The U.S. Catholic bishops' rejection in November of a proposed pastoral letter on women concludes for now a decade-long effort that began in good faith and ended with grave doubts as to whether an all-male hierarchy should aspire to speak to the plight of women.
Pastoral letters are the most authoritative teaching statements of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Earlier letters on peace and the economy constituted defining moments for the U.S. church by bringing to bear Catholicism's understanding of the common good upon contemporary realities.
Sadly, the letter, "One in Christ Jesus," was not so destined. On the contrary, the document has come to symbolize the very sexism the U.S. bishops had hoped to speak of in a prophetic fashion. Under pressure from Rome, the U.S. bishops--minus a few good men--retreated from any real discussion in the letter of what progressives have defined as central to any discussion of justice: the church's prohibition against women priests. To make matters worse, the letter's treatment of sexism in general was greatly circumscribed over the course of four drafts. With Rome's signature all over the letter, few Catholics could believe that it genuinely reflected the views of the U.S. bishops, as had the peace and economic pastorals of the 1980s.
The controversy engendered by the letter is no surprise, given what was widely perceived as its significant potential. Consultations were held in 100 U.S. dioceses, involving an estimated 75,000 Catholic women who spoke of their concerns. The U.S. bishops ad hoc committee on women in society and the church convened national hearings. The bishops signaled a strong desire to root their understanding of church tradition and scripture in women's actual experiences.