The National Catholic Review

“Women are knocking on the door of the church. We are knocking right now. But I fear a generation will come that will stop knocking,” Dr. Carolyn Woo, president and C.E.O. of Catholic Relief Services, USA, told a meeting of Voices of Faith at the Vatican on March 8.

She made her comments during a panel discussion organized by Voices of Faith, a Catholic women’s international network, on the theme: “What women want—a multigenerational conversation on expanding women’s leadership in the church.”  

“This conversation about women is not for women, it is for the church,” Woo told the third annual gathering of Voices of Faith, held in the Casina Pio IV, to celebrate International Women’s Day. The question of women’s ordination was not on the agenda at this meeting, which brought together some one hundred women from all continents, among them three of the twelve women Ambassadors accredited to the Holy See.

A number of men, including a few priests, were also present. One of them, Thomas Smolich, S.J., international director of Jesuit Refugee Service (J.R.S.), acted as moderator for the panel discussion. He raised three questions to start the conversation: What is going well in the church for women today, what opportunities are opening up? Where does the church need to open up more for them? What are the moments of enlightenment that one can point to in this field? 

Dr. Woo, who was one of the persons invited last year to present the pope’s encyclical “Laudato Si’” at the Vatican press conference, highlighted the church’s commitment and effort on behalf of women and girls worldwide, but also noted that 80 percent of the church’s work is done by women. Comparatively speaking, she said, more women are presidents of Catholic universities than of secular ones, and hold top positions in health care institutes, too. (This remark seemed to refer to the United States).

Like other speakers, she highlighted the “inspiring” message and witness coming from Pope Francis. Like his predecessor Benedict XVI, he too has spoken about “the feminine genius” but he has also given Dorothy Day, the social activist, as an example of this genius.

“We can’t talk about the role of women in the church without talking about the role of motherhood,” Geralyn Sheehan, country director for the U.S. Peace Corps in Colombia, stated. She has done much work with migrants and refugees and noted that mothers are the ones who teach children about service. Contrasting the period when she was growing up to the present day, she detected a generational change in the USA that suggests there are fewer young women in the church today. She views this with some concern. She spoke too about the fact that women are so often victims of physical violence and sexual behavior; indeed one in four experience violence in their lives. It is an issue the church must address.

“Institutions never change because they should, they change when it’s in their self-interest,” Sheehan stated. And she asked: What could be the self-interest of the church in relation to women?    

“The self-interest of the church is to attract women,” responded Petra Dankova from the Czech Republic, a postulant of Sisters of the Holy Redeemer who has worked with refugees in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. She rejected the idea of the church as a male-dominated institution to which women were “somewhat external,” and said that since converting to the faith she has always seen the church as a community. She advocated the awarding of fellowships to women to be engaged in church structures at different levels, including in Vatican departments.

A young high-school teacher of English from India, Gayatri Lobo Gajiwala, who was born into a Catholic-Hindu family that is deeply religious on both sides, spoke about the many ways women are being involved in the church in the world’s largest democracy today. “Women and men have equal leadership skills,” she said. At the same time she made one request to the church everywhere: “welcome” women. She revealed that her appeal stems from a personal experience when, visiting a church outside her parish in Mumbai, the priest refused her communion because, he told her, “you look too Indian!”

New Jersey born Nicole Perone, who is studying for a Masters in Divinity at Yale University, spoke of the pressing need for “a cultural shift” in the Catholic Church’s attitude to women. “Women have every opportunity in the secular world—I could even be president of the United States!—so why not in the church? Is the church not doing itself a disservice by not giving more opportunities to women?” she asked. She wondered why women could not be appointed to lead such Vatican offices as the councils for the laity or the family.

One proposal that gained the panel’s support was this: Every seminary should have a study course on women, which looked at the history and role of women in the church and in society. It was argued that this would help open the eyes of seminarians to the contribution women can make in the church.

The panel discussion was the last event of this festive, colorful annual day-long celebration of Voices of Faith on International Women’s Day, that began with Mass, at which Petra Dankova gave a reflection. The gathering was sponsored by the Fidel Götz Foundation, a charitable trust based in Liechtenstein, and organized by its managing director, Chantal Götz.    

“Mercy requires courage” was the logo for this year’s celebration that involved a mixture of song (by a Congolese group), and the sharing of personal stories by women from different countries active in their courageous struggle to build a more human world. 

One of the women, Croatian born Katarina Kruhonja, abandoned her work as a senior specialist at the Clinical Hospital in Osijek to join the post-war building efforts in Eastern Slavonia. She told of her effort in recent years to strengthen the culture of non-violence and to create a dialog with divided societies in her homeland that still suffers from the wounds of war.

An American nun, Mary Doris, from the Sisters of St. Dominic, recalled her work with the poor in the Bronx, N.Y., where she established Siena House, which has assisted 2,500 homeless mothers over the past 26 years.

Cecilia Flores-Oebanda, from the Philippines, recalled her childhood as a child laborer in the Visayas region and her imprisonment for participating in the armed struggle against the Marcos dictatorship. After her release, she dedicated her life to combatting modern slavery so that other women could regain their freedom. Continuing this struggle against modern slavery, in 1991 she founded the Visayan Forum Foundation, which already has assisted 18,000 victims and potential victims.  

