(RNS) Recently, a Catholic woman friend with whom I was speaking professionally, said suddenly, "Can we switch topics? I need to talk to you about the Catholic Church." She poured out her distress over a news report indicating that a new Vatican policy might severely restrict the role of girls as altar servers. "I've been upset with the church before," she confessed, "but this one really has me angry. It could affect my parish, and it could lead me out the door." Hers is an all-too-frequent woman's story in the Catholic Church of Pope John Paul II. He has great accomplishments to his credit in these past 25 years, but his record on issues that touch women's lives is dismal, indeed destructive. His positive achievements are many. His recent vocal opposition to the war in Iraq was prophetic. His alliance with the Polish Solidarity movement was pivotal in toppling Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. His strong opposition to the death penalty has helped shift public opinion on this sensitive subject. His repudiation of the bloody legacy of anti-Semitism in Catholic history is historic, and his promotion of dialogue with Muslims is critically needed in today's world. At a personal level, his willingness to keep working, in spite of the severe hardship of Parkinson's disease, has been inspiring.

But on issues internal to the church -- especially questions of women in ministry and leadership -- his policies have put the church at risk because they violate the basic Catholic sense of justice. Most Catholics see them as contrary to Jesus' message of equality and the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, which taught that "every type of discrimination based on sex is to be overcome and eradicated as contrary to God's intent."

And in a church where parishes are closing for lack of clergy, excluding half the human race from the priesthood sends the message that sexist ideology is more important than the sacraments.

Misogynist attitudes and policies have a centurieslong history in Catholicism, but John Paul II chose to reinforce them with vigor rather than reverse them.

He not only said "no" to women's ordination, he refused any dialogue on the subject. He tried to declare the "men only" policy an "infallible" teaching so his successors would find it more difficult to change. He even forbade its open discussion (although this prohibition led to more discussion).

Yet theologians and Scripture scholars have long since made a convincing theological case for women's ordination. Gender inequality is as indefensible today as slavery was a century ago. What's needed now is action.

But John Paul II has refused to budge. It is not clear whether he is a prisoner of his upbringing, his theology, the clerical culture -- or all three -- but his refusal even to engage in dialogue on this issue has pushed many talented women into other denominations. Others have formed "women church" groups as faith-refuges from the oppression they feel, and others have simply walked away in anger and sadness.

The pope's refusal to consider a married priesthood (except for defecting Episcopal priests) is likewise anti-woman. Mandatory celibacy says to women that men who perform sacred sacramental duties cannot have bodily contact with their gender. It resurrects ancient stereotypes that regard women as "dirty" or unworthy.

John Paul II has also refused dialogue on reproductive issues such as contraception, abortion or in vitro fertilization. In the developing world especially, his policies against contraception, and the use of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS, put women's (and men's) lives at risk every day. In a church that claims to be pro-life and on the side of the poor, they produce an anti-life result for the poorest of poor women.

By the same token, John Paul II's curia has insisted on male language in the liturgy, ignored the rich, worldwide work of feminist theology and refused to consider any changes in the patriarchal structure of the church itself.

The one baby step forward that this pope undertook to advance justice for women was permitting bishops to decide for altar girls in their own dioceses, and the practice is almost universal in the U.S. church. But now, even this step is apparently in jeopardy.

When I read that the practice might now be restricted, it seemed like a new chapter in the sex abuse scandal. And here, as in the larger scandal, John Paul II unfortunately "doesn't get it."

I understand why my friend is angry.

John Paul II's quarter century as pope has many achievements, but it's hard to see those achievements when you're a woman riding in the back of the bus.

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