IFY years ago this month women in Britain won the right to vote. Almost
to the day the slow wheels of reform of
the Catholic Church have begun to grind and we are at last beginning to question the way in which we discriminate against a good half of our five hundred mil lion adherents.
In theory, of course, the Church demands equal rights for men and women. It's all there in the Vatican Council's Document on the Church in the World Today: "With respect to the fundamental rights of the person, every type of discrimination, whether social or cultural, whether based on sex, race, colour, social condition, language or religion is to be overcome and eradicated as contrary to God's intent."
In practice, though, such high-minded talk is ignored. Women may not be ordained, they are barred from officiating in the liturgy and their voice in Church affairs is all but suppressed.
Take the liturgy: a woman is not allowed to serve Mass; she may not read the Epistle; if she is in the choir she is tolerated only because there are not enough small boys in the parish to do the job.
Fr. Johannes Neumann, Professor of Canon Law at Tiibingen University in Germany, said last week: "A boy not even capable of a fluent reading is admitted to the altar, but an educated woman who could do a much better job is excluded as though only males were children of God."
Much the same goes for choirs: women are easier to recruit, easier to train and with very few exceptions they make a better noise, yet we still retain the cult of the little boy chorister though it does seem to be on the decrease.
Ordination for women may well become one of the big issues this year. Even many of those who are opposed to it will admit that theologians have never put up a convincing case against it and the fact that the International Congress of the Laity passed a resolution on the subject when it met in Rome last October was a notable achievement.
But the principal objection to the ordination of women is unlikely to be a theological one: it is far more likely to be simple prejudice. The tradition of a male priesthood is a long one and buried deep in the souls of many Catholics.
If the priesthood is not on the immediate horizon for Catholic women the diaconate is certainly within their grasp and many would argue that such a reform could come within two or three years. This would mean that women could carry out such functions as distributing the Eucharist, preaching, and burying the dead, which, like the introduction of the male diaconate, would take a heavy burden off the shoulders of our already under manned priests.
The Church's immediate task, however, is to remove some ofthe anomalies that exist between laymen and laywomen.