The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Baltimore yesterday issued a forceful endorsement of the expanding role of women in the Catholic Church, calling for women to receive leadership positions, but stopping short of recommending that women be admitted to the priesthood.
However, Archbishop William D. Borders did urge that women be permitted to become deacons, the ordained spiritual leaders who rank just below priests in authority.
"In today's society, if the church is to continue as a force in the world, women must enter into decisions and policy-making and accept leadership roles for the church," Borders said in an 11-page open letter to the 455,000 members of his archdiocese.
In his letter on "Women in the Mission and Ministry of the Church," the archbishop, who is among the more progressive in the American hierarchy, acknowledged existing church restrictions on the role of women but urged pressing these restrictions to their limits.
In his carefully worded comments advocating the ordination of women as deacons Archbishop Borders noted that the Vatican's ban in January on ordaining women to the priesthood "left open the possibility of admitting women to the diaconate.
"Through the providence of God," he continued, the diaconate was instituted to advance the mission of Christ in the service of the People of God. The providence of God is still with us."
The archbishop could not be reached for elaboration but his official spokesman, the Rev. John Geaney, said, "His feeling is that women's ordination [to the priesthood] if it is to come, will come through the providence of God. The way to begin to work at it is to seek ordination to the diaconate."
For unmarried males in the Catholic Church, becoming a deacon is normally a step on the way to becoming a priest. Since the second Vatican Council 15 years ago, the church has also ordained as "permanent deacons" married men who have completed prescribed study.
Deacons may perform all functions of priests except celebrating mass and hearing confession. They may preach, teach, marry, bury and baptize and administer communion with wafers already consecrated by a priest.
The Baltimore archdiocese includes the city of Baltimore plus Maryland's northern tier of counties. But as an archbishop and an acknowledged leader in the American Catholic Church, the prelate's influence is nationwide.
Archbishop Borders also called for priests to be sensitive to the growing concern over the masculine-dominated language in the church's worship and prayers. "I am aware that some people, both men and women are put off by the at-times one-sided use, and sometimes almost consistent use, of masculine nouns and pronouns in the liturgy and educational programs of the archdiocese," he said.
He pledged to "try to recruit women applicants" for leadership positions in the srchdiocese which church law does not require priests to fill.
Father Geaney said this could include such posts as "superintendent of schools, director of communication and theoretically, given a degree in canon law, the chancellor of the diocese."
Archbishop Borders further promised that "if an internship period would provide a woman with experience needed for a position for which she is otherwise qualified, we shall seek to provide that training."
The Baltimore archdiocese already has a woman serving as assistant superintendent of schools, as director of collegial services - a liaison between individual parish councils and the archdiocese - and as president of the archdiocesan council. The latter position is elective and non-paid, but nevertheless influential.
Archbishop Borders said he would press other bishops to give official status to certain liturgical roles which have been opened to both lay men and to women in the reforms following Vatican II.
He cited particularly the roles women can fill as lectors - those who read scripture at mass - as extraordinary ministers of the eucharist - nonordained persons who assist with distributing communion bread already consecrated by a priest and as music directors and lay persons who teach religion.
Archbishop Borders' letter to the Catholics in his district was written, he said, while he was on a spiritual retreat to reflect and pray "about my own personal relationship to Christ and about my response to the duties of my vocation.
"I think we men have been taking women for granted and have been only on the receiving end of women's concerns for too long," he said at one point.
In his discussion of sexism in the liturgy he commented, "To be honest, this came home to me as a problem only recently, after reading in several articles that women are rarely mentioned in the liturgies."
Archbishop Borders did not neglect to pay homage in the traditional Catholic manner to women's roles as wife, mother and homemaker.
In the past, he said, "women have been rather silent members of the church." But in the last two decades, "the pattern of work and responsibility for women has undergone a radical change in public life and in the business world," he observed.
"The church, recognizing these changes, is seeking more opportunities for women to use their talents effectively in leadership roles and ministries heretofore closed to them because of custom or discipline."