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Massachusetts women’s group banned from church buildings in Boston

NCR Staff

Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston has banned from church-affiliated buildings a Catholic group advocating women’s ordination that has collaborated with local Jesuits in discussions of the role of women in the church.

The directive was outlined in a letter from Auxiliary Bishop William Murphy to Boston Jesuits who cosponsored two conferences with Massachusetts Women-Church following the Jesuit’s 1995 document on the status of women in the church and society.

Murphy told the Jesuits, “It is my hope that this pastoral decision will remove the possibility of scandal and upset to the faithful, which unfortunately has already occurred as a result of Massachusetts Women-Church meeting in houses in your province.”

Murphy added that the Jesuits “would not want the good work that your order carries on in the archdiocese to be compromised by association with this group.”

With extensive local media coverage of the ban, leaders of Massachusetts Women-Church said that Law’s decision will help their mission, which they describe as a broad focus on justice and equality for women.

Barbara Mahar told NCR that the controversy will “raise consciousness that there are reform-minded, faithful Catholics who do not feel comfortable with the language and direction being forced upon us by the hierarchy. There is no dialogue about the future and women’s place in the future.”

Massachusetts Women-Church, which claims 10 active members and a mailing list of over 1,000, first approached the Jesuits following the order’s 34th General Congregation in 1995 and its statement, “The Situation of Women in Church and Civil Society.” The document called on Jesuits “to listen carefully and courageously to the experience of women” and “to align themselves in solidarity with women.”

Massachusetts Women-Church and local Jesuits cosponsored two conferences on the role of women in the church, held on Jesuit property and attended by a total of more than 450 people. Smaller groups have also met regularly to discuss women’s issues.

In a letter obtained by the Boston Herald, the provincial of the New England Jesuits ordered obedience to Law’s directive. The provincial, Jesuit Fr. Robert J. Levens, was not available for comment.

According to archdiocesan spokesman John Walsh, people had called the chancery expressing scandal and confusion that groups in “open and fundamental dissent” were using Catholic facilities. The cardinal was concerned not only with the group’s support for women’s ordination, but with their desire to change the Our Father, “dropping the word father,” Walsh said.

“It sends a very muddied message about our faith, the content of our faith and the nature of the church itself,” Walsh told NCR. “What the cardinal is doing is within his job description -- to call the community to its roots and to foundational truth.”

Walsh said that Murphy had attempted to reach out to Women-Church to discuss Law’s impending action. Before the directive banning the group was sent out, the bishop had extended an invitation to the group to meet with him at the chancery. “They refused to do that, because they said it was the seat of patriarchy,” Walsh said.

Mahar said that Women-Church had offered an alternate site, what she called a “neutral setting” -- Boston’s Jesuit Urban Center. She said there was no response to the suggestion, then five days later they received a letter informing them of the ban.

Women-Church leader Marie Sheehan said the directive won’t interfere with the group’s activities. “When the spirit is blowing, she’ll go where she will and we’ll find ways of doing our work.”

Women-Church is planning a May 16 vigil outside the Cathedral of the Holy Cross during the ordination of new priests. The group is looking forward to a large turnout, according to Mahar. “I was hoping for maybe 20 or 30 lay women and men, but now, given all the publicity, there’s no telling how many are going to be there,” she said.

National Catholic Reporter, May 14, 1999