A German woman, Sabriye Tenberken, who has been blind since the age of 12, told how in 1997, together with Paul Kronenberg, she founded Braille Without Borders, the first school of its kind in Tibet, that enables blind people to take their lives in their own hands. They also founded Kanthari in Kerala, India, in 2005, which is a school for social entrepreneurship that attracts global citizens who have a passion to make the world a better place.

They were followed by two young women from Kenya, Caroline Kimeu and Judy Onyango, who had different stories to tell. Caroline, at the age of 14, had to stop her education because of the poverty of her family, and escaped becoming a child bride by fleeing to Nairobi, where she worked as a maid. She is now back studying. Judy’s family were impoverished following her father’s death, but the church and friends helped her get education. She now works as a volunteer with an organization that provides education for poor and vulnerable girls called Mirror of Hope.

These inspiring life stories of courageous women of faith who overcame adversity and do great work on all continents serve both as a strong reminder of the invaluable contribution women are making every day to the church and to society in the 21st century, and a pressing call to open up new areas of responsibility for them in the church’s global mission. 


Stan Zorin | 3/15/2016 - 4:32pm

What an utter nonsense the headline is, as if women just arrived from some other planet. Can the chief editor make sure that some common sense prevails on the pages of the America magazine ?

Luis Gutierrez | 3/15/2016 - 12:42am

In my view, women can and should be ordained to the diaconate, the priesthood, and the episcopate, because they are, as fully as men, consubstantial with Christ as to his humanity:

Patriarchy is cultural conditioning. Religious patriarchy, and ecclesiastical patriarchy, are but instances of such cultural conditioning. Ecclesiastical matriarchy would be another cultural fabrication. Ecclesiastical patriarchy is a sacramental aberration, and so would be ecclesiastical matriarchy. The eternal Word was neither metaphysically male nor metaphysically female before the incarnation, because there is no such thing as a metaphysical body. For the redemption, and the sacramental economy, the masculinity of Jesus is as incidental as the color of his eyes. What matters is that God became flesh, i.e., became human, in a body of flesh, regardless of sex and gender, which are limitations of the human condition.

Lisa Weber | 3/10/2016 - 11:52pm

Women need to be allowed to preach at Mass because no one can lead without being able to speak publicly. This does not mean that women should be ordained to the priesthood, though they should be ordained to the diaconate.

Women are not allowed to be adults within the church. Patriarchal leadership is part of the problem; matriarchal leadership is the rest of it. Patriarchal leadership excludes women and condescends to them. Matriarchal leadership does not allow women to hold adult opinions or to initiate action in the way that an adult would. Matriarchal leadership also allows for an incredibly high level of feminine aggression in the form of gossip, humiliation and destroying relationships. I have seen young women treated with a stunning degree of rudeness, but I didn't see them for long because they left. Until we address the ills of both patriarchal and matriarchal leadership, the church will continue to lose members. If we cannot keep the young women in church, we cannot keep the young men there either because young men spend time where the young women are.

Feminine aggression is the elephant in the room that no one can talk about. Men won't talk about it because it would rain fire and brimstone down on their heads. Women can't discuss it easily because it is part of the culture of women and no one knows quite how to deal with it - which is not to say that it cannot be effectively addressed. It can be effectively addressed with a set of cultural rules other than the mother-child rules that groups of women usually function by.

The best thing that the church could do is have women elect women leaders by secret ballot. Women don't like aggressive women any more than men do so there would not be many aggressive women elected. Women have no leadership in the church, no women with a mandate from the women to represent them in a leadership role. If we had some women leaders, we might be able to develop some kind of dialogue with the men in the church hierarchy. Then we might see some movement toward integrating women more fully into the church.

Mike Escril | 5/14/2016 - 11:34pm

Is this a serious post ? Feminine aggression ?

Women need to wear veils and be subservient in the Church and raise children and be good wives and mothers.

That's what we -- and they -- need.

Ana Vago | 3/9/2016 - 3:47pm

It's hard to know whether to laugh or cry when reading about events such as this one. All of these "good" Catholic women are dutifully toeing the line that the men have defined for them, meekly going along with banning all discussion of women's ordination. Just like they were told to do.

Dr. Carolyn Woo "noted that 80 percent of the church’s work is done by women"

Geralyn Sheehan, country director for the U.S. Peace Corps in Colombia, has "detected a generational change in the USA that suggests there are fewer young women in the church today. She views this with some concern."

Well, there should be concern, since, as Dr. Woo mentioned, women do 80% of the church's work, much of it as unpaid volunteers. And women are leaving in droves. Ms Sheehan's sense that the church is losing young women is certainly true, at least in the developed nations of the world. The studies not only show that educated, young adult women are leaving the church in record numbers, they are not returning to marry or baptize their children as did previous generations of women who "drifted". The numbers of marriages in the church have plummeted and infant baptisms are the lowest since CARA has been keeping records. When women leave, they take their husbands and children and future children and future grandchildren with them.

“Institutions never change because they should, they change when it’s in their self-interest,” Sheehan stated. And she asked: What could be the self-interest of the church in relation to women?

“The self-interest of the church is to attract women,” responded Petra Dunka from the Czech Republic.

Yes, it is in the church's self-interest to stop shooting itself in the foot and deliberately choosing to operate with half a brain.

But it will be tough to hold on to the young women who were raised in the church, