AT the end of Vatican II, it is said, two bishops discussed whether or not the council had been a success. "Basically," said one, "we'll find out at Vatican Ill. By that time, if this one has worked, the Pope will be able to bring along her husband."
Only time will tell when — indeed, whether — another Vatican Council will be held. But more than 20 years on from the second, the idea of a woman becoming Pope remains firmly in the realms of fantasy.
Whose fantasy, though, is it? The struggle of the Movement for the Ordination of Women within the General Synod of the Church of England has tended to stereotype all Christian feminists, whatever their denomination, in the mould of would-be priests. Yet this does not seem to be the case in the Catholic Church — there, the ordination question tends not to be seen as of crucial importance.
Part of the reason for this is that unlike their Anglican sisters, few Catholic women seem to feel themselves called to the priesthood. The Church of England women deacons and deaconesses who are clearly frustrated at being unable to take on what they see as their rightful role are not mirrored by a similar group within the Catholic enclave.
Even Sr Kira Solhdoost, longtime advocate for female priests in the Catholic Church, cannot think of a single woman who actually wants to be one. "I do think, though, that if ordination was open to women some would opt for it — especially, perhaps, those who are already trained theologians," she explains.
And certainly the move would bring beneficial spin-offs to the Church at large, she feels. "I can think of many times in my own life when I would much rather have gone to confession to a woman, and I know plenty of other people who agree with me."
For most Catholic feminists, however, the women priests issue is symbolic rather than
central. This is, firstly, because many believe that, though inevitable, women clerics are a long way off. As recently as last month John Paul used Christifideles Laid, his response to the 1987 Synod on the Laity, as another opportunity to reiterate his views: "In her participation in the life and mission of the Church, a woman cannot receive the sacrament of orders, and therefore cannot fulfil the proper function of the ministerial priesthood," he said.
His steadfast views have led most to believe there will be no breakthrough on this issue during his papacy — however dire the lack of male priests becomes.
More significant, though, is the fact that many Catholic women activists think the whole area of priesthood is in need of change, and believe they should seek its reform before knocking at its door. Ianthe Pratt, a member of the Catholic Women's Network and coordinator of the Christian Women's Resource Centre, sums it up: "It's really our feeling that the organised priesthood isn't well suited to the needs of male priests, let alone female ones. It really needs to be opened up, and new ideas let in."
The network, to which lanthe has belonged since it was started four years ago, now has 400 members on its books. Dwarfed by the long-standing, traditional organisations such as the Union of Catholic Mothers — (membership 15,000) and the Catholic Women's League (11,000), it could nonetheless be an important catalyst for change in the years ahead. Although by its own admission a predominately white, middleclass, highly-educated group of women, the network is growing in numbers and setting up little outposts in towns and cities outside its London base. This means women who have perhaps for long felt disillusioned by what they see as male domination in the Church are realising they are not alone, and discovering there is a hope and power for change in numbers.
Closely related to the network, but not actually part of it, is a highly significant ad hoc group of about 50 women who meet twice a year at Heythrop College in central London to plan and strategise on women's issues. This group, which includes some women who work within Catholic organisations, has been very successful so far at getting women noticed where it counts. Some of its members approached the bishops' conference last year with the idea of establishing a women's advisory committee. The move was rejected on the grounds that
the National Board of Catholic Women was there to fulfil that role, but partly as a result of the request the board is currently being reorganised to allow it to represent a wider spectrum of women's views. In addition, the Catholic Women's Network has become a member organisation of the board. Both these changes mean the bishops are likely to have more vociferous female voices to take into account when they make decisions in the years ahead.
As part of the work done by the National Board to widen its horizons a national conference of Catholic women looks likely to happen sometime next year. The first of its kind ever in this country, the conference is being planned as a forum for all women to meet together and share ideas. Like the Catholic Women's Network groups, its initial significance will be in bringing together people of like mind — but in time, such a conference could become a strong pressure group in the Church.
Those at the heart of the groups concerned to change women's role, to admit them to the decision-making process and to encourage their better treatment by the Church, are keen to emphasis that they are not separatists. "I very strongly get the feeling that the Christian element is predominant — we really want to sec women and men living together more healthily," says Kathy Walsh, a member of the ad hoc women's group.
Alexina Murphy, another member, agrees. "We recognise that changes which last in the Church are ones which become built into the structures. That's what we want to do, to change the structures."
Women like Alexina and Kathy look to other countries such as the United States and Canada for inspiration. There, Catholic women's voices have been heard and the bishops have responded — last year, the American bishops acknowledged the Church's part in sin of sexism".
Another strength for Catholic feminists is their allies in the other Christian churches. A large proportion of Catholic women's groups, both those based within and outside the parishes, have ecumenical ties and work together with women from other denominations. Coming into contact with women ministers in the other churches, particularly those like the Methodists who hlove been admitted to the ministry for a long time, is often a source of new ideas for Catholic women.
At the same time, though, the experience of women in other churches serves as a warning to some Catholics. They are unimpressed by the "clericalisation" of women elsewhere, particularly in the Church of England, who have donned dog-collars and become more priestly than the men. Many women in the Catholic Church feel they would be straitjacketed by such a transformation: part of the reason why women are at the forefront of many exciting and creative new initiatives in the Catholic Church, such as justice and peace work, is precisely due to their having had no defined role, they say.
Some in the Church worry that women, and men too for that matter, will become "clericalised" by the new roles open to them — the Pope himself has expressed such fears. On the whole they seem so far groundless: women have taken on new tasks, from eucharistic ministries and reading at Mass to counselling and catechetics with enormous enthusiasm and have brought a new, lay, dimension with them. Many are critical of the reasons behind inviting women into these new jobs, but cheered by its implications.
"It isn't happening for the right reasons, it's happening because they haven't got enough men any more," says lanthe Pratt. "But it's still had a good effect and it's going to go on having a good effect . . . there's much more understanding, now, of the way women have been badly treated and a comprehension, at last, that women's talents have not been made the most of by the Church. So I'm hopeful, really, for the future."