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(Originally published in USA Today, April 18, 2004)

Women need not apply

By Mary Zeiss Stange

Amid the welter of speculations surrounding the conclave that convenes Monday in Vatican City to select the next pope, one fact is certain: No women will be involved in the process. Indeed, the College of Cardinals is the most exclusive, and arguably the most powerful, assembly in the modern world that can still get away with such systematic gender discrimination. The cardinal-electors might as well post a "No Girls Allowed" sign on the Sistine Chapel door as it swings shut behind them.

It need not be this way. While the exclusion of women from the deliberations may seem to follow logically from their inability to be ordained priests, in fact, under canon law, one needn't be a priest—nor, indeed, a man—to be made a cardinal.

Yet, it is no more mere coincidence that every member of the College of Cardinals is a member of the ordained priesthood, than that every one of the 114 men raised to that exalted status by John Paul II shares the late pope's thoroughgoing conservatism where women are concerned.

Feminist groups within the church, most prominently the Women's Ordination Conference, have clamored for women's active participation in deliberations surrounding the papal election. But their pleas have fallen on deaf ears. And last week, the New York Times reported that, according to a Vatican spokesman, issues of particular importance to women—contraception, divorce and female priests were specifically mentioned—"are not under discussion" as far as the papal electors are concerned.

The pope's letter to women

As conservative as the late pope was, this actually represents a step backward for the cardinals he appointed. In 1995, John Paul II wrote a letter to the women of the world. In it, he reiterated his opposition to women priests and clearly recast women in their traditional roles as social and spiritual support personnel. But he also explicitly apologized for the church's historical role in promoting sexism and affirmed that social injustices arising from gender inequality are contrary to both the spirit and the letter of Catholic theology. Something changed in the ensuing 10 years.

Swiss theologian Hans Kung, a progressive on whom John Paul II placed what amounted to a gag order in 1979 when he had the temerity to publicly dispute papal infallibility, recently told Reuters that he believes the papal conclave is being manipulated by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. As head of the College of Cardinals, and by some lights a serious papal contender himself, Ratzinger is arguably the most influential prelate in the Vatican.

In 2004, Ratzinger wrote a letter to the bishops of the world reaffirming the historical subordination of women and attacking feminism as a destructive force within Catholicism. Whether or not Ratzinger becomes pope or bends the conclave to his will in other ways (such as putting John Paul II on a fast track to sainthood), it is a sure bet that his colleagues and he will be in agreement when it comes to women's continuing limited role in the church.

A church still out of touch

Last week's drama surrounding Cardinal Bernard Law's celebration of one of nine solemn high masses at St. Peter's highlights just how resolutely clueless the Roman curia remain when it comes to the concerns of female Catholics. The unrepentant cardinal's ascension to power in Rome was a slap in the face to victims, male and female, of sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic priests—not only here in the United States, but worldwide. His being featured prominently in John Paul II's funerary rites demonstrates how out of touch the church remains on an issue still far from being adequately addressed, let alone resolved.

Vatican-watchers generally agree that the cardinals will be seeking to elect a charismatic "communicator" who will carry on John Paul II's legacy of projecting an image of piety and humility. Surely a first step of true humility would be to acknowledge that, despite occasional protestations to the contrary—such as John Paul II's celebrated 1995 letter—the Catholic Church continues to silence and ill serve the interests of more than half of its members.

Unfortunately, given the constituency of the College of Cardinals, that is a step none of the candidates is likely to be willing to take.

Mary Zeiss Stange is associate professor of Women's Studies and Religion at Skidmore College, and a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.

©2005 USA Today

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