The Society of Jesus, Roman Catholicism's most prominent and powerful religious order, concluded its first general meeting in more than a decade today by passing a landmark document on women's rights in the church and society.
After three months of discussion aimed at charting a course for the 23,000-member male order in the new millennium, delegates from around the globe committed the Jesuits to worldwide solidarity with women and acknowledged having been part of a longtime tradition "that has offended against women."
"We are conscious of the damage to the People of God brought about by the alienation of women in some cultures who no longer feel at home in the church, and who are not able with integrity to transmit Catholic values to their families, friends and colleagues," the document said.
"We Jesuits first ask God for the grace of conversion. We have been part of a civil and ecclesial tradition that has offended against women. And, like many men, we have a tendency to convince ourselves that there is no problem. However unwillingly, we have often been complicit in a form of clericalism which has reinforced male domination with an ostensibly divine sanction. We wish . . . to do what we can to change this regrettable situation."
While Pope John Paul II was not a participant in the meetings, delegates said he and other top Vatican officials were kept apprised of major documents, including the one on women, and raised no objections.
The Jesuit order is best known for a commitment to intellectual life, mission work and social justice for the poor. The 28 Jesuit-run colleges and universities in the United States, which include Georgetown University, have a reputation for intellectual rigor and for instilling concern for the underprivileged. However, some critics have complained that they cater to the educated elite.
As vocations to the religious life have declined in the United States, there has been tension over whether to emphasize the academic or the social justice work, Christopher Kauffman, a professor of church history at Catholic University of America, said today.
The meeting, officially known as a "general congregation," only the eighth of its kind in the order's four centuries, brought more than 200 delegates to Rome in an effort to refocus the Jesuit sense of mission as the year 2000 approaches.
The meeting has approved 22 documents, key among them measures seeking to establish a Jesuit partnership with the Catholic laity and to deepen links between faith and the fight for social justice, delegates said. The document on women, however, was the major surprise since the issue had not been cited in preparations for the meeting. "Jesuits coming here didn't expect this document," said the Rev. Stephen Sundberg, attending as head of the Jesuits' Oregon province.
The document calls discrimination against women "a universal reality," and it seeks to paint the issue diversely, as it might be seen by women in the industrial West, rural Africa or the Indian subcontinent. It urges all Jesuits to listen "carefully and courageously" to the experience of women and "to align themselves in solidarity with women."
"There is no substitute for such listening," said a late working draft, which officials said was approved with minimal rewording in the closing hours of the meeting. "Without listening, action in this area, no matter how well-intentioned, is likely to bypass the real concerns of women and to confirm male condescension and reinforce male dominance."
The document stresses that practical ways of acting in solidarity would differ from place to place and from culture to culture, but that certain universal ground rules apply. These include explicit teaching of the essential equality of women and men, especially in Jesuit schools and universities, and support for liberation movements for women that oppose their exploitation and encourage their entry into political and social life.
Citing female circumcision, dowry deaths and the murder of unwanted female infants in some parts of the world, it calls on Jesuits to pay "specific attention to the phenomenon of violence against women." It also urges the use of appropriately inclusive language in speech and official documents as well as the promotion of women's education and "genuine involvement" of women in Jesuit ministries.
The document does not directly address the controversial issue of whether women should be ordained to the priesthood. In what could be interpreted as a reference to the subject, however, it notes that "it may be anticipated that some other questions about the role of women in civil and ecclesial society will undoubtedly mature over time." It declares that "Jesuits hope to participate in clarifying" these issues and says that the "changes of sensibilities which this involves will inevitably have implications for church teaching and practice."
The document contained little if any of the preachy pronouncements that have often marked documents on women issued by the Vatican. It is more practical than theological; there is no mention of Mary or of virgin martyrs or of any of the standard female symbols often employed in church documents relating to women. The 34th General Congregation was only the eighth such meeting called to review and direct the general work of the society since the order was founded in 1540. The 26 others were to elect new superiors general. Staff writer Laurie Goodstein in Washington contributed to this report.