A subcommittee of America's Roman Catholic bishops will seek authorization at the semiannual meeting of the hierarchy in Chicago next month to issue a statement supporting the Equal Rights Amendment.
The request of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops' subcommittee on women in society and the church will be handled in closed-door sessions of the body's administrative committee rather than by the full body of the bishops.
If the request is granted, any resulting statement will be issued only by the six-member subcommittee, rather than by the full body of bishops.
Although various groups within the church have taken stands on both sides of the ERA issue, the bishops have not formally addressed it since 1972. At that time, the body agreed not to take a stand because "most thought it was a political question," according to Bishop Thomas C. Kelly, general secretary of the NCCB.
Conference officials acknowledge that the hierarchy has been criticized for some time by pro-ERA forces for holding their spring meeting in Chicago. ERA advocates have pressured organizations not to hold meetings in states that have failed to ratify the amendment, of which Illinois is one.
Since word leaked out that the ERA issue would come before the administration committee again, both pro-and anti-ERA forces have stepped up their lobbying efforts, church officials said. However, Kelly pointed out, "we are not too much influenced by pressure."
The full text of the statement, which the subcommittee headed by Bishop Michael F. McAuliffe, of Jefferson City, Mo., will present, has not been released. However, Kelly confirmed that the thrust of it is to separate support for the Equal Rights Amendment from support for abortion, which some foes of the measure charge is inevitably linked to ERA.
Bishop Carroll T. Dozier of Memphis, a member of the McAuliffe committee, has been an outspoken advocate of women's rights. Earlier this month, in an address before a national gathering of religions educators in Milwaukee, he assailed the "hysteria" which he said had taken over debate in the church over rights for women.
"No longer is there dialogue or discussion" of ERA in the church, he said. "There is shrieking and namecalling."
Within the church the National Council of Catholic Women, the Catholic Daughters of America and the Knights of Columbus have formally opposed ERA, while most organizations of sisters and a number of priests' councils have favored it.
In response to a question, Kelly denied that the bishops perceived any link between taking a position on ERA and the church's unwillingness to ordain women to the priesthood.
In address to scholarly symposium at Georgetown University last weekend, William Cardinal Baum of Washington said that the position that women cannot be ordained priests "will always be the belief of the Catholic Church."
He said that the church "holds that the unique role of woman consists in her power to be the symbol of divinized creation, that is, of creation receiving from God his life, bearing it within as the life of God but also as part of our life, and bringing forth the fruit of God's love in a fountain of more and more life."