Women win wider roles in Catholic Church. But Vatican stands firm against pressure to open the priesthood

Slowly, sometimes grudgingly, the all-male American Catholic clergy is broadening its views on women's roles in the church - and it is gingerly urging Pope John Paul II to do likewise. The pontiff, who begins the West Coast leg of his American tour today, is likely to encounter the issue tomorrow in a closed meeting with American bishops in Los Angeles, and again Friday during a public presentation in San Francisco.

Closed to discussion, however, will be an issue that has become one of the church's most divisive - ordination of women into the priesthood.

The Pope ``has made clear ordination of women is not something that is even being considered,'' says Deacon Norman Phillips, director of information for the San Francisco archdiocese. ``It is not an open subject.''

John Paul's resolute position has frustrated and alienated many women in the church, says Ruth Fitzpatrick, coordinator of the 3,000-member Women's Ordination Conference based in Fairfax, Va. His ``attempt to dam up change'' reverses the trend toward consultation, discussion, and openness that began in 1965 after the Second Vatican Council, she says.

It is no surprise that disparity between the Vatican and the laity is greatest over women's issues, such as contraception, abortion, and childbearing, says Judy Vaughn of the Chicago-based National Assembly of Religious Women, a Catholic feminist organization.

``We ask for the right for women to share in the decisionmaking that impacts their own lives,'' she says. ``The male, celibate, hierarchical church which makes all the decisions does not have a sense of what women are struggling with.''

There is evidence, however, that American priests and bishops are at least starting to learn more about women's concerns.

American bishops have drafted a pastoral letter in response to women's concerns, after consultations with 68,000 women in parishes across the US. Although the letter will not be made public until next year, it will probably point out a number of ``difficulties'' between Catholic women and their church, says the Most Rev. Joseph C. Imesch, chairman of the committee.

In addition, the Most Rev. Roger M. Mahony, Los Angeles's archbishop, last month publicly urged priests to take even more steps to open ministries and decision-making jobs to women, although he studiously avoided the ordination issue.

While the Vatican for now has turned a deaf ear to pro-ordination dissenters, the church may ultimately have to listen - out of necessity, Ms. Fitzpatrick says. ``In five to seven years, the church will face an extreme crisis worldwide, when a lot of the priests reach retirement,'' she says. Many retirees will not be replaced because of a drop in the number of young men entering the priesthood, she says.

One option, which the Vatican has not rejected out of hand, is to allow women to become deacons, which are authorized to baptize, to perform marriages, and to preside over burials. But the authority to hear confessions, anoint the sick, and consecrate communion hosts remains the exclusive privilege of the priesthood.

For many women, ``it all comes down to the issue of ordination,'' says Doris Donnelly, a theologian at St. Mary's College in South Bend, Ind. But she says she is encouraged by signs of change elsewhere, such as in seminaries. ``Today there is wide employment of women in seminaries, formerly considered a place where seminarians were protectively enclosed,'' she says.

The exclusion of women has more to do with tradition than with doctrine, says the Rev. Robert Drinan, a law professor at Georgetown University. ``In other words, it has not been divinely revealed that only men could be ordained,'' he says. But for a church that dates its history back 2,000 years, tradition is not to be taken lightly.

``Yes, there is sexism and chauvinism in the church,'' Fr. Drinan says. ``But in all fairness to the Catholic Church, women's roles have changed more in the last 30 years than in the previous 200.''

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