The Pastoral That Wasn’t: Feminist Agenda Stalled at Bishops’ Conference

When the women representing feminist groups fled from the ballroom of the Omni-Shoreham Hotel on November 18, 1992, they declared a major victory. For the first time ever, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) had just declined to issue a pastoral letter proposed by one of its own committees, in process for nearly ten years.

The feminists claimed victory because, they said, the pastoral had been a referendum on the celibate male Catholic priesthood, and that its failure to secure the support of two-thirds of the bishops must mean that the back of that monster of oppression, the Catholic patriarchal hierarchy, had thus been broken. Ruth Fitzpatrick of the Women’s Ordination Conference prophesied that the Catholic Church “will be ordaining women within five years.” Sister Maureen Fiedler, of Catholics Speak Out and the Quixote Center (a leftist political group) proclaimed the pastoral’s defeat heralded “the dawn of a new age for feminist Catholics.”

But at the press conference following the vote, Archbishop Oscar Lipscomb, when asked by a woman reporter what Catholics were to make of the fact that several bishops had openly questioned Church teaching during the debate, responded that “there is no dissent from Church teaching among the bishops.” When pressed to explain the obvious conflict, the archbishop insisted that what reporters heard in the intense floor debate was not dissent at all, nor a cleavage within the bishops conference over the Catholic doctrine of the priesthood, but merely a disagreement over how to transmit the Church’s teaching most persuasively.

What really happened? How could feminist reformers who initiated the process nearly fifteen years ago in hopes of achieving priestesses and other radical changes claim victory when their efforts so clearly failed? Was the vote on the pastoral a referendum on ordination as feminists claimed? How could anyone deny divisions within the bishops’ conference? Why did so many bishops find themselves quite vigorously defending a still-defective draft when they had just as vigorously opposed an earlier version at their last meeting? What did the bishops’ vote mean? And how will this play out in the pews?

Two points of singular importance have been almost universally ignored by the media accounts: first, if they had remained in the ballroom only a little while longer, the feminist contingent and their media supporters would have witnessed the bishops give almost unanimous approval to a new Program for Priestly Formation (PPF), a foundational chapter of which is a strong affirmation and explanation of Catholic doctrine on ordination. Only three dissenting votes were cast.

This program, in preparation since 1988, incorporates much of Pope John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation on the priesthood, Pastores Dabo Vobis (“I will give you shepherds”), issued last March. The bishops’ overwhelming approval of this program at this time is especially significant for two reasons: first, it proves false any suggestion that a large number of American bishops are succumbing to feminist pressure on ordination and related issues; and second, it indicates that the bishops, aware that the Church’s future depends greatly on her priests, recognize serious problems in seminary training and are committed to correcting them. The work of the NCCB Committee on Priestly Formation (headed by Archbishop Daniel Buechlein), the new PPF gives every bishop a blueprint for revitalizing his seminary.

Second, the process which led to the bishops’ undertaking the pastoral was initiated by the radical feminist movement in the mid-’70s, when they engaged in a series of “dialogues” with six bishops. In 1988, the bishops decided to write the pastoral letter as a direct result of these talks.

Early in the process, Sister Maureen Fiedler confidently predicted that there would be priestesses in the Catholic Church in the U.S. “within ten years.” But by July 1985, Rosemary Ruether complained that instead of the bishops writing a pastoral on women, “women should write a pastoral on bishops.” Even before the first draft was issued (1988) feminists realized that their goal of women’s ordination was unattainable, and they began to grumble loudly. Bishop Francis Murphy, a participant in the early talks with radical women’s groups, said of the first draft, “when you start to button a coat wrong, you simply have to unbutton it and start over again from the beginning.” He used precisely the same metaphor to dismiss the fourth draft.

Although the actual writing process had gone on or eight years, the first time the entire body of bishops engaged in discussion of any draft was in June 1992, at Notre Dame. It was clear then from their interventions (published in Women for Faith and Family’s Voices) that a growing number of bishops understood that feminist demands for change required altering essential Catholic beliefs. It was also clear that most bishops understood that feminist activists constitute only a small minority among Catholic women; a straw vote indicated that the draft pastoral could not pass.

