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Faith and Reason: Who's afraid of a Catholic feminist?: Our series on the impact of feminism on Christianity continues with an enquiry into the Roman Catholic position by Cristina Odone, editor of the Catholic Herald

THE POLEMICIST Neil Lyndon is not alone. For thousands of Catholics in this country feminism is the ultimate threat, a deconstructionist force that would explode the twin pillars of tradition and authority upon which their institutional church was erected.

The phenomenon, they fear, can no longer be dismissed as a hangover from that powerful cocktail of sexual liberation and conscious amorality produced in the 1960s: whether as theologians, lay parish workers, or women in administrative posts, Catholic feminists are out there in growing numbers, calling for reform of the Church both in its theology and in its hierarchical structure.

If the unknown causes fear, then Catholic feminism is indeed frightening: the term remains maddeningly elusive to all but a hard core of traditionalists who see a second Luther lurking behind all talk of reform.

Opposition to the 1968 papal encyclical Humanae Vitae and its teachings on birth control smacks of feminism to some and of enlightenment to others; the adoption of inclusive language in the liturgy strikes deep chords of sympathy in a number of lay people and male clergy but is frowned upon by many as a feminist ploy to 'infiltrate' the Church; finally, while some might argue that the ordination of women is the ultimate end towards which feminist theologians and their allies are moving, for others feminism means simply greater recognition of women (who constitute the great majority of practising Catholics) as stalwart workers in the Church.

The controversy surrounding the recent publication of the feminist-bashing pamphlet The Enemy Within shows that fear of feminism has proved the catalyst for a growing polarisation among Catholic women: written (with the eloquent exception of William Oddie) by women, published by a press linked to a conservative women's group, the pamphlet warned of a 'feminist conspiracy' to 'infiltrate' the Church and erode the Magisterium.

In its Who's Who listing of Catholic feminists, the pamphlet focused its attack on the theologians, nuns and lay women who belong to two avowedly feminist groups, the Catholic Women's Network and St Joan's International Alliance. Members of the two groups openly seek to replace what they perceive as an authoritarian patriarchical church with a more sympathetic structure. In so doing, many are eschewing traditional Masses for their own alternative, non-authoritarian religious practices, which include holding personalised services at home (or al fresco in the garden) where inclusive liturgy is employed and a She-God presides.

Membership figures for the Catholic Women's Network and for the British branch of St Joan's International Alliance are unpublished, but certainly both groups have had a strong impact on the Catholic community. Their call for empowerment of women has sounded a note of alarm among many priests who already fear the increased role of the laity being urged by the National Conference of Priests.

Their demand for change has caused the formation of a doctrinal watchdog, the Association of Catholic Women, which churns out publications in defence of the traditional role of Catholic womanhood.

Perhaps most important, the feminists' rumblings of dissatisfaction have spurred the bishops of England and Wales to address the role of women. As a starting point for discussion, the Bishops' Conference through its consultative committee on women, the National Board of Catholic Women, recently sought the perceptions of women concerning their role in the Church. Their responses - more than 4,000 of them - were compiled in a document, Do Not Be Afraid, which revealed that women see themselves as largely overlooked by the Church in both discussions and decision-making.

Meanwhile exclusion, what the theologian Mary Gray calls 'the incurable wound in the Church's understanding of its own mission', is being addressed at a semantic level with the ongoing process of liturgical reform. The painstaking and lengthy process that has been undertaken by an international committee of liturgical experts will in effect banish umbrella titles such as 'men' or 'brothers' which have hidden women since the adoption of the English-language liturgy in the 1960s.

The object of liturgical reform is to shift the focus from Christ's maleness to his humanity, a notion dear to feminist theologians who argue that Jesus showed many characteristics traditionally equated with feminity - compassion, emphasis on communion rather than competition, and care for the individual.

Many spiritual writers espouse this feminine quality of Christ - from St Anselm, who refers to Jesus as a mother in one of his poems, to Julian of Norwich, St Bernard and St Francis de Sales. Indeed, it would seem that Jesus was himself very conscious of his feminine traits, as when in Matthew we hear him compare himself to a mother hen.

The ultimate act of empowerment, in feminist eyes, remains of course the ordination of women. In their search to forge a brave new world, feminists follow in the footsteps of the Harvard theologian Francis Schussier Fiorenza to piece together evidence from the Acts and Pauline letters of the leadership roles of women in the early Church.

They point out that in the years following the Resurrection Christian communities were based on house churches often led by women; that Paul speaks of Phoebe, who was minister of the Church at Cenchreae, the eastern port of Corinth; that in the early Church in the East there were women deacons, who acted as heads of religious communities or were consecrated to the contemplative life.

The last time the Vatican addressed the issue of women priests was in 1977, with Inter Insigniores. Prepared by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the document firmly states that the Church does not recognise the possibility of a woman's being ordained. Subsequent work by (mainly female) theologians has focused on the Aquinas dictum that the key to the moral act is the act of choice: in this context, to restrict women in their choices as they carry out the diakonia, or service, of the Church, would be an act of oppression.

Cardinal Basil Hume wrote in his Towards the Civilisation of Love that the Catholic Church must not drag behind society in its recognition of the gifts and talents women offer at all levels. In a church that professes to believe in the development of doctrine, could this 'recognition' encompass the ordination of women?