VATICAN CITY // The only woman seen taking part in the preparations for the papal conclave has been a seamstress sewing the ceremonial tablecloths.
The church's most important decision will be taken with half of Catholics looking on silently or playing an auxiliary role while the male hierarchy deliberates.
Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, said that in closed-door talks on International Women's Day on Friday, the cardinals did discuss the role of women in the church, but he declined to give any further details.
Mr Lombardi also presented a female journalist with a bouquet of flowers at a briefing - perhaps making amends for an earlier comment that the only women taking part in the conclave were there to "serve the cardinals".
"Not hearing the opinions of half of the world is like a slap in the face," said Janice Sevre-Duszynska, who was excommunicated after being unofficially ordained as a female priest.
Vatican observers said that of the 115 cardinal electors who could become pope, none are likely to overturn centuries of ingrained gender bias in the church, which insists women cannot be priests because Jesus Christ's apostles were all men.
"The only pretext is that the apostles were men but that corresponds to the socio-cultural context of the era," said Bruno Bartoloni, a Vatican expert, pointing out that several other Christian denominations now allow women priests.