A little over 12 months after the release of the 496-page report, Woman and Man: One in Christ Jesus, has come a response to that report's recommendations, embodied in the Australian bishops' annual Social Justice Statement, launched on 13 September 2000.
However, much of the Social Justice Statement - even its choice of language - has a decidedly feminist, "politically correct" slant, reading as if written by the feminist instigators of the project, and simply rubber stamped by bishops sympathetic towards their agenda.
If Woman and Man inflated the complaints of an unhappy, dissenting minority at the expense of a generally satisfied majority of practising Catholic women, so the Social Justice Statement offers an equally inflated set of policy decisions to cater for that unhappy minority.
The suspect pedigree of the women's participation project was of particular concern, given that it was the brainchild of the Church's feminist elites - notably from within the ranks of the Australian Conference of Leaders of Religious Institutes - who already possess considerable power and influence, as evidenced by the fact they could persuade the bishops to undertake such a dubious project in the first place.
Everywhere a Catholic looks today, women are visibly exercising responsibilities at all levels of the Church's life (short of the priesthood and hierarchy): editors of Catholic papers, directors of Catholic Education Offices, professors at seminaries and theology institutes, directors of university campuses, facilitators of 'renewal' programs - the list goes on. And the female presence continues to increase.
If anything, it is men who find themselves increasingly marginalised in the Church: the more parishes became feminised - with around two- thirds of Mass attenders now women - the more men stay away. As altar girls appear in greater numbers, so have altar boys vanished from many sanctuaries.
The Statement is confusing. On the one hand it says, "Bishops cannot and would not wish to change the teaching of the Church on any matter despite the difficulty some respondents have had with some elements of the Church's teaching."
On the other hand, the Statement commits the bishops to fostering research in such areas as "contemporary ecclesiologies and their theological, catechetical and pastoral implications, especially for the participation of women in the church" - the umbrella term "contemporary eccles- iologies" often covering assorted dubious interpretations of Catholic teaching. It also supports research into "ministry in the Church and in particular the role of lay faithful and especially women in ecclesial ministries, from the scriptural, historical, theological, liturgical, sociological and canonical perspectives."
A further example of the document's feminist bias is its proposal, "Through the Bishops' Committee for the Liturgy," to look into "the possibility of providing at the national level guidelines and education, as well as appropriate resources, to provide rituals to be used in the absence of a priest in the prison and hospital apostolates"; the "provision of guidelines, materials and resources directed to integrating elements of indigenous [Aboriginal] culture into the celebration of the liturgy"; "the drawing up of guidelines concerning the use of inclusive language in the liturgy, prayer, pastoral and social life of the Church"; and "the establishment of guidelines to assist with the understanding and implementation of Canons 766 and 767 concerning lay preaching."
Given that Aborigines represent less than two percent of the national population and that "inculturation" is often linked with liturgical abuses, such encouragement is questionable, as is "inclusive language," which has been specifically rejected by the Holy See. In any case, only three per cent of those surveyed in the Catholic Church Life Survey considered inclusive language an "issue", while the views of Aboriginal women constituted but a minute part of the Woman and Man report. Yet the Statement later lists a succession of detailed policies catering for the "needs" of indigenous women - although no similar policies are in evidence for other equally deserving racial and ethnic groups in the Church.
The Social Justice Statement briefly acknowledges the role of mothers in the Church - "We wish to draw attention to the significant role that mothers play in the life and mission of the Church and society, lest their participation be taken for granted or considered of less value than other forms of participation" - before proceeding with a long succession of policy decisions, most of them catering to the more vocal minority demands of feminists and the disenchanted.
Included among these is a call for a "better balance" of men and women, and clergy, religious and lay people "in leadership, professional, advisory roles." But what if men are already in a minority in some of these areas? Should not that "balance" require affirmative action in the opposite direction?
The Statement pledges to "draw up 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" on the question of divorce and remarriage, and to provide "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", as well as "appropriate pastoral statements concerning Catholic teaching on such areas as sexuality, marriage and family planning."
That such initiatives are needed at all merely confirms the doctrinal weaknesses in the Church's educational institutions, as earlier noted in the Statement of Conclusions.
Re-education of "clergy, religious and lay people" so that they "exercise their ministries in a more collaborative way" is called for, as is greater use of parish Pastoral Associates and "the employment of more lay women in this capacity".
The Statement concludes by exhorting bishops and others responsible to ensure "that women's needs in relation to participation in the Church be made a financial priority for the Church", that "when pointing to the signs of the times acknowledge positive developments in the role and status of women" and that "greater attention be given to the education of clergy, religious and laity towards attitudinal change in recognising equal value, equal rights of women and men within the lay faithful of the Church."
Because of this project, the Australian bishops have had less time to devote to the real issues affecting the local Church - as set out in the Statement of Conclusions. After almost two years, there is little sign that more than a handful of its directives have been implemented.
If a fraction of the effort, paperwork and expense invested in the women's participation project had been directed towards implementating the Statement of Conclusions, the Church in Australia might well be looking to the future with greater hope.