Nearly five years after calling for a greater appreciation of women's leadership abilities, America's Catholic bishops are about to begin work on developing practical resources for improving working relationships between the church's all-male clergy and women.
At their annual spring meeting, which begins in St. Louis on Thursday and continues through June 21, Bishop Edward Cullen of Allentown, Pa., chairman of the committee on women in society and in the church, will ask that work begin on a document based on the bishops' 1998 statement, “From Words to Deeds.”
In that statement, the bishops said the church should do more to promote qualified women to positions of lay leadership “so that the church may reap the full benefit of their talents.”
It also called for a greater spirit of collaboration between men and women in the church.
The new resource is being developed partly in response to concerns expressed by women in high-level church positions who attended a 2001 consultation in Chicago where the No. 1 issue to surface was collaboration with the clergy.
“A common complaint was that women are excluded when decisions are made,” said Sheila Garcia, assistant director of the bishops' Secretariat for Family, Laity, Women, and Youth. “ ... So many times, a woman's point of view is just not present.”
Women at the consultation said although they defined collaboration as the opportunity to make real contributions in decision-making, they often experienced it as surface cooperation or consultation.
They also said diocesan decision-making structures sometimes excluded them. Some reported that even in areas for which they had responsibility, decisions were made without their knowledge.
In addition, many cited the unwillingness of priests, especially those who were newly ordained, to work with them as colleagues in ministry.
Ms. Garcia said the new document is intended to be a practical, hands-on resource that clergy and women can use in dioceses and parishes to develop their own ideas about collaboration and the concepts behind it.
In other business, the bishops will hear a report from the ad hoc committee on sexual abuse on implementation of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which was approved at last year's spring meeting in Dallas in the wake of a sexual-abuse scandal that has shaken the American church.
The charter provides for removal from ministry of any priest who has ever sexually abused a minor.
Also on the bishops' agenda will be “directories,” or new guidelines for the spiritual, academic, and pastoral formation of deacons and for teaching the faith, and a proposal to develop a document for the formation and preparation of lay ministers.
Permanent deacons, who assist at Mass and baptize, preach, witness marriages, and officiate at funerals, now number nearly 14,000 in the U.S. church and 28,238 worldwide, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The ministry, which is open to both single and married men 35 and older, was restored by the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965.)
If approved by the bishops and eventually the Pope, the new principles for those who teach the faith will be used by diocesan staffs, parish directors of religious education, school principals, and others who provide instruction in church teachings.