by Vivenne Hewitt in Rome
POPE John Paul II is reported to have ordered the release last weekend of selected extracts of his document on women six days ahead of its official publication date, to coincide with the New York diocesan synod which opened last Friday.
His decision to circulate sections of the 120-page paper Dignity of Women, reiterating a refusal to consider the admission of women to the priesthood, but placing it in the context of women's role in creation, was aimed at curbing dispute on the issue at the New York synod before it had a chance to erupt.
The document, believed to be one of the longest this pontiff has ever compiled, and written while he holidayed in Italy's Dolomite Mountains in July, stresses the distinction between male and female "which is to say, that which is desired by God both within the mystery of creation, and within that of redemption."
"Woman, in the name of liberation from man's dominion cannot assume masculine characteristics at the expense of her very own feminine originality".
The document goes on to advocate that the priesthood constitutes a masculine characteristic and by aspiring to it woman "could deform and lose all that makes up her essential richness".
Dignity of Woman is due to be
published oday and will be presented by Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, prefect of the congregation for the doctrine of the faith. Six months ago in a letter to the Pope, American bishops urged him to consider women for "positions of authority and leadership" within the Church.
Now the Pope's firm veto has set the often rebellious American Church at further odds with Rome, and also threatens to slow down unity talks with the Church of England. The documents publication coincided with the decision of a US branch of the Anglican communion to elect its first woman bishop.
At the New York diocesan synod, Cardinal John O'Connor has forbidden any contentious discussion on the issue of women priests and according to unofficial Rome sources, he is acting on Vatican orders.
But from elsewhere in the United States adverse comments on the papal document, which condemns other forms of sexual discrimination, are already filtering through to Rome although critics remain cautious and urge America's militant female faithful to await the full text of the papal paper.
The American episcopate's letter in April conceded that sexist language and behaviour could be "sinful" and suggested the Church make a "more thorough investigation" of the possibility of admitting women to the priesthood. The letter also recommended granting permission to girls to serve alongside altar boys.
In Rome, a Vatican consultant on women's affairs at the Pontifical Council for the laity said surprise at the essential contents of Dignity of Women was pointless. "It was obvious that the Pope would reiterate his veto. But since the document condemns sexual discrimination, it could mean the Pope might encourage a greater involvement of women in the Church".
Theologian Sr Antonella Meneghetti felt that the issue of women priests might still be open. "From a theological viewpoint the issue is not one of dogma although I accept, of course, the Church's position", said Sr Antonella who last month addressed a convention in Italy on the theme "Educating Women Today".
"A solution for this problem of women priests will present itself only after profound historic, theological and anthropological research", she added.
Meanwhile, the Pope has privately welcomed the formation in the United States of a traditionalist counter-group, the organisation of women for the family and tradition. While John Paul was compiling Dignity of Women — which the organisation described as an "immense joy" — traditionalists in the States were campaigning against women priests and by last weekend had collected 60,000 signatures backing their movement.