Catholic bishops debate controversial draft of letter on women's issues


SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Divisions in the Roman Catholic Church over its centuries-old ban on women priests grew deeper yesterday during a nationwide meeting of bishops at the University of Notre Dame.

Two-thirds of U.S. Catholics want women ordained, says a new Gallup Poll released yesterday by a coalition of seven Catholic protest groups. The coalition held its own conference at Notre Dame, called "Outside the Walls."

Meanwhile, the 200 bishops hotly debated a controversial 81-page draft of a pastoral letter on women's issues. The draft condemns sexism as a serious sin, but it also repeats the church's condemnation of women's ordination.

That's hypocritical, complained retired Colorado Bishop Charles Buswell: "The document . . . seems to deny that the church is guilty of sexism -- even though it continues to deny ordination to half of its membership because they are women."

Bishop Raymond Lucker of Minnesota agreed that the bishops should not quickly condemn women's ordination and, instead, should study the issue thoroughly.

But most other bishops disagreed, slamming the letter for not criticizing feminism aggressively enough.

"Never before in the history of the world has there been the potential for division in the church that we find in some aspects of what we call the women's movement," said Indiana Bishop John Sheets.

Several bishops called the letter a hopelessly divisive, no-win situation.

The bishops delayed any final action on the letter until November. If approved as now written, it could have dramatic impact nationwide.

In addition to telling women they cannot be ordained, the letter also calls for a broad range of new measures to combat sexism, including more teaching in local churches about the equality of men and women in marriages, tests to see if priesthood candidates can work equally with women, new commissions in each diocese to study women's issues, and an increased effort to eliminate sexist language.

For the first time in a pastoral letter, the bishops go so far as to acknowledge that other Christian churches have begun ordaining women and admit that this trend puts pressure on the Roman Catholic Church.

Many traditionalists say the draft of the letter goes too far in siding with the popular movement toward women's rights.

"Our church is getting too chummy with the spirit of our times," said Sherry Tyree, a founder of Women for Faith and Family, a national group that defends traditional Catholicism. "Sexism is not such a serious problem in the Catholic Church."

Catholic feminists said the draft doesn't go far enough.

"The bishops would do well to bury this document and to listen anew to the voices of Catholic people as we are hearing them in this survey," said Sister Maureen Fiedler, who was moderator of the Outside the Walls conference.

The Gallup Poll, which included 802 Catholics and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points, showed broad disagreement with official church teachings.

About 67 percent of Catholics say they think women should be ordained, 58 percent said they should become bishops, 87 percent disagreed with the Catholic ban on birth control and 75 percent opposed the church's ban on married priests.

Many bishops stressed that even calling for a study of women's ordination was pointless because the Vatican and most worldwide Catholic leaders consider the subject closed.

Detroit Archbishop Adam Maida echoed a common response to the Gallup data, saying that Catholic teaching is not determined by surveys. But the survey does show deep disagreements among the membership and challenges all Catholic leaders to explain church doctrine more forcefully. "This puts a huge burden on us," he concluded.

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