The Notre Dame meeting led to further changes before a fourth draft was issued that reflected a minority report submitted by Bishop Alfred Hughes and Archbishop William Levada. Suppressed by the administrative committee when it approved release of the third draft, the minority report reflected the criticisms of the early drafts by the Holy See. The writing committee chairman, Bishop Joseph Imesch, has consistently refused to make the Vatican’s criticisms available, even to the bishops.

When the fourth draft was released, radical groups began agitating, flooding the bishops with mailings, and gathering signatures and money for two ads which appeared in the National Catholic Reporter a week apart in November: one supported homosexual rights and the other opposed the women’s pastoral. (Bishops Walter Sullivan and Thomas Gumbleton signed both ads.) These same lobbies—such as Women’s Ordination Conference, New Ways Ministries, Catholics Speak Out, Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual (WATER), and Catholics for a Free Choice—had gained much media attention at the June NCCB meeting because of a Gallup poll they commissioned which seemed to show considerable dissent from central Catholic teaching on the part of the 800 Catholics interviewed.

Even discounting for bias in conducting the poll, the results show that Catholic teaching is not being received (possibly because it is not being clearly transmitted) by a great many people who still identify themselves as Catholic. This is hardly news. Unlike other believers, many Catholics call themselves “Catholic” long after they have stopped being “practicing” Catholics. The poll also showed, however, a remarkable correlation of Church attendance and acceptance of Church teaching. For example, only 27 percent of Catholics under age 35 attend church weekly, and only 24 percent of this age group opposes ordination of women.

The poll did focus attention on the need to evangelize Catholics. Bishops who spoke in strong support of Church teachings at the November meeting recognized this need and seemed willing to accept their responsibility in filling it. On the other hand, bishops who advocate fundamental reform of essential Catholic doctrine to make it more compatible with current secular trends, or who maintain that Catholic beliefs should be changed to make the Catholic Church “persuasive” to non-believers, seem to regard the poll as proof that Catholicism itself has failed.

Merciful Death

This fourth draft of the “pastoral response to ‘women’s concerns,’ ” will now be issued only as a report to the Executive Committee of the NCCE by the ad hoc writing committee. Neither the fourth draft nor any previous draft will be used as a “pastoral statement” by any NCCB committee. Furthermore, the bishops stipulated that any or all further studies on issues raised by the draft conform to the teaching of the Church and be aimed at making Church teaching more clearly understood. A motion by Archbishop William Levada to require that any committee statements dealing with Church doctrine be submitted to the full body of bishops for approval, however, failed.

It is not true, as some news stories stated, that “the bishops voted to send it to various committees as a resource for future work.” (Committee statements do not require the approval of the whole body of bishops.) This was the intention, however, of several bishops who have openly dissented from the Church’s doctrine on ordination and have expressly supported feminist reform in the Church. Among these are: Bishops Michael Kenny (Juneau), P. Francis Murphy (auxiliary Baltimore); Raymond Lucker (New Ulm); Kenneth Untener (Saginaw); Thomas Gumbleton (auxiliary Detroit); Walter Sullivan (Richmond); Archbishop Rembert Weakland (Milwaukee); and Bishop Matthew Clark (Rochester), Chairman of the Women’s Committee and member of the ad hoc writing committee.

The final disposition of the pastoral was its best possible fate, under the circumstances. Although the fourth draft was an improvement over earlier drafts (it was the first to include clear teaching on the Catholic doctrine of the priesthood, for example), the draft was still unsatisfactory. It contained no real criticism of feminism or “feminist spirituality,” and did not explicitly comment about or warn against disastrous effects of feminist ideology in the Church (most dramatically on women’s religious orders) and in society (e.g., abortion, erosion of the family).

The fourth draft still urged that “women’s commissions” be established in dioceses; it still advocated feminist (“inclusive”) language. It supported social policy of doubtful help to families (“family leave” and day-care), and it was further marred by internal inconsistencies. For example, in section 102 the draft advocates affirmative action (“equal treatment for all . . . with special attention to women”), and “comparable pay for comparable work.” In the very next paragraph it invokes the traditional Catholic teaching that employees be paid a “family wage,” which teaching presumes that the family is supported by the father’s wages alone.

