CTSA Backgrounder: The pastoral letter on women that never was

Los Angeles

During a session this afternoon at the Catholic Theological Society of America's annual conference, Jamie T. Phelps of Xavier University referred to efforts by the United States bishops in the mid-1980s and early 1990s to adopt a pastoral letter on women. Phelps said she regretted that, in the end, the project died.

“If we look for the perfect text, we’ll never say anything,” Phelps said.

The effort to draft a pastoral on women marked one of the more contentious chapters in the recent history of the bishops’ conference, as well as in its relationship with Rome.

The idea of a pastoral letter on women was first floated by Bishop Michael McAuliffe of Jefferson City, Missouri, in 1982. (McAuliffe died in January of 2006.) One year later, a six-bishop committee began work under the direction of Bishop Joseph Imesch of Joliet, Illinois.

Imesch and his colleagues were determined that their document should reflect the experiences and perspectives of women, so they spent much of 1985 and 1986 in consultations across the country. An estimated 75,000 women participated in these "listening sessions."

In April 1988, the committee issued a first draft, which included the “unfiltered” voices of women. Some voices were critical of the church; some even broached the issue of women’s ordination to the priesthood. The committee went into a second stage of consultations to gather reactions to the first draft.

Meanwhile, Pope John Paul II reacted to the document in a meeting with U.S. bishops in September 1988, urging the bishops to stress the theme of complementarity, meaning that men and women have different but “complementary” roles.

A second draft of the pastoral letter was issued in March 1990. It added a strong reaffirmation of church teaching on birth control, dropped a clause that women’s experience should contribute to church teaching on sexuality, and distinguished sharply between “Christian feminism” and “radical feminism.”

The bishops had planned to approve the document in November 1991, but the Vatican asked for a delay so that a delegation of U.S. bishops could come to Rome to discuss the project. Observers at the time said that Rome had watched how previous pastoral letters of the U.S. bishops, including The Challenge of Peace in 1983 and Economic Justice for All in 1986, had been widely disseminated, and wanted to exercise caution with the new letter on women.

Ratzinger chaired a two-day session in Rome in the fall of 1991. Among the senior church officials who met the Americans were German bishop (now Cardinal) Walter Kasper, Australian Archbishop Eric D'Arcy and Irish Archbishop Desmond Connell. A U.S. bishop involved in the drafting, who asked not to be identified, later said of the meeting: “We were set up. I thought we were going to go in there and educate the hierarchies of other countries, share with them what our women were telling us. Instead I was battered around. There was no way we were going to get an open hearing.”

The bishop said Ratzinger expressed two reservations about the document: first, that it was not clear enough about the ban on women’s ordination; second, that it went too far toward inclusive language, meaning the avoidance of gender-specific terms, such as using “person” instead of “man”.

Attempting to respond to these criticisms, the committee returned to work. In March 1992, a third draft went out for consideration. It blended tougher language on the Vatican’s sticking points with a condemnation of the “sin of sexism,” and suggested that a seminarian's inability to work with women ought to be considered a “negative indicator” for ordination.

At their June 1992 meeting, the bishops decided to generate yet another draft. Then-Archbishop William Levada of San Francisco, who now holds Ratzinger’s old job as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was deputized to do the writing. The fourth version condemned the sexual revolution and “extreme” forms of feminism, as well as civil laws that treat men and women alike. Some women encouraged the bishops to drop the entire project. On the floor, the draft failed to get the two-thirds vote it needed to pass.

After ten years of effort, for the first time in the history of the conference, a pastoral letter had been rejected in an open vote.

In retrospect, many observers believe the failure to produce a pastoral letter on women marked the end of the era of major teaching documents from the U.S. bishops. It also played a role in the reflections that led Pope John Paul II to issue the 1998 document Apostolos suos, which specified that a bishops’ conference cannot teach in the name of the church unless their documents enjoy unanimous support, and hence draw on each bishop’s individual teaching authority, or are approved in advance by Rome.

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here