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Which Catholic women will the Australian bishops listen to?

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 Contents - Jul 1997AD2000 July 1997 - Buy a copy now
Editorial: Unity is Strength: Division is Death
Which Catholic women will the Australian bishops listen to? - Michael Gilchrist
Books: 'Banished Camelots: Recollections of a Catholic Childhood', by John Redrup - Br Christian Moe FSC (reviewer)
Reflection: Catholic youth: facing the challenges to faith (Pastoral Letter) - Archbishop George Pell

The project initiated by the Australian Bishops, 'The Participation of Women in the Catholic Church in Australia' (PWCC), is reminiscent of a similar but unsuccessful project which the US Bishops undertook a few years ago. Will the Australian counterpart do any better? It depends, in part, on how you define 'better.'

The PWCC project, which is currently under way, is being conducted for the Australian Bishops' Conference by the Bishops' Committee for Justice, Development and Peace, the Australian Catholic University and the Australian Conference of Leaders of Religious Institutes (ACLRI).

The PWCC hearings are being held in all State and Territory capitals and in a number of regional centres, having begun in Canberra on 13 May 1997 and due to conclude in Bunbury, WA, on 22 July.

The project has the enthusiastic support of a number of feminists from both Women and the Australian Church (WATAC) and ACLRI, an influential group made up largely of women religious and church professionals which has been undoubtedly calling the shots from the very outset. Much less influential is a 'silent majority' of Catholic women struggling to raise families and make ends meet in difficult times, their opportunities to attend meetings or gain episcopal endorsement being far more restricted.

The views of the leaders of Australia's larger female religious orders were made clear in A Statement of the 1995 ACLRI Assembly to the Australian Church. This called the present PWCC project "a move we welcome and applaud." It pointed to "the fundamental dilemma posed by the fact that clerical status is usually a prerequisite for meaningful involvement in official ecclesiastical decision-making. Women in the Catholic Church do not have access to that status."

It called "the principle of using inclusive language in all communications ... a definite and uncontested commitment" (although a recent US survey suggests that most Catholic women oppose the introduction of inclusive language in the Mass). It added that "the current [my emphasis] teaching on the non-ordination of women, while seen principally as a theological issue, is difficult to dissociate from a sociological context ...".

Bernice Moore, a convenor of Women and the Australian Church, explains in an article "Let the Women Speak" that the PWCC project was "born in 1992" when a sub-committee from the independent organisation Catholics in Coalition for Justice and Peace (CCJP) submitted a formal proposal to the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council that they "on behalf of the Australian Bishops' Conference authorise and finance an independent study researching 'Sexism in the Catholic Church in Australia'."


The proposal, according to Bernice Moore, was first sent to Bishop Brennan of Wagga Wagga, at that time chairman of the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council. Anne Lane and Bernice Moore of both CCJP and WATAC then met with him to discuss the possibility of it going ahead. The Bishop was said to have been "very interested" and passed on the proposal to the Bishops' Committee for Justice, Development and Peace (BCJDP).

Funding for a research proposal somewhat on the above lines was approved by the Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference in April 1995 while the Australian Conference of Leaders of Religious Institutes agreed to provide a contribution to the cost of the project. In launching the project, says Bernice Moore, "Cardinal Clancy emphasised that it is primarily a project of the Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference." A report is due in 1998.

Whether the Church's presumably considerable outlay in funds, manpower and time guarantees a better result than the US equivalent achieved remains to be seen. The latter was eventually terminated due to the polarisation of views it revealed among Catholic women - mirroring the situation of a divided Church - and the difficulty of embodying these in a "pastoral letter" without appearing biased towards one side or the other.

The aim of the present project is to identify areas - short of ordination to the priesthood - where women could be more actively involved than they are at present in the Church's life, structures and decision-making processes.

Materials already to hand suggest that the project's results are likely to be predictable. No matter how many thousands of submissions are examined and however many presentations are made at hearings all over Australia, the result can only reveal in differing proportions from one hearing to the next the almost irreconcilable differences among Catholic women as to the nature of the present situation and what should be the Church's priorities.

The aforementioned Bernice Moore subsequently told a three-day PWCC conference at Sydney's St Mary's Cathedral (The Canberra Times, 18 May 1997) that "sexism" in the Catholic Church, such as "excluding women from the priesthood", was "comparable to past racism against Jews and persecution of 'heretical' scientists." She said the Church was facing a crisis because women's continuing exclusion from the clergy was "alienating many young Catholics ... Because women were unlikely to be admitted to the priesthood under Pope John Paul II [my emphasis], they should concentrate on increasing their voice within the Church's administration."

Such is the thinking of some of those who have won the backing of the Australian Catholic Bishops for the PWCC project.

The project was to address four key questions which were included on the application forms for those wishing to make submissions (and possibly presentations at one of the hearings):

1. What are various ways in which women participate in the Catholic Church in Australia?

2. What assistance and support are currently offered to women to participate in the Church?

3. What are barriers to women's participation in the Church?

4. What are some ways in which women's participation in the Church can be increased?

Cardinal Clancy's invitation for written submissions at the project's launch on 21 August 1996 led to over 2,500 submissions from all over Australia being received by the end of December 1996. There were so many that the presentations at hearings around Australia had to be allocated by ballot.

