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Issue Date:  June 7, 1991

Despite Vatican, women on world agenda

Vatican Affairs Writer

OXFORD, England -- The Vatican-initiated May 28-29 consultation on the U.S. bishops’ pastoral on women, which drew participants from 13 countries to Rome, was in no way intended to put anyone on the defensive, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, insisted. He called the two-day gathering a “sharing process.” We will see.

For now, it would be wrong to see the discussion on the U.S. bishops’ draft pastoral letter on women simply as a rap on the knuckles. The CDF’s comments remain confidential.

One good reason for secrecy might be to protect its reputation for insight and theological grip. If its comments were on the level of asking why “parenting” was used and quibbling about the U.S. mania for “inclusive language,” then they are better left in decent obscurity.

Whatever happened at the meeting, the U.S. bishops have pulled off a notable coup: They have put women on the agenda of the universal church. Rather, they have forced it to the attention of a reluctant curia and a dismissive pope.

Pope John Paul thought he had “dealt with” women in his 1988 encyclical Mulieris Dignitatem. Courtly and chivalrous in tone, it paid women some fine compliments, but it failed to address the problems raised by the U.S. bishops’ consultation.

Evidently, the pope had not said “the last word,” perhaps not even the last-but-one word. So we reach the extraordinary and historic sight, May 28 and 29, in the year of grace 1991, of two women attending a Vatican meeting about women.

Of course, Dr. Susan Muto of Duquesne University, the staff writer of the pastoral, and Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart Sister Mariella Frye, the chief staff person for the pastoral, were present only as “observers” and did not presume to represent all women. How could they?

But as the Vatican Council showed, you speak differently in the presence of “observers.” It is more difficult to say stupid things about Protestants if they are listening to you. So here, familiar themes about women abandoning work to solve the unemployment problem -- recently deployed by John Paul himself -- can be greeted with an icy stare.

That is not to say that nothing stupid was said about women. Cardinal-elect Angelo Sodano, secretary of state, began confidently by plugging the superiority of the universal church over the local church. “The church is neither European nor American,” he declared. “It is universal.”

They say this because the African bishops have assured them that African women are perfectly content with their lot and have no desire to be ordained priests. When you actually meet African women, they tell a different story, but the curialist does not meet such women.

This “myth” of the contented African woman then enables the curialist to say that it is only in North America and parts of Europe that women want to be priests. Sensible women do not want it.

The next step is to say that the only reason North American women have such desires is that they have desexed themselves and really aspire to be chaps, thus forfeiting those feminine features that make them so lovely, so desirable and -- the pope’s word -- so “nuptial.”

It is more difficult to put such arguments with a straight face if real women are actually sitting there. The truth might dawn on Ratzinger that the position of women in the church is indeed a universal concern, but somebody has to say it first.

The local church thus acts as a laboratory or a research institute for the big parent company that is the universal church. People get damaged in labs and blow themselves up. R&D is risk-intensive.

National Catholic Reporter, June 7, 1991

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