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Bid to make women ‘announcers’ of Gospel stirs debate


Pope Benedict XVI’s consideration of a proposal made to him by a worldwide gathering in Rome of more than 250 Roman Catholic bishops that women should be authorised to "announce" the word of God at parish services is stirring debate as to what the move would ultimately entail.

The proposal was one of 55 "propositions" agreed by the bishops at their 6-26 October meeting, called a synod. It urged, "that the ministry of the ‘lectorate’ will be open also to women, in order that their role of announcers of the Word [of God] will be recognised in the Christian community".

Within the Catholic Church, the "lectorate" was, historically, one of the four separate "minor orders" of the Catholic Church, and referred to persons – until now, only men – authorised to read the Holy Scriptures to the congregations. For many centuries, the "lectorate" was seen a step towards priestly ordination.

Still, this position is widely seen as having lost its significance, since the Second Vatican Council, held between 1962 and 1965, which introduced reforms into the Catholic Church. Since then, in many, if not most, parishes, men and women read from the Scriptures during the liturgy. Both men and women often offer commentaries on the text, without being officially installed in the lectorate.

Some commentators have suggested that the proposal by the bishops refers only to women being officially installed to publicly read from Scripture, but others say the use of the phrase "announcers of the Word" has a more far-reaching significance.

In the New Testament, "this verb means ‘proclaim the Gospel’, and also ‘comment upon it’ and ‘preach’ it," Maria Caterina Jacobelli, an Italian Catholic theologian, told ENI.

The propositions are written in Latin, and so far have been published only in an Italian translation.

Paolo Ricca, an Italian Protestant theologian, echoed Jacobelli’s interpretation. "In the New Testament, to ‘announce the Gospel’ means exactly that, to ‘preach’, or ‘explain’ the Gospel to people," Ricca told Ecumenical News International.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, approved in 1992 by Pope John Paul II, makes no reference to the lectorate and other "minor orders", speaking only about ordination and the "major orders" of the diaconate, priesthood, and the episcopate, or being a bishop.

This raises questions, say some commentators, as to how Pope Benedict will react to the synod proposal, and whether he will decide that both women and men can in future be installed into the "lectorate", as "announcers" of the word of God.

Typically, a papal response to the report and propositions of a synod of bishops is issued between 12 and 18 months after the meeting has taken place.

If women are allowed to become lectors, traditionally seen as a step towards priestly ordination, they may then ask why they are prohibited from the priesthood itself, Jacobelli noted. "The synodal proposition about the lectorate of women is a pathetic attempt to solve a contradiction in a church which does not want to give equal responsibility in ministries to men and women."

(c) Ecumenical News International