WASHINGTON -- The nation's Roman Catholic bishops, embroiled in a heated discussion of the ordination of women and other issues raised by a proposed pastoral letter, are expected to vote today on a recommendation by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago to refer the document to a committee.
Being debated is a controversial fourth draft of the 100-page pastoral letter on women in the church and society, the result of a nine-year process of research, writing and revision.
Criticisms of the letter were not resolved before the nearly 300 bishops went into executive session yesterday afternoon. Open debate is resuming today.
Needing two-thirds of the bishops' votes for adoption, the document appeared headed for rejection before Cardinal Bernardin suggested his compromise.
He recommended giving up the effort to adopt the pastoral letter but retaining it as a "basis for action on a number of matters which clearly call for attention, and for study and dialogue on a number of others."
Cardinal John O'Connor of New York called this a "valuable solution to the problem facing us."
But opponents of the compromise among the more conservative bishops saw it as signaling a reluctance to issue a forceful statement that women are barred from the Roman Catholic priesthood. The draft document contains such a statement.
Speaking against Cardinal Bernardin's motion, Bishop Charles J. Chaput of Rapid City, S.D., told the conference members: "It is important for us to say something clearly about the ordination of women."
Failure to adopt the pastoral letter will "make it appear we are not certain," Bishop Chaput said.
Auxiliary Bishop Austin B. Vaughan of New York agreed, saying the Catholic laity needs to be told that "a woman priest is as impossible as for me to have a baby."
"In the year Two Million, there will still be a Catholic Church and there will still be an all-male clergy," he added. Reminding his fellow bishops that "the Holy See did not want any more discussion of the ordination of women," Bishop Vaughan argued that failure to pass the pastoral letter would make it appear the question was still open.
Cardinal Bernardin countered that his motion to turn the document over to the bishops' executive committee for study and selective implementation included assurances that the U.S. hierarchy accepts the Vatican's teaching on the subject of women's ordination.
The cardinal quoted a 1976 Vatican declaration that "the church does not consider herself authorized to admit women to the priesthood," and he added, "We are not ambiguous about this."
Asked how he would vote today on the Bernardin recommendation, Archbishop William H. Keeler of Baltimore, newly-elected president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, said, "I am still listening to the pros and cons."
However, Baltimore Auxiliary Bishop John H. Ricard said that in view of the apparent lack of the necessary two-thirds support for the pastoral letter, he would favor the Bernardin motion as a way to salvage the work that has gone into the letter.
Under the Bernardin plan, the executive committee would implement a number of the draft letter's recommendations, such as "to offer fair remuneration for women working in church positions and to provide for benefit programs and just procedures for promotion and grievance."
Among its other recommendations are "to provide continued, loving support for unmarried parents and their children" and "to denounce violence against women through preaching and teaching and to expand ministries especially to women and children who are victims of domestic violence."
Opposing passage of the pastoral letter and supporting the Bernardin motion, Auxiliary Bishop Peter A. Rosazza of Hartford, Conn., said, "Prior to this, women's issues were rarely raised on this floor." He noted that though there was a lack of consensus on the complex issues raised in the draft document, what was happening was progress.
The controversial fourth draft does not call sexism a sin, as did earlier versions of the letter, but rather a "moral and social evil." The draft suggests women themselves are partly to blame for sexism, saying, "It is not only sexism but the sexual revolution that accounts for the present oppression of women."
Another supporter of Cardinal Bernardin's motion was Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland of Milwaukee, who reminded the bishops that "the consistent tradition of the church" on which the prohibition is based was that "women were considered inferior -- something we do not dare say today." Despite the nine years of work that went into the pastoral letter, it raises questions that "have not been totally addressed."