Pope apologises to women on behalf of church

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Religious Affairs Correspondent

Pope John Paul II has apologised for the Roman Catholic Church's chauvinism towards women. In a document that goes further than any previous Vatican document towards agreement with feminist thought, the Pope reiterates his ban on female priests, but also denounces the inequalities of the past.

He says: "In every time and place . . . women's dignity has often been unacknowledged and their prerogatives misrepresented; they have often been relegated to the margins of society and even reduced to servitude."

Where the blame for these evils can be fairly placed on the church as a whole, the Pope writes: "I am truly sorry.

"There is an urgent need to achieve real equality in every area: equal pay for equal work, protection for working mothers, fairness in career advancement, the equality of spouses with regard to family rights . . . This is a matter of justice, but also of necessity. Women will increasingly play a part in the solution of the serious problems of the future."

The Pope soft-pedals on the issues of abortion and contraception which have in the past bedevilled the relationship of the Vatican with feminist groups. For instance, he reaffirms that abortion even after rape "always remains a grave sin", but goes on to say: "It is a crime for which guilt needs to be attributed to men and to the complicity of the general social environment."

He also calls for an "effective and intelligent campaign for the promotion of women". His praise of women grows ever more profuse. "Thank you, every woman for the simple fact of being a woman. Through the insight which is so much a part of your womanhood, you enrich the world's understanding and help to make human relations more honest and authentic."

He praises the under valued contributions women have made to history, despite being "frequently at a disadvantage from the start; excluded from equal educational opportunities, underestimated, ignored, and not given credit for their intellectual contributions".

The letter has been released two months before a United Nations conference on women in Beijing, China. At the UN conference on pollution in Cairo last year, the Vatican found itself largely isolated as it fought a bitter campaign against contraception as well as abortion. This latest document may be seen as an attempt to mend fences with women's organisations before the next conference.

However, the Pope's opposition to women priests remains. "Womanhood expresses the human as much as manhood does, but in a different and complementary way," he writes. "A certain diversity of roles is in no way prejudicial to women." An all-male priesthood, he says, is an expression of God's purpose in creating men and women.

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