A national organization of Roman Catholic priests is expected to issue today a "Pastoral Letter on Equality in the Church," outlining a seven-year plan aimed at wiping out the "sin" of gender discrimination in the church.
The 9,000-word statement produced by the 2,300-member Priests for Equality, which has its headquarters in Hyattsville, calls for attacking sexism in the church on all fronts. The proposals include everything from purging sexist concepts from wedding liturgy and practices, to commissioning a "gender-balanced" Bible translation, to dropping the "patriarchal" title of "father" and instead calling priests by their given names.
The group is 10 years old and composed of American priests from across the country as well as some who are based abroad. The letter, which like its sponsor is unofficial and carries no authority beyond the weight of its arguments, unequivocally endorses the ordination of women to the priesthood, a step which has been just as unequivocally ruled out by Pope John Paul II.
It recommends a seven-year process of "prayer, reflection and experimentation," which would include study of the "impact of women's ordination" in Protestant churches, a study of how U.S. Catholics would respond to female priests and parish experiments with "women and men sharing eucharistic ministry."
The letter says that the church's failure to end gender discrimination is causing "scandal" and "undercuts our ablity to speak of justice in other vital areas of human need."
The letter calls for a variety of approaches to the problem, including:
*Designate a team of canon lawyers -- "women and men" -- to "review and identify gender discrimination" in the church's code of canon law and recommend ways to eliminate or work around such discrimination.
*Implement "vigorous programs to achieve gender balance in decision-making groups throughout the church."
*Sensitize priests who do marriage counseling to the demands of gender equality to help "couples plan their future life together."
Regarding the marriage ceremony, the letter is critical of such "cultural stereotypes" as the bride's being "treated as property, to be brought up the aisle on the arm of her father and transferred to her husband." The document asks the International Commission on English in the Liturgy to "prepare liturgies that foster equality."
*On the topic of language in the Bible, the letter notes that "this area walks the controversial line between fidelity to ancient and beloved texts written by men in male-dominated cultures, and translations which are sensitive to gender discrimination."
Nevertheless, it proposes that the Catholic Biblical Association of America "institute a task force of biblical scholars, linguists, etc., to produce an English translation of the Bible that reflects gender balance."
*Similar attention must be given to "balanced language" in sermons, liturgy and church music. "Music with sexist lyrics is no more acceptable than music with racist lyrics," the letter says.
The document links the need for wiping out gender discrimination to the church's multi-faceted "Respect Life" policy, which embraces causes from fighting abortion to opposition to nuclear war. "Reverence for life is as blighted by discrimination based on gender as it is by discrimination based on race or ethnic origin," the letter says.
Most of the action proposals in the letter involve no direct breaking of church law, according to Joseph Dearborn, national secretary of the group, although a few suggestions, such as the use of altar girls and female preachers at mass, would involve some bending of the canons.
Near the end of the proposed seven-year period of study and experimentation, the letter proposes the convening of a nationwide "pastoral council" that would involve bishops as well as priests and laity "to harvest the results of this national process of reflection."
The pastoral points out that "this process of prayer, dialogue, debate and experience" is the way the early Christian church resoloved the critical question of their day: whether non-Jews should be permitted to join the church.
The Priests for Equality quote liberally from the Bible, Vatican documents and papal encyclicals to develop their arguments for equality. The group praises "our brothers who are bishops" for their forthright stands on social justice issues and urges an equally "courageous" stance on gender equality.
"We are willing to be patient and to counsel patience, provided the institutional church in the U.S. acts vigorously to implement equality," the document says. "Continued opposition to equality would turn culturally derived male patterns of ministry and decision-making into a modern theological idol, an occasion of sin, both personal and social."