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Posted December 12, 2005

Despite disagreements, Catholic women said to be committed to church

By Nancy Frazier O'Brien
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Despite what she called a "limited opportunity structure" for women in the Catholic Church and widespread disagreement by both sexes with some church teachings, Catholic women remain deeply committed to the church, a sociology professor said Dec. 7.

Michele Dillon, a professor at the University of New Hampshire, spoke at The Catholic University of America on "Catholic Women in a Changing Church."

Citing studies over the past several decades, Dillon said Americans continue to value religion and a majority of U.S. Catholics consistently say that their Catholicism is very important to their identity, in spite of huge changes in U.S. society.

"This contradicts the theory that religion will wither away," she said. "And it is at odds with data showing that Catholics are disaffected and at odds with church teachings."

But Dillon said polls show many Catholics disagree with church teachings on birth control, divorce, abortion, the ordination of women to the priesthood and priestly celibacy. But those who remain Catholic consider those stands "ultimately irrelevant" to their identity as Catholics, she said.

Citing her own survey in the mid-1990s of members of the Women's Ordination Conference, which works to change church teaching on the ordination of women as priests, Dillon said most argue in favor of women's ordination "as Catholics, not as Americans."

She found that 88 percent approached the matter using arguments from Catholic doctrine, while only 4 percent called for women's ordination from an "individual rights" perspective.

"They use the church's own language to critique church doctrine and practices," thus affirming their belief that "tradition matters," Dillon said.

Pope John Paul II in 1994 declared the church had no authority to ordain women as priests and the issue was not open to debate among Catholics, but "pro-change Catholics believe that the church can change," and they "use their doctrinal voice to refashion" the discussion, she said.

Similarly, polls of members of Voice of the Faithful -- a lay organization founded after the clergy sex abuse crisis began in 2002 -- show that they are strongly committed to the church, Dillon said. The group works to give lay people greater decision-making powers in church matters.

Women make up 59 percent of the membership of Voice of the Faithful, she added.

They also hold many key lay leadership positions in Catholic parishes nationwide, Dillon said, and she suggested that those posts might pave the way toward greater acceptance of and dialogue on the possibility of women priests.

Through their leadership in worship, preaching and Catholic education, for example, women "can be at the forefront of developing new ways to revitalize the intergenerational transmission of the faith," she said.

Women also make up the majority of lay ecclesial ministers who are parish life coordinators in the United States, Dillon said.

"By their very presence, they are preparing the church for the concept" of women priests, she added.

Three Catholic University professors responded to Dillon's talk, with one offering a divergent viewpoint on women's roles in the future of the Catholic Church.

Father D. Paul Sullins, a married former Anglican priest who is an assistant professor of sociology at Catholic University, predicted that the Catholic Church will not become more open to ministry by women but will instead become more orthodox in its adherence to tradition.

He said groups such as the Women's Ordination Conference, Voice of the Faithful and Catholics for a Free Choice, which seek change in the church, "represent an aging constituency in the church."

Young Catholics who support women's ordination will not have the same problems with leaving the church that their elders have, Father Sullins added, and will "feel free to leave."

As members of the groups that want changes die off and younger change-minded Catholics leave, those who remain will be more and more likely to be orthodox, he said.