholics that their opinions should be considered by bishops in developing church teaching on sexuality (80 percent strongly agree or somewhat agree).

On the question of whether sexual relations between gay or lesbian individuals in a committed relationship would be morally acceptable, 19.4 percent strongly agreed and 26.5 percent said they were in some agreement.

In all cases, the various causes elicited their strongest support among younger poll respondents.

"This is nothing less than a quiet but massive grass-roots revolution in the church. [It] documents the fact . . . that the Catholic laity and hierarchy are at odds on virtually every major issue facing the church today," said Sister Maureen Fiedler, co-director of a church reform group known as Catholics Speak Out.

Despite the dramatic findings, there was little indication that they carried much weight with bishops as they debated the proposed pastoral letter.

"The church decides its doctrine on 2,000 years of traditional teaching based on the Scriptures and the message of our Lord Jesus Christ," said Bishop Raymond J. Boland of Birmingham, Ala. "We're not about to change it just because of the polls. . . . The polls are a reflection of opinion, not doctrine."

The split among bishops on the letter was evident during several hours of debate. It was the first time bishops had publicly discussed the third and latest draft, which has been the subject of intense pressure from members of the Catholic laity, influential Vatican officials and prelates from around the world.

The letter stresses that men and women are equal in human dignity, and it urges priests to view and treat women as equals. But it also states that men and women are called to "distinctive vocations" for the good of the whole church.

Last year, the draft committee was summoned to the Vatican and told that the text must conform to church tradition.

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