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Bishops try again to define role of women

Question: How long does it take Catholic bishops to write a letter? Answer: About a decade, if the subject is the role of American women in their church.

A delegation of American bishops headed home Thursday under Vatican injunction to take another shot at a controversial document that condemns sexism and calls for full participation by women in all aspects of church life, short of the priesthood.

The would-be pastoral letter, which has been in the making for nine years, was panned by Vatican officials and prelates from other countries at an unusual two-day meeting summoned by the Vatican to discuss it.

Traditionalists, led by presiding Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the keeper of Vatican orthodoxy, and reinforced by attending cardinals and bishops from around the world, objected to both the content of the document and the effect it might have among Catholics outside the United States.

One insider described the Vatican reaction as "a disconnect" and spoke of official concern that the American document might go beyond papal teaching.

"I think perhaps many of the members thought that it would be better to walk cautiously and go slowly rather than shoot all the big guns at once," concluded Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk, head of the six-priest American delegation.

Vatican Secretary of State Angelo Sodano, a cardinal-designate, cautioned the Americans at the outset to respect the church's universal doctrine "without betraying anything of the integrity and originality of the Christian message."

Behind the diplomatic language, observers said, was the reality that a Vatican-led assault chafed at virtually every aspect of the document, which discusses issues from abortion to the priesthood and urges non-sexist language in the liturgy.

Acknowledging that the document had drawn "considerable criticism," Pilarczyk said the American methodology troubled some of the participating prelates. Beginning in 1982, about 75,000 American women offered their views to the drafting committee, which included five laywomen.

There was concern, Pilarczyk said, that the American bishops' approach suggested that "church teaching is up for grabs in response to whomever shouts the loudest." Any such concern is unjustified, he said.

The current version, titled "One in Christ Jesus: A Pastoral Response for the Concerns of Women for Church and Society," hews closer to the Vatican orthodoxy than an original draft.

While explaining and supporting the church's historical ban against women priests, it nevertheless calls for their ordination as deacons and asks support for their participation at religious services.

After review by U.S. bishops later this year, the final statement will be issued next year, if at all, sources in the U.S. delegation said.

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