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WHY CATHOLIC WOMEN CLING TO THEIR CHURCH

Here is where we begin: with Easter, the holiest day of the Christian calendar, with the visit by Mary Magdalene to the tomb in which Jesus is laid after the crucifixion. The body is gone, and she runs to find the apostles Peter and John to tell them so. They look, run off, and she remains, distraught. A man approaches; she mistakes him for the gardener.

He says, "Woman, why are you crying?"

The very first word Jesus says after his resurrection is our name. And perhaps that explains why Catholic women who have been so poorly served by our church refuse to leave. The members of the hierarchy do not engage us in conversation, but their founder did.

You need only look at photographs of the pope and his cardinals to see the essential problem. A phalanx of identicals, the closest they come to daily contact with women is with the nuns who keep house for them.

The Catholic Church is not alone in this. Many religions have found some way to make women both apart and less, either by turning them into near occasions of sin or angels in the house. When a female Islamic scholar bucked tradition by leading a group of Muslim men and women in prayer at a ceremony last month in New York, some protesters insisted that restrictions on women's roles were a sign of respect, while a man who disrupted the event recommended stoning for those involved.

"There's a sense that the world is out of control and chaotic, and that if we can control our women, then the world will be a safer place," says Randall Balmer, a professor at Barnard who is an expert on evangelical Christianity. "That's a real perception on the part of a lot of religious conservatives -- Muslims, Catholics, Protestant fundamentalists."

In the years that he was running the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the new pope, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, demanded a church press destroy copies of a book promoting the ordination of women, summoned American bishops to Rome to see that their pastoral letter on the role of women toed the church line, and was behind a move to get rid of altar girls.

In a 2004 letter to the bishops, he explained that while feminists had seen fit "to give rise to antagonism," what his fellows should remember was the "genius of women," a genius that boiled down to all the old stereotypes: emotional, nurturing, warm. Proving that Scripture can always be made to say what you want, he quoted St. Paul -- "in Christ there is neither male nor female" -- as a reaffirmation of the differences between the sexes, when it appears to be exactly the opposite.

The argument in orthodoxy is usually that women are separate but equal, an argument that made racial segregation -- and flagrant inequality -- possible for many years in the United States. Power is not relinquished easily; fear of the other is an enduring human handicap.

"What orthodoxy is partly about is fear," says Rabbi Joy Levitt. "The world is moving very fast, and not all of it is positive." But ultimately many faiths came to the conclusion that strictures on women were the product of outdated norms and entrenched prejudice, not sacred texts.

Catholic women are not naive. They do not expect a new pope to wake one morning, wave a magic staff and make ordination possible and sexual responsibility individual. But it would be nice to have a pontiff consider the role of women in the modern church out of some communication with women themselves.

For all those who ask why we stay, I say: because it is our church. Literalists like to harp on the gender of Jesus himself. What they overlook is the fact that in clear violation of the norms of his own time, the founder of the faith surrounded himself with women. In seeking the counsel, opinions and advice of female Catholics, church leaders would not be conforming to modernity, but modeling Christ. They argue that they cannot tailor church bedrock to suit social fashion. The truth is that they have tailored its bedrock to suit their blind spots. "Woman," the new pope might ask, "why are you crying?"