Women will do the housekeeping while cardinals pray for guidance

IN a message to the 1995 United Nations Conference on Women in Beijing the late Pope John Paul II wrote: “As far as personal rights are concerned 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, equality of spouses with regard to family rights.”

He described "the full equality of man and woman in every walk of life" as "one of civilisation's great achievements". He pointed out that in the political realm at the "the highest levels of representation, national and international, women are showing that they can make as skilled a contribution as men."

The late Pope had a great reverence for the dignity of womanhood and he was an advocate also for all types of equality including gender equality with one noticeable and obvious exception.

Like all modern popes, John Paul II left the top leadership positions within the Catholic Church closed to women.

At some stage on Monday morning next, the cardinals, having celebrated a special mass to mark the start of the conclave, will assemble in the Pauline Chapel of the Apostolic Palace from which, vested in cardinals' choir dress, they will proceed in a solemn procession to the Sistine Chapel.

The detailed arrangements and choreography for this procession are set out in the rules of the conclave promulgated by John Paul II himself in 1995.

It will it be a spectacular scene. Choir dress is the most distinctive of the cardinals' regalia. Thanks to John Paul II the procession will be more diverse then ever before. It will not have the usual built-in Italian majority.

While its composition still lags behind the changing worldwide composition of the Catholic faithful it will also be more cosmopolitan than ever before.

However, what will again be striking about the scene will be its masculinity. As an all male procession of power it will be an almost unique entity in the early 21st century. The college of cardinals is one of the last surviving, and arguably the most influential, all-boys' network.

Each Pope has the right to write the rules on the conduct of the conclave for his successor. In an apostolic constitution produced in 1996, John Paul II itemised those who, apart from the cardinal electors, will be locked into the conclave.

These include a range of priest officials who are responsible for the administration and protocol of the election and the declaration of a new Pope. The list of persons to be locked in includes two doctors for medical emergencies which, given the age profile of the cardinals, are almost inevitable.

Before it starts the conclave will also hear presentations and reflections from two leading theologians (both men) on the challenges which face the church.

The last category of those who will be present behind the locked doors will be what the document calls "a suitable number of persons to serve meals and maintain the residence of the cardinals".

Unless one of the two doctors is female, it is likely that it is only in the last category that there will be any women present and of course they will not participate in, or influence any of, the decision-making.

There are in 2005 very few other self-regarding organisations or institutions in the world which would feel comfortable confining women to this tea-making and housemaid role.

In 1978, the year of the last conclave, all-male decision-making bodies were a frequent sight on our TV screens. For example, there were then few parliaments in the world with any, or any sizeable number of, female members.

In the intervening 26 years we have become familiar not only with more female representation in parliaments and international bodies but with seeing women in powerful positions.

People like Cory Aquino, Benazir Bhutto, Madeline Albright, and Margaret Thatcher all dispelled previously ingrained presumptions that these jobs which had hitherto only been held by men were all-male preserves.

Here in Ireland not only is the second position in Government now held by a woman, but 15-year-olds could be forgiven for assuming that the President of Ireland must be a woman.

While women's representation in the world's powerful bodies lags far behind that which equality would demand, they are there in increasing numbers.

In the last 25 years there has been a transformation of the role of women in work, in politics and in society, not only in western countries but as interestingly in Latin America and in parts of Africa.

The only institution where all-male decision-making still holds sway is in the Catholic Church.

While some of the changes to the rules and regulations governing the conclave made by Pope John Paul II in 1996 were quite radical he changed age requirements and voting arrangements for the cardinals he made no alterations to the format of the conclave which would have enabled female voices and perspectives to be heard.

OF course, the all-male nature of the conclave is, in part, the inevitable consequence of the fact that only men can be priests.

In 1995, in an encyclical entitled On The Reserving of Priestly Ordination to Men Alone, John Paul II determined that the issue of women priests was closed, stating that there was no scriptural or traditional basis for even talking about the prospect of women priests.

Some theologians and church historians have argued with this and contend that, in fact, the exclusion of women from the priesthood is counter to scripture and early traditional roles of women in the church.

My own instinct is that it is somewhat inevitable, although it may take centuries, that women in the Catholic priesthood will one day be the norm.

However, one does not have to even enter into the debate about women priests, or be in favour of their ordination, to ask why there won't be a female element to the decision-making at next week's conclave.

Had he wished, the late Pope had the authority to include women within the college of cardinals or, if not, then to include non cardinals in the conclave.

It is not necessary that all cardinals be priests; neither is it necessary that only cardinals participate in the conclave for the election of a new Pope. Both are practices which developed in the latter half of the Church's 2000-year history.

It has been striking how in the debate about the church which has raged in the international media since John Paul II died, some of the most interesting and effective contributions have been made by female theologians or religious sisters.

Why can some of these not be included within the conclave? Even if for doctrinaire reasons a woman can't be a priest or be chosen as Pope, there is no impediment to women participating in the decision about which man should get the papacy.

There are a range of leadership and teaching tasks, outside the priestly role in the sacraments, which should be opened up to the wider faithful and therefore open equally to women. This is what is beginning to happen at parish level.

It should now also begin to happen at higher levels. If the priesthood must remain all male, there is no reason why the church leadership at national levels, or in the curia or in the conclave, should remain all priest.

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