For the past fortnight in Rome, 245 bishops have been meeting for a synod on religious orders. Progress has been slow, but 73 per cent of the members of religious orders are women and their problems have been an important part of the agenda.
Sister Celine Namalambo, a Zambian nun who is an official synod observer, said: 'The Catholic Church is a big organisation, and you cannot fight such a monster. You have to scratch it, bit by bit, until you reach the heart.'
But it appears steady scratching is having an effect. The Pope has asserted as authoritatively as he can that women can never become priests. The word 'feminism' was not used - instead, participants spoke of 'women's issues'.
But they did so with remarkable vigour.
Last week, Bishop Ernest Kombo of Owando in Zaire suggested women might become cardinals. That was in part a joke, but participants said only two or three bishops spoke against feminism on principle. The chairman was Cardinal Basil Hume, leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales and a Benedictine monk. One task he asked the conference to consider was not whether women should advance in the Church but how.
There was one small demonstration by militant US nuns in favour of women's ordination, but it lost much of its point because the four involved appeared in plain clothes.
The change of emphasis arises from a shift in the character of the Church.
It is no longer predominantly European and North American. Two thirds of its members are from Africa, Latin America and Asia. Their concerns are beginning to steer it.
From Africa, there have been complaints that nuns are paid less than male equivalents; that they are less well educated to do the same jobs and that the burden of support falls disproportionately on local people, while males are subsidised from Europe.
In parts of the Third World, such as India and Africa, there is no shortage of nuns. The religious life is so attractive that some orders have been 'nun- running' - recruiting in such places as the Philippines and transporting them.Reuse content