The role of women in the Roman Catholic Church is a constant source of dissent within both the clergy and the laity. Ever since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), when the bishops spoke in unprecedented terms about the ``dignity'' of both the laity and women, church members have struggled to interpret and implement the church's new emphasis on the importance of women. A synod of 165 bishops from around the world has been meeting here since Nov. 24 to examine the effects of the Second Vatican Council and to advise Pope John Paul II of their findings.
The issue of the role of women is especially complex in this church of 800 million members because modern demands must be weighed against 2,000 years of tradition.
The most significant element in today's debate over women may be the church's extraordinary cultural diversity. With adherents across the globe, its officials and congregations must confront and attempt to reconcile cultural views that are vastly different.
Conflicting images of women go far back in church tradition. While Mary has been revered as the mother of Jesus, the 13th century Catholic philosopher, Thomas Aquinas, summed up a persistent negative view when he described woman as ``an occasional and incomplete being, a misbegotten male.''
Women religious are far more numerous than priests in the Catholic Church. The approximately 935,000 Catholic nuns are more than twice the total number of male religious, nearly 420,000 -- 3,929 bishops, 404,000 priests, and 11,000 permanent deacons, according to the most recent Vatican statistics.
But there are no women priests or bishops.
This discrepancy disturbs some Catholic women.
``Hundreds of women have completed theology degrees,'' says Babi Burke, a Catholic nurse from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. ``They are ready and willing to be ordained. Some don't want to wait any longer and are leaving the church to be ordained as Anglican priests.''
But the church is not likely to change these rules soon.
The women's ordination issue has not even been mentioned at the synod so far, and ``there are no signs that the teaching will be changed,'' said Archbishop John May of St. Louis.
The prohibition, bishops say, stems from the Catholic belief that the priest must be an ``image'' of Jesus, and that, because Jesus was male, the priest must also be male.
``I do not think that the question of women priests is a matter of discrimination,'' says Archbishop Henry Sebastian D'Souza from India. ``I think it is quite well understood that all of us in this life have out particular limitations and our own roles to play.''
Still, a number of leading Catholic women say they think the teaching could and should be changed.
``The only reason [for prohibiting the ordination of women] is not theological, but the tradition of the church,'' says Sister Louise Cote of Quebec. She is general secretary of the Union of Women Religious Superiors, based in Rome.
Catholic women in the industrialized West tend to support the ordination of women, their participation in church decisionmaking, and allowing married Catholics to use artificial means of birth control -- a practice currently condemned by church teaching.
They have also stressed changing the church's ``anthropology'' to include more positive images of women, and changing liturgical language to eliminate gender references.
But Catholic women in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, often consider such issues to be contrary to their cultural traditions or irrelevant in the face of more urgent concerns of poverty and civil strife.
In Colombia, South America, widespread poverty and a sharp drop in the number of new priests has compelled women to assume new pastoral roles, according to Sister Alicia Zea Gomez, a Colombian nun who heads a 1,500-member order of Franciscan sisters.
``In the towns and villages where there are no regular priests, the sisters often distribute communion,'' said Sr. Gomez. In addition, ``women have begun institutes to help the orphans, the poor, the widows, the drug addicts.''
In desperately poor Sudan in Africa, the role of Catholic women is shaped by the current civil war and the traditional practice of polygamy.
Many women who had been second and third wives are rejected by their husbands after conversion to Christianity. Yet these women cannot marry again in the eyes of the church without committing adultery, Sudan's Archbiship Gabriel Zubeir Wako says. When such women do remarry, they are considered to be breaking church law and are prevented from receiving church sacraments, he said.
Archbishop Wako urged that church officials study the issue of polygamy from ``the point of view of mercy.''
In Asian countries, traditional roles are still adhered to, and Christianity has found it difficult to win converts from Buddhism and Hinduism. Asian Catho- lics often reflect these traditional values.
``It is a woman's proper nature to be a helper, to give support, as the model of the Virgin Mary shows us,'' says Sister Paz Yuriko Kuriyama, a Japanese nun who is president of a Catholic-run women's college in Tokyo. ``Why are American women so interested in things like whether they can become priests?''
Sr. Kuriyama said only 10 of the 1,500 women attending her college choose to become Catholics in a given year. This reflects a Japanese tendency to stay ``free'' of institutional religious practice, she said.
``Women's liberation'' issues are focused on more by American and European women.
``The problem of women in the church is that there is a one-sided anthropology which views women as deficient,'' says Sister Mary Glenn, an American.
The church's position opposing artificial birth control has perhaps been the most divisive issue among Catholics in the West. Recent polls show a majority of Catholics in the United States do not follow the teaching of the church in this area.
Abortion has proved to be a divisive issue in the West, as pro-life lobby groups, often Catholic, doggedly battle increasingly liberal abortion laws, which some lay Catholics support.
Because of the firm conviction of the church on this issue, the signing of a ``pro-choice'' petition by 24 American nuns, which appeared in the New York Times on Oct. 7, 1984, became a highly publicized news event. The nuns have been asked by the Vatican to retract their statement or be expelled from their orders.
Some Catholics fear that this diversity of opinion on the role of women could lead the church hierarchy to remain conservative or silent on women's issues at the Vatican Synod on the Laity that is planned for 1987.