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Australian bishops find Catholic women feel pain, alienation

NCR Staff

A bishops’ study on women and the Catholic church in Australia reveals “a strong sense of pain and alienation resulting from the church’s stance on women,” according to a summary presented at an Aug. 18 news conference in Canberra, the nation’s capital.

Many Australian Catholic women have left or are considering leaving the church, the study concluded.

Catholics across Australia, both men and women, told the bishops they often experienced church structures as “male-dominated, hierarchical and authoritarian” leading to “a fixation on rules and regulations.” Asked to identify barriers to fuller participation by women in the church, respondents listed: An exclusively celibate clergy; the church’s teaching in relation to sexuality, marriage and the family; the ban on artificial birth control; and the status of divorced and remarried Catholics.

On the hot-button issue of female priests, the study says Australian Catholics want continued conversation. “There was much agreement, even among those with different views on the question, that there should be open discussion of the issue of women’s ordination,” the summary said.

The new study was the result of three years of surveys, consultations and hearings. Published in book form by HarperCollins in Australia, the full text of the report runs to more than 500 pages and is titled Woman and Man: One in Christ Jesus. The book presents the “raw data” from the study. The bishops will consider recommendations for action in future sessions.

The bishop who oversaw the process said the Australians wanted to avoid the pitfalls of the U.S. bishops in their attempt during the 1980s to produce a pastoral letter on women.

Cardinal Edward Clancy of Sydney cautioned against “unrealistic expectations” of immediate change and warned that Australia could not “act unilaterally” in opposition to Rome. In the news conference, Clancy said he opposed discussion of women’s ordination, at one point likening it to discussion of whether there are three or four persons in the Trinity.

Clancy also said, however, that he disagreed with refusing Communion to Catholics who support female priests. The remark was widely seen as a public rebuke of a conservative Australian bishop, Geoffrey Mayne, who turned women’s ordination activist Ann Nugent away from the Communion rail in September 1998.

The study revealed that while a feeling of alienation cuts across boundaries of age, region and ethnicity, there is a substantial core of regular churchgoers in Australia satisfied with things as they are. The study thus pointed to a “polarization of views.”

“There were those wishing to maintain the current participation of women in the church or even return to the position of the pre-Vatican II church, and those seeking an expanded role for women,”one presenter said.

Even among the subset of regular churchgoers, however, only 42 percent said they accepted church teaching on women priests “without difficulty.” Twenty-five percent said they could not accept it at all.

The effort to develop a U.S. pastoral on women began in 1983 and drew on consultations with 75,000 women throughout the mid-1980s. In its early stages, the draft pastoral won high marks for honesty in presenting the sentiments of Catholic women. Doctrinal criticism from the Vatican and conservative bishops, however, led to four other drafts and culminated in a November 1992 vote in which the pastoral failed to get the two-thirds support it needed to pass — the first time the bishop’s conference voted down a proposed pastoral letter.

“Heck yeah, we were aware of what happened in America,” said Bishop Kevin Manning of Parramatta, who convened the coordinating group for the study. “We didn’t want to make the mistake the American bishops made, which was prolonging the process.” Manning said the bishops opted to publish the equivalent of a first draft, the raw data of their study, as a “demonstration of goodwill.”

Manning said he is prepared to offer an apology to Catholic women in Australia if that is perceived as a helpful step. “I would apologize for misunderstanding at times what women have been saying,” Manning said. He spoke to NCR in a telephone interview.

The Australian report may have worldwide implications, according to American advocates of women’s ordination. “To me the most important thing is that the bishops decided to publish the information with a secular publisher, without comment,” said Loretto Sr. Maureen Fiedler of the activist group Catholics Speak Out in Washington.

Fiedler said the results themselves were unsurprising. “Unless you’re deaf, dumb and blind, you know people feel this way, but it’s still courageous for the Australian bishops to let it fly. Maybe it will get the attention of someone in the Vatican.”

The Aug. 18 news conference called to present the study underlined the divisions in the Australian church. Nuns in full religious habits and members of a right-wing activist group called the Magdalene Foundation occupied one end of the spectrum, while a table full of women’s ordination supporters formed the other. Both contingents punctuated speakers’ remarks with catcalls and applause. When Clancy said he disagreed with discussing ordination for women, conservatives burst into cheers while a voice from across the room cried, “This is a democracy, not the Vatican!”

Clancy said, “After at least 30 years of discussion, which in the end started to go round and round without any new arguments and causing a good deal of division and animosity, Pope John Paul II decided to give an authoritative pronouncement [in the 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis]. … Consequently I do not approve of open discussion.”

Clancy said the pope’s 1994 statement “bordered on” infallibility and he had “no doubt personally that this question will not be resolved in any other way in the future.”

Asked by Nugent about her experience of being denied Communion, Clancy replied, “I do not support that exclusion.” He added that he had no power to force other bishops to follow his lead.

Other findings include:

  • Women were described as the “backbone of the church,” especially in rural areas.
  • A survey of Catholic institutions that provide theological courses found that women comprise almost 74 percent of persons undertaking undergraduate studies in theology and almost 64 percent of students taking postgraduate theological courses.
  • Among regular churchgoers, women outnumber men by a ratio of approximately three to two.

The executive summary and other supporting documents for the Australian study can be found at www.catholic.org.au. Readers interested in purchasing a copy of Woman and Man: One in Christ Jesus may contact HarperCollins in Australia at harcorel@harpercollins.com.au

National Catholic Reporter, August 27, 1999