After writing about priests and vocations, many readers have told me that I can't blog about the (male) priesthood, and not talk about women in the Church. So for the sake of world peace, here it is! (Just kidding about the world peace part.)
A male dominated, hierarchical institution. Does that describe the Catholic Church? Yes, it does. Is the statement true? Yes, it is. It's true that the clergy (deacons, priests, and bishops) are all men, therefore the decisions regarding doctrine will always be made by men. I can't change that. Blessed John Paul II said he couldn't either.
With that in mind, I would like to offer a different way of looking at things. First, let me say that I'm not a woman. Even though I have a mother, sisters, wife, daughter, and plenty of female friends and colleagues, ultimately I don't know what it's like to be a woman. However, I think it's okay for me to have an opinion about women and Church, and that's what I'd like to share here.
How we think of women and Church largely depends on how we see the Church.
When we think of the Church, it's common to think clerically or administratively, i.e. the pope, cardinals, bishops- men that wear zucchettos (skullcaps worn by bishops/prelates). But realistically speaking, how often does the average Catholic actually see the bishop? What about an archbishop, cardinal, or even the pope? Don't get me wrong, these are key people in the life of the Church, but not necessarily the main people in the average Catholic's faith life. So let's not think administratively; let's think about where the life of the Church really is.
The life of the Church isn't what happens at diocesan chancery or at a Vatican dicastery, it's what happens at your local parish church. That's where we are week after week, and that's where we will continue to experience the Church the most. It's mostly through the parish that the Gospel message is spread. It's mostly through the parish people get to experience Jesus through the sacraments and the Christian people. This makes the parish the center of life for the Church, not one of the basilicas in Rome that most Catholics will never visit.
Putting the central view of the Church on the parish offers us a very different perception of men and women in the Church, and who's actually doing the bulk of God's work.
The next time you're in a full church, pick any pew and compare the number of women to men. Unless your at a special commemoration for the Knights of Columbus, or a bus load of high school varsity football players has decided to stop in for Mass, you'll find that the women easily outnumber the men in church.
If your parish bulletin lists the leadership/ministers of your parish on the front cover, take a look at the number of women and men. On my parish bulletin, the pastor and deacon are listed (both men of course). Then the lay leadership follows: business manager (woman), school principal (woman), director of religious education (woman), parish secretary (woman). The last two are men: director of music and the youth director (the youth director position was held by a woman until last year). So the majority of the parish's lay leadership is primarily women. Of course, there are other ministers that aren't listed, but from what I know, the sacristan is a woman, the person who helps take care of for the church building (called the custos is some places) is also a woman. I won't list the parish council, but guess what- the majority of members is women.
So as a male layperson, I'm feeling a little bit in the minority. A woman once said to me, "How come when I see a man in church, he's either the priest or an usher?" Well, I just confirmed her point. If you quantify all the parish's ministries into number of hours worked, the majority of them will be worked by women. I don't think this is atypical for a parish; the women majority is probably the norm in most places (at least in the United States).
So where did all the men go? Well if you look at the numbers of priestly vocations, they didn't go there. I once talked about this in a small group at a Catholic men's retreat. The consensus was that the typical Catholic parish doesn't appeal to certain groups, and one of them is men. Think about all the things you see when you walk into a church- fresh cut flowers in the sanctuary, decorations that resemble nick-knacks, altar cloths with pretty colors, banners to match them, etc. To top it off, the celebration is led by a guy wearing pretty vestments. These things don't exactly appeal to a man's machismo.
I don't know if the absence of men has led to a more femininity in the parish life, or if the femininity in the parish life has contributed to the absence of men. Nevertheless, in modern times, the laity has a much stronger role in the ministries of the parish, and since the active laity is mostly women, that means a woman will likely have a much bigger influence on the life of the average Catholic than we might realize.
So ladies, I know that women can't be priests can seem unfair (to say the least). However, in the life of the parish church where it really matters, clearly you're running the show and the clergy can't do it without you.
You've heard the saying, "Behind every great man there's a great woman." Well when it comes to the Church, perhaps we should say, "In front of every good priest there's about twelve women."