St James Cathedral - Seattle, WA

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Women in the Church

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."

I look forward to reading your comments and feedback.  (Keep it kind, please!)


  1. Stopping by from the Catholic Blog link-up! Great post, thanks for sharing. As a woman, I couldn't agree more! But seriously, I really do think that this is a very hard concept to verbalize but an easy one to have that 'gut feeling' about. I went to a Lutheran church on Good Friday to see my mother-in-law perform in their choir, and though the liturgy and such was almost identical to the Catholic Good Friday Service, I just had a tough time stomaching the sight of the female pastor on the altar. Just as JP II's encyclical "On the Dignity and Vocation of Women" states, women are SO very essential to our world that a new brand of feminism is needed, one in which women can lead the world in compassion through their female roles, not by trying to become men--and in some senses replace--men.

    1. It is a sad statement that you "had a tough time stomaching the sight of a female pastor on the altar" I love seeing anyone, male or female worshiping our Lord. You are missing the point

  2. (Fr.) Gus CastilloJuly 29, 2012 at 4:58 PM

    Right on, Paul!

    1. I just finished being pastor of a church where I served for six years and most of the people in leadership were women. Their gifts are essential for the life of the Church. I do wish, though, that more men would take their faith more seriously. If you all haven't seen "Courageos" (a film on fatherhood and men of faith) I highly recommend it.

  3. Paul this is something I struggle with a LOT. Let me see if I can make any sense with these comments.

    It seems to me that the RCC emphasizes the woman as mother far more than the man as father. I honestly think this was one of the biggest things that lead to me falling away from the Church - something I would say now was largely a misunderstanding on my part, but something I still think the Church needs to work on a great deal. I did not feel a call to be a religious and I know that I almost certainly cannot have children - so the notion of being valued only as a mother was both baffling and painful. In any event, my long journey back has included reading JPIIs encyclical and letter to women, as well as The World's First Love by Fulton Sheen (about Mary, but explains the whole mother thing I think and was very helpful) and The Privilege of Being a Woman by Alice von Hildebrand (which I really did not like). This is an area where I think the Catholic Church has a lot to still offer - especially to women who are for one reason or another are single.

    Admittedly I don't want to be a priest, so I guess that in and of itself never bothered me too much. The evolution of the reasoning the Church has given as to why women cannot be priests is somewhat disconcerting though. I am mostly ok with the current reasoning - Jesus broke a lot of barriers in His day, so He could have had women apostles if He wanted I suppose. The historical arguments against this though - it's one thing to talk to women and eat with them, another in His day to commission the to go far and wide in pairs - do give me pause. But no, in no way do I really think that then Cardinal Ratzinger and Pope JPII sat down with the intention of figuring out how best to ban women. I think they prayed and ended up where they ended up and if I call myself a Catholic I will trust that the Holy Spirit led them there.

    However, even if women cannot perform the Sacraments, I struggle to understand why they cannot assist in interpreting and teaching the faith, or in serving in any of the highest roles of the Roman Curia - the ones where there is actual power to be held? What about being a priest makes you best equipped to lead the Council for Social Communications or Laity or Justice and Peace? It's hard for me to get that. It's hard for me to accept there simply was no female religious in the entire world who could be leading the current discussions with the LCWR. The teachings are already clear, so can't another woman help these women figure out how best to move forward?

    I've read a lot of articles that detail how at the local level everyone knows it's the women who really run the parishes! Well first of all, that's not always true nor does it excuse other things. It concerns me that it seems commenting on the women behind the men in every parish is the only thing that ever gets written about this. That would be like saying we don't need female pediatricians because all kids really need are there moms! I am sure as I grow in faith maybe I will understand these things more or accept them better. But I think the Church has some serious work to do here, at least to do in the United States. If young girls can't be alter servers anymore because we need more priests, then figure out something that they can do and celebrate that. Celebrate women who are single and work or married with 10 kids and work - I mean celebrate that, don't just write one line in one letter that's almost 20 years old. Lay the groundwork for women to understand what it really means to be a mother in high school and college - make a concerted and clear effort here. The bishops might find some of their other concerns start taking care of themselves.

  4. Personally I'd like to see more masculinity in our local parish churches. Catholicism used to be considered a crunchy, masculine, deeply intellectual religion. This of course isn't to say women can't be intellectual. In my experience, women are at their best when they can lead from a supporting role, if that makes any sense at all. St. Catherine of Siena was quite an outspoken character and could be considered a leader, but she always acted in support of the Holy Father. St. Joan of Arc did what she was determined to do despite the horrible consequences both in obedience to the will of God and in support of Charles VII. I essentially rule my own household, but always in support of my husband. Led by her priests and supported by faithful Catholic women everywhere, the Church can thrive.

  5. Paul, this made me laugh. Its true though. I'm compiling a list of my favorite blog quotes. Now, can I quote your two funny lines and link back to you?

  6. At the risk of going off at a tangent; it's not just "where have all the men gone?" but (speaking as I see here in the UK) it's "where have all the parishioners gone?"

    Here regular church attendance is at an all time low.

    God bless.

  7. I am a very active female parishioner with no desire to become a priest. I served on our parish council and in a number of other leadership roles. I also attend daily Mass and a weekly Apologetics class where the mixture is roughly 50-50%. I did want to become a nun when I was younger but am blessed as a wife, mother, and grandmother. Just realized that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was not a grandmother yet is the most important woman in the history of the Church.


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