WASHINGTON -- Admitting formally for the first time the existence of sexism within the Roman Catholic Church, the nation's bishops voted overwhelmingly yesterday to encourage women to seek positions of leadership within the church other than the priesthood.
Sexism, they said, "goes against the will of Christ." However, the bishops did not give any hint that they are willing to challenge the Vatican's long-held doctrine that the priesthood is for men only.
The bishops' action, taken at their semiannual meeting, marks their response to a letter written in May by Pope John Paul II in which he "definitively" ruled out the ordination of women. It also serves as an acknowledgment of differences between the conservative doctrine of the Vatican and the influence of American culture on the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, where women have agitated for greater say in religious matters.
Narrow in focus, the statement underscores the contributions of women to the church, encourages the church hierarchy to consult women more often, states the importance of using gender-neutral language and urges exploration of new ways for women to participate in leadership.
"We are presented with a graced moment to restore our belief in the equality of men and women," said Bishop John J. Snyder, chairman of the Committee on Women in Society and in the Church, which wrote the report.
Catholic women applauded the declaration as a forward step for the church, although some added that it "could always be stronger."
"There have been 2,000 years of sexism, and now we have a document that says, 'We regret it and we want to make it better,' " said Sister Doris Gottemoeller, president of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas in Silver Spring. "The question [of women in leadership roles] is being raised in a way that has never been raised before."
However, others said that the document did not go far enough.
"The bishops are frail human beings just like the rest of us, and if they are going to stop committing the sin of sexism they are going to have to have a concrete plan that is evaluated on a regular basis," said Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, an organization not affiliated with the church.
Over the years, women have gained little power within the church hierarchy, said Ms. Kissling. In 1988, 16 percent of the top 5,400 nonordained positions within U.S. dioceses were held by women, according to a study conducted by Catholics for a Free Choice. Five years later, the figure of women in top jobs had risen by only 3 percent.
Of the 1.1 million men and women worldwide who take vows of celibacy and pledge their lives to God, about 72 percent are women, according to a report last month by the World Synod of Bishops in Rome.
The role of those women has long been a nettlesome issue for the all-male church hierarchy. In the United States, the topic has proved so challenging that in 1992 -- after nine years of labor -- the bishops gave up trying to fashion a pastoral letter on women in the church.
The bishops' statement comes as discussions about women in the Catholic Church seem increasingly in the limelight.
Recent incidents that fueled the controversy include:
* The pope's letter last spring, in which he declared, "The church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women."
* Bishop Ernest Kombo of Owando, the Congo, made headlines at last month's World Synod of Bishops in Rome by proposing that women should be made lay cardinals.
* Last week, the Vatican revoked clerics' permission to use the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, in which words such as "humanity" were used instead of "man." In 1991, U.S. bishops had voted in favor of its use, a decision initially approved by the Vatican.
The discussions yesterday pointed to how divisive the topic remains-- even when debated only among the U.S. bishops.
Bishop Charles J. Chaput of Rapid City, S.D, led conservatives in urging that the statement be amended to include a line condemning problems caused by a "radicalization of feminist issues."
"Radical feminist issues are disruptive to the local church and are causing problems," said Bishop Elden Curtiss of Omaha, Neb., who backed the Chaput amendment.
But the bishops couldn't agree on what "radical" meant or on what "feminist" meant.
The debate ended with Bishop Pierre DuMaine of San Jose, Calif., calling for a break so as to "consult some of the women present."
After coffee, the bishops voted, with 228 casting ballots in favor of the measure and 10 against.
The bishops' statement says, "We are painfully aware that sexism, defined as 'unjust discrimination based on sex,' is still present in some members of the Church. We reject sexism and pledge renewed efforts to guard against it."
The bishops called for more women to enter studies that lead to positions of weight within the church, such as theology and canon law.
Women now hold 85 percent of all parish ministry positions open to nonclergy, according to a study cited by the bishops' statement. But they have been slow to move into high-ranking positions such as diocesan chancellors, canon lawyers or marriage tribunal members.
"These jobs have been traditionally, but not legally, restricted to priests," said Sister Gottemoeller. "Women need to aim at those positions . . . and spread the message to Rome."