Australian bishops' response to 'Woman and Man' report

Australian bishops' response to 'Woman and Man' report

Michael Gilchrist

Social Justice Statement on women's participation due in September

The Australian Catholic bishops' Social Justice Statement for 2000 will focus on women's participation in the Catholic Church in Australia. It follows lengthy research into the subject and a consequent 496-page report, titled Woman and Man: One in Christ Jesus (see AD2000, October 1999, page 6).

Following their recent national conference, the bishops issued a response to the report. It said that a "Commission for Australian Catholic Women" would be set up "to assist in the implementation of the practical steps the bishops have decided to undertake to improve the participation of women in the Catholic Church and to play a part in facilitating an ongoing dialogue about their participation."

The spokesman for the bishops' conference, Bishop Michael Putney of Brisbane, said: "The bishops recognise that there were differences among women in the way that they responded to the questions from the original research. We sincerely trust and hope that through the guidance of the Holy Spirit our recommendations and decisions for future actions will bring women and men to a fuller communion with the Catholic Church."

The media release stated that the full text of the bishops' response to Woman and Man, including details of the Commission for Australian Catholic Women, would be published as "the Social Justice Statement for this year", expected to be published in early September.

In this regard, the Australian bishops face a daunting challenge if they are to succeed where the American bishops failed several years ago. Such was the polarisation between the views of Catholic women supportive of Church teachings and authority, and those wishing to change them, that the US bishops ultimately had to shelve the project.

In Australia, the views of Catholic women - and Catholics as a whole - are equally polarised.

While the research project and summary report no doubt reflected academic expertise, the report itself lacks credibility in that it over-represented the views of those unhappy with existing Church structures and teachings and under-represented the views of those supporting them. The fact that the Catholic Church Life Survey of Mass-going Catholics found a large majority supportive of the status quo was given relatively little space in the Woman and Man report.

The report dismissed as "a small minority" (p. 105), the presentations by orthodox Catholic women, more concerned about Church recognition of the vital role of mothers and families, and proper teaching of the faith in Catholic schools, than "exclusion" from the Church's power structures. Yet in some dioceses (e.g., Ballarat and Toowoomba), such presentations constituted around half the total.

A further cause for concern is the fact that the women's participation project was the initiative of feminist religious and lay professionals from such bodies as the Australian Conference of Leaders of Religious Institutes (ACLRI) and Women and the Australian Church (WATAC).

In 1994, following release of the Pope's apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, which restated Church teaching on a male-only priesthood, the ACLRI National Executive responded in a public letter: "We write to express our dismay and disappointment at the recent Apostolic Letter of the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, specifically in so far as it prohibits further discussion of the ordination of women."

Among those appointed last March to the bishops' Implementation Committee was Sr Sonia Wagner, Superior of the Good Samaritan Sisters. Her views on the Church and the role of women were set out in a 1987 keynote address to a WATAC conference (later published). Drawing on such experts as Fr Paul Collins, Rosemary Ruether, Sr Joan Chittister, Mary Daly and Matthew Fox, Sr Wagner declared: "The refusal to admit women to ordination is just one of the symptoms of the disorder that exists in our Church community." Then, having condemned the "watchdogs of orthodoxy," she mentioned as among her reasons for remaining in the Church the need to be "part of the process of transformation", the only way to change it being "to change it from the inside, and over the long haul."


The one-sided nature of the Woman and Man report was highlighted by a letter from Sr Mary Augustine Lane OP, Deputy President of the Association for the Promotion of Religious Life (APREL), sent to each of Australia's bishops and later published in Australian Catholics (Summer 1999-2000 edition). APREL is a body that represents men and women religious committed to a "true theology of religious life" and Catholic orthodoxy. Their acceptance of Church teachings and authority is unqualified.

Sister Mary Augustine points out in her letter that the final report Woman and Man includes no mention whatsoever of the detailed and unique APREL presentation: "The exclusion of such material from a Catholic document relating to the participation of women in the Church is obviously a serious and significant flaw ... The women religious of APREL do not identify with the thrust, nor with much of the content of this document. We question its value as 'basis for theological reflection, pastoral planning and dialogue with women and women's groups' and predict that it will not yield the expected harvest of justice and truth."

In a follow-up letter sent to Australian Catholics, Sr Augustine notes: "Readers will find in the report, however, two lengthy verbatim citations from an oral submission by a woman, representing a lesbian group. The views of minorities abound in the report - but only some minorities!"

Reconciling such diametrically opposed views will be a tall order for the Australian bishops as they prepare their Social Justice Statement.

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