Pope John Paul II Friday issued a major document on women that condemns discrimination, reaffirms a ban on female priests and says women's personalities are formed essentially by maternal characteristics.
The 120-page document touches only briefly on the institutional role of women in the Roman Catholic Church - a controversial issue in Western countries, particularly the United States.But it will likely have a significant effect, since it provides the theoretical framework for decisions on women during the rest of John Paul's papacy.
"Mulieris Dignitatem," Latin for "On the Dignity of Women," is in the form of an apostolic letter, meaning that it is intended as church teaching but is not considered infallible.
In the introduction, the pope said he is responding to a call by a bishops' synod last year for further theological and anthropological study of what it means to be a man or woman.
"It is only by beginning from these bases . . . that one is able to speak of their (women's) active presence in the Church and in society," he wrote.
John Paul concluded that the sexes are equal but fundamentally different and that women are distinguished by such "feminine" characteristics as sensitivity to other people.
He says women particularly fulfill their vocation through motherhood - either actual child-rearing or "spiritual motherhood," in which some women, such as nuns, remain celibate and devote themselves to other people.
Vatican officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the pope regarded the document as a "very personal" statement and apparently did not consult outside experts on it.
It came as the Vatican is facing increasing pressure from women for a greater role in the church. The women's issue dominated the 1987 synod and has arisen recently with the ordination of a woman bishop in the Episcopal Church in the United States, a move the Vatican has described as a roadblock to Christian unity.
In the document, the pope emphasizes repeatedly that men and women are equal and sexual discrimination is a sin.