As written, then, the fourth draft was not acceptable as a pastoral letter and probably could not have been adequately amended, given the dissention among the bishops.

Dissenting Bishops

This dissention was explicitly noted by writing committee member Bishop Alfred Hughes of Boston in his opening statement of support for the pastoral:

The stakes seem to be raised by the public statements made by some of our membership which not only expressed opposition to the text, but also expressed public dissent from the Church’s teaching on ordination.

Bishop Austin Vaughan of New York also objected to bishops making public statements which dissent from clear magisterial teaching by treating women’s ordination as an open question.

This dissent was most openly expressed by Bishop Michael Kenny of Juneau (who had earlier published a statement challenging the Church’s doctrine of the priesthood), when he rose in support of Cardinal Bernardin’s initial motion to remand the pastoral to committee for further action, “study and dialogue.” Bishop Kenny said:

I question the wisdom, and perhaps even the prudence, of our dealing with the ordination question only in terms of supporting the present teaching and attempting to present it in more persuasive terms. I’m convinced that the situation in the Church in our own country and beyond calls for more. . . . I don’t think the stakes have been raised on this issue by public statements made by members of our own body because the stakes are already much, much higher than that. And they are made so by the widespread, the deep, and the thoughtful dissent from and questioning of the present position of the Holy See on the ordination question. The pain, the anger, and the growing alienation of some of the most loyal, learned, and active women and men in the Church call for an open, widespread, and careful examination of the ordination question itself.

Also prominent among the reformist bishops was Archbishop Rembert Weakland, who said the women’s ordination question needed “further review” and called the fourth draft “a sign of unopenness.” He warned that if the bishops voted to uphold Church teaching on ordination, “a tremendous crisis” in the Church would result and the Church would “lose another generation of very wonderful women.” He suggested that the Church’s “power over the Sacraments” might be an avenue for change, and he claimed that traditional teaching on ordination “centered on the inferiority of women.”

Bishop Walter Sullivan significantly noted that “most of those offended [by the pastoral] would be the women who minister in our Chancery offices, in our institutions and in our parishes.” Bishop Peter Rosazza (auxiliary Hartford) thanked the committee for “breaking new ground in exploration of a theology of women.”

Bishop Francis Murphy, writing earlier in Commonweal (September 28), said of women’s ordination, “Justice demands it. The pastoral needs of the Church requires it,” and further, the patriarchal Catholic hierarchy “continues to permeate the church and supports a climate that not only robs women of their full personhood, but also encourages men to be domineering, aggressive and selfish.”

These bishops all strongly supported the Bernardin plan to shelve the pastoral as the best way of keeping the door open to “study and dialogue” on ordination and continuing the “process.”

The complex parliamentary procedures included discussion of Cardinal Bernardin’s initial motion on Tuesday; the discussion and amendment of the draft on Wednesday, after the Cardinal had been persuaded to withdraw his motion so normal debate and vote on the pastoral could take place; and the re-introduction of a clarified and amended version of the Bernardin motion after the document failed to receive the necessary two-thirds majority. (The final tally was 137 for, 110 against.) The procedures were understandably confusing to many bishops, as well as to most journalists who covered the meeting. Cardinal Bernardin’s second motion passed (185-51), thus sealing the fate of the document.

No “Women’s Issues”

The years of controversy over the “women’s pastoral” revealed a growing cleavage within the Church—a serious rift over the very nature of the Catholic Church and her essential mission. It became increasingly clear that it is not possible to write a pastoral letter on “women’s issues” because there are actually no such isolated issues; those defined as such affect both the entire Church and the entire society. There are, however, feminist issues, but no mandate for these from Catholic women, in any collective sense, exists.

Feminist reformers of both sexes challenge the very essence of the Catholic faith. And their goal is utter transformation of the Church through her liturgy, her worship, her polity, and her authority. The reformers’ objective is to destroy the Church’s Word and Sacrament, for it is by the power of both that the Church subsists. Erosion of the Catholic faith by coercively imposing feminist liturgical language, by literal iconoclasm in church renovations, by constant attacks on the priesthood, the papacy, the hierarchy and magisterial authority, and by undermining Church teaching through her own catechetical agencies—all these assaults most often committed in the name of justice and freedom—have increased during these years of “dialogue” and selective listening.

