A national Catholic conference on "Doing Justice" nearly foundered here this week over what many participants complained was the church's injustice toward women.
The gathering of more than 300 church social action leaders from throughout the country was a follow-up to the church's innovative social justice program of three years ago, known as the Call to Action. That wide-ranging effort culminated in a massive grass roots conference in Detroit in 1976 at which 1,300 participants tried to establish priorities for church involvement with social justice issues.
The question of women's ordination to the priesthood had been raised in District, but further discussion of the matter had been ruled out by the church hierarchy on the grounds that the Vatican had precluded such a step. Thus, the role of women in the church was not on the agenda of the three-day meeting here, which was planned as a "skills workshop" to assist parish leaders in effecting justice in both the church and society.
Nevertheless the women's issue emerged to domenate the gathering.
Two specific incidents forced the issue onto the agenda. The first occurred even before the meeting began, when two women from the unofficial Womens' Ordination Conference sought to register for the sessions.
Their registrations were rejected because the meeting was "not intended to be an issue conference," according to Frank Butler, who directed the Call to Action program for the National Conference of Catholic Bishiops.
The women came anyway, and through leaflects passed out in hotel hallways, took their case to delegates arriving for the first session Sunday afternoon. Intercessions were made on their behalf and Archbishop John R. Roach of St. Paul-Minneapolis, chairman of the Call to Action committee of the bishops' conference, reversed his earlier decision and allowed them to attend as observers.
Nevertheless, in a gathering of men and women already sensitized to questions of social justice, the confrontation proved an effective consciousness-raiser.
The second incident involved Msgr. John Egan, assistant to the president of the University of Notre Dame and one of the leaders of the Call to Action. He invited a nun-delegate who was a friend and former student to give the homily at the liturgy he was scheduled to celebrate Monday night.
In the light of the earlier controversy over women, the conference rejoiced at the news that Sister Sandra Galazin, a dynamic nun who is fighting for the rights of lepers in Honolulu, would be the homilist.
But Egan, accustomed to the more relaxed liturgical practices that tend to prevail on college campuses, forgot for the moment, he later said, the church rule that such participation in the mass by someone other than a priest had to be approved by the bishop of the diocese where the liturgy was to take place. The approval was not forthcoming.
Egan, a veteran social activist, was embarrassed.
"It cast a pall over the entire conference," said Sister Helen Volkomener of the Notre Dame-based Catholic Committee on Urban Ministry, who was assisting with the conference.
In closing remarks summarizing the conference, Egan likened the women's issue in the church today to the problems of racism in the 1960s. "The sin of injustice to women in the church today," he said, is "a question of the highest moral order."
Nevertheless, he gave the church high marks in other efforts for social justice, and praised "the hard work of Archbishop Roach."
Butler also said that the conference, in areas other than the women's issue, had been successful. "We got a lot of favorable reaction," he said. "We tried to give them (the delegates) as much practical information as we could and also let them know what was going on in other dioceses."