If the first of the hearings - in Canberra on 13 May - was any indication, it seemed that presentations pushing an agenda for radical change were likely to predominate. One certainly gained this impression from a reading of the Canberra-Goulburn archdiocesan paper Catholic Voice (June 1997) and The Canberra Times, with its strong feminist bias. (See letters page 16 in the print edition of this issue).

An observer who attended the Canberra hearing on 13 May offered the following picture for AD2000 (which has been subsequently verified):

"I decided to attend as an 'observer' to see what was going on and who was attending. Frankly, I have no regrets for doing so. However, I was very saddened at the way the Pope and others were so viciously attacked by the so-called Catholics ... During the morning tea break, I overheard a group of women rejoicing in the fact that 'Frank [Archbishop Carroll] and Pat [Bishop Power] are 100% behind us.' I cannot understand the Australian Catholic Bishops providing a forum for these women to denigrate the Holy Father and anyone with whom they do not agree."

A sympathetic report (21 May 1997) from The Canberra Times' religion correspondent Graham Downie later told of how the "articulate" and "persuasive" convener of Ordination of Catholic Women, Marie Louise Uhr, "took the opportunity to make the established Church feel as uncomfortable as possible with its stance against women's ordination". Uhr, said Downie, "argues not only that the stance is wrong but that the Church which advocates freedom has demanded that this issue must not be discussed ... She told the panel that treatment of women in the Catholic Church was like domestic violence in God's household." Yet Uhr also remarked that "whenever she met the Australian Catholic Bishops she encountered 'no opposition' and was always 'warmly welcomed'."

Another Canberra presenter, Sr Barbara Murray RSM, was likewise critical of the Church, claiming that the inherited culture of a male, clerically dominated Church is experienced by women in almost every sphere of their Church involvement. There was no rational reason for this or the male image of God.

The various Canberra presentations according to the above AD2000 observer were "littered with the usual 'chestnuts'. Exclusive male language in the liturgy, particularly God as Father and Jesus as male, and this domination extended into the Catechism of the Catholic Church; gender bias; discrimination; exclusion from positions of power and authority; clericalism; the pervasive menace of Rome - as one woman put it 'the centralised cancer of Roman authority' - a not untypical expression."

In Sydney, the public hearings saw 18 women and 9 representatives from women's organisations address the panel. The hearings opened, according to the Sydney Morning Herald (16 May 1997) with "a passionate address from two Catholic schoolgirls" from Parramatta. Their submission was based on "discussions in their religious studies class in which students said they felt women were not encouraged to take leadership roles in the Church." They said that the Church had "inflicted enormous psychological damage on young women and affirmative action programs were needed to encourage more women to study theology." There were "parts of the Bible which are simply demeaning to women ...". There was no indication as to the proportions of 'loyalists' and 'dissenters' among the presenters, although the media typically gave support and prominence to the latter.

In Melbourne, an associate professor in psychology at the Australian Catholic University, Dr Marie Joyce, was reported as saying that "many women felt marginalised, disempowered and let down by the Church. Many women are seeking a role in serious decision making within the Church. One option we would like considered is having women cardinals" (The Age, 23 May 1997).

This writer was present at one of the Melbourne hearings (30 May 1997). The opening presentation described the Pope's Ordinatio Sacerdotalis as "pouring boiling oil" on women's hopes of being priests and it was noted with regret that Archbishop Pell backed such teaching. One heard the usual litany of feminist woes and demands to the accompaniment of enthusiastic applause.

However, a later presentation by Mary Helen Woods on behalf of the Australian Family Association concentrated on practical family issues and supported Church teachings. Her points, backed up by substantial statistical evidence rather than ideological rhetoric, gained a respectful hearing from what seemed to be a potentially hostile audience as well as positive follow-up questions from the panel.

Family concerns

At the Ballarat hearing, in fact, in contrast to other centres, a majority of the presentations was devoted to concerns about the traditional family, the role of women as mothers and nurturers, and their complementary role with men in the Church.

Many of these presentations noted that Catholic women already played a major role in the life of the Church and expressed strong support for existing Church teachings while calling for a stronger focus on improved religious education in Catholic schools and more vocations to the priesthood. It is to be hoped that such calls surface elsewhere during the PWCC process and are given due recognition in the final report.

One presenter told the Ballarat hearing: "There are no barriers for the participation of women in the Church. We can do any of the things that need doing as well as men."

Similar views were expressed at a hearing in the Victorian diocese of Sale. The speaker quoted Mary Ann Glendon, a law professor at Harvard University and leader of the Holy See's delegation to the 1995 UN Conference in Beijing: "All over the world, women are performing a variety of pastoral duties in parishes. They are swelling the ranks of missionaries. Perhaps not since the first century AD have women been so actively involved in the life of the people called together by Jesus Christ ...".

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Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 10 No 6 (July 1997), p. 3

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