The bishops’ final debate on the women’s pastoral forced them to confront fundamental questions which every Catholic must now be prepared to answer: Whether what the Catholic Church teaches is objectively true; whether the Church has the right and the obligation to maintain the integrity of the beliefs she proclaims and has proclaimed throughout her history; and what action follows from that fundamental choice.

The feminist effort to force the American bishops to sell the Catholic birthright for ideological pottage failed. They failed to achieve the priesthood; failed even to get the NCCB to entertain questioning this teaching. Instead, they got a ringing reaffirmation of Church doctrine in the Program for Priestly Formation. They failed to coerce either the NCCB or the Vatican to consider ordaining women to the diaconate, or even to give permission for “altar girls”; failed even to persuade more than a tiny, vocal handful of bishops to espouse their views—and this after strenuous efforts begun in 1976.

In the end, feminist reformers could see that the bishops’ lack of enthusiasm for the pastoral project (especially after the June meeting) would make its passage in any form unlikely. They simply decided to declare a victory and abandon that particular battlefield. That this fooled the media is no surprise.

If there is a victory in all this for any Catholic women, it is for those many thousands of women who faithfully and persistently refused to be intimidated by influential feminists, and who continued to implore the bishops not to accept uncritically the picture of Catholic women presented on the evening news, nor to listen only to the feminist women on their chancery staffs and teaching in their seminaries, but to hear also the voices of Catholics who believe what the Church teaches, who are willing to accept the implications of the Catholic faith in their lives—even when this may require heroic action—and who must rely on the bishops for support and guidance and aid. These voices were, at last, heard.

Still, it would be foolish to suppose that feminist influence in the Church in the United States will dissipate, whatever transpired with the pastoral. Feminist reformers intend to salvage what they found in all drafts that will advance their cause. Feminist theologians remain as tenured faculty at Catholic universities and seminaries. Feminist gurus still conduct spirituality seminars sponsored, too often, by the Church.

The Committee on Women (with its U.S. Catholic Conference counterpart) has prepared plans to implement women’s commissions, promote “inclusive” language, and continue the “listening process.”

The Committee on Family (chaired by Cardinal Bernardin) reported at the November meeting that it will begin writing a pastoral letter on the family during the coming year. As preparation for this, a group of theologians was commissioned early this year to develop a theology of the “Domestic Church.” Lisa Sowell Cahill, a theologian from Boston College who believes that Catholic teaching on human sexuality “requires a thorough feminist revision,” is a member of this group.

The Committee on Communications, in collaboration with the Women’s Committee, is currently producing videos to promote feminist views. The Committee on Liturgy (headed by Bishop Wilton Gregory, auxiliary of Chicago) continues to collaborate with the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) in an effort to revise the worship of the Church by coercive use of feminist language in the new Roman Missal and in Scripture translations. (Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk, outgoing president of the NCCB, is chairman of ICEL.)

Even if the feminist women’s declaration of victory seems strangely reminiscent of Senator George Aiken’s suggestion about Vietnam—”Just declare a victory and get out”—the bishops, who are responsible not only for the faith of the people in their dioceses, but for what goes on in their name at the national level, have a long and arduous job ahead of them. For too long, the attitude of many otherwise orthodox bishops towards feminists has been, as one bishop put it, like “throwing food to an alligator in the hope that they’ll be eaten last.”

The damage has already been great. One can hope that the events surrounding the disposition of the women’s pastoral will give the bishops a clearer insight and a new resolve to address feminists courageously. To do this they will need even greater encouragement and support and commitment from orthodox laity.


  • Helen Hull Hitchcock

    Helen Hull Hitchcock is founding director of Women for Faith & Family and editor of its quarterly journal, Voices. She is also editor of the Adoremus Bulletin, a monthly publication of Adoremus - Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy, of which she is a co-founder. She is married to James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University. The Hitchcocks have four daughters and six grandchildren, and live in St. Louis.

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