Australian Catholics who have heard of the Commission for Australian Catholic Women (CACW) might be wondering what this body has done in recent months to justify its existence.
They may recall, following the Catholic Church Life Survey (1996), the publication three years later of Woman and Man: One in Christ Jesus, a 496-page report on the participation of women in the Catholic Church in Australia, and the Bishops' Social Justice Statement for 2000 based on this document, that CACW was formed to help in implementing the Statement's proposals.
In 1996, the Australian bishops had agreed to commission an ambitious research project on the participation of women in the Church. This was despite the fact that a similar project of the US bishops (1983-1992) had got nowhere and that a major initiator of the project - the Australian Conference of Leaders of Religious Institutes - had publicly dissented from the Pope's 1994 Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis on a male-only priesthood.
To some sceptics, the project looked less a response to calls from grass-roots Catholics than from a vocal, influential elite of feminists, bureaucrats and professionals.
Televised live nationally, Woman and Man was launched on 18 August 1999 at the National Press Club, Canberra.
Cardinal Edward Clancy, who spoke at the launch, said the Woman and Man report showed that a "silent majority" of practising Catholics supported Church authority and saw no barriers to women's participation in the Church. This confirmed what most church-going Catholics already knew - that there was no significant participation "problem" needing to be addressed at great expense.
The Australian bishops proceeded nevertheless with their Social Justice Statement for 2000, with such recommendations as "the drawing up of guidelines concerning the use of inclusive language in the liturgy, prayer, pastoral and social life of the Church" and "the provision of guidelines, materials and resources directed to integrating elements of indigenous [Aboriginal] culture into the celebration of the liturgy".
This was mystifying, given that Aboriginals constitute a tiny percentage of the Catholic population and only three percent of parishioners questioned in the Catholic Church Life Survey considered inclusive language an "issue" to be concerned about.
Indeed, Catholics in the pews might well wonder whether these days there are specific instances of any Catholic women excluded from Church positions aspired to (apart from the ordained priesthood) for reasons other than merit.
The appointment in August of Susan Pascoe as the new Director of Education for the Archdiocese of Melbourne - one of the most important positions in the Church in Australia - was by no means untypical.
Meanwhile, evidence of CACW activity has appeared in the shape of an "Action Plan" leaflet - made available at the back of parish churches. However, its contents, with their long-winded church-speak and political correctness are more likely to serve as a cure for insomnia than spark excitement in the pews.
For example: "Identify current and planned action concerning policies of care to respond to the pain of people and groups of people within the Church who are struggling with the implications of Church teaching by providing guidelines to assist in the pastoral care of those who are finding difficulty in understanding and accepting the Church's teaching on the restriction of ordination to males."
Or: "That concerning indigenous Catholics in Australia the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference asks that the Bishops' Committee for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the Bishops' Committee for Doctrine and Morals make research available to the Bishops in response to requests received from indigenous Australians and others for married clergy and women deacons."
There is more in similar vein on http://www.cacw.catholic.org.au - the organisation's website.
CACW has also issued a series of media releases reporting on regular meetings around Australia between Commissioners and small groups of interested people. A recent one concerned a public meeting for the Archdiocese of Brisbane, on 8 August 2002, at which 130 people "representing groups and individuals" met with members of the Women's Commission, "sharing their hopes and frustrations with the implementation of the Australian Bishops' Decisions and Proposals for the greater participation of women in the Catholic Church in Australia."
Among recommendations to emerge from the meeting were:
* Valuing the role of laity in ministry especially in Reconciliation [whatever that might mean];
* Recognising the spirituality of young women which acknowledges the centrality of Jesus, inclusiveness and ethnic and indigenous spirituality;
* Highlighting the importance of the use of inclusive language;
* Ongoing consultation with indigenous people; and
* The need for new models of Church which were more engaging, acknowledged indigenous people and acknowledged the importance of story, especially women's stories.
The peripheral (even questionable) nature of such concerns - "new models of Church", "women's stories", "indigenous spirituality" - beggars belief when one considers the immensity of the real problems confronting Catholicism in Australia, particularly those identified in Br Marcellin Flynn's latest research on Year 12 Catholic school students. That research confirmed what had already been revealed in the Catholic Church Life Survey, namely, that the practice level of 16 to 25-year-old Catholics was less than five percent.
Meanwhile, Church resources being currently expended on the CACW might be put to far better use in implementing the Statement of Conclusions, which, unlike the Woman and Man document, seems to have disappeared without trace in some Australian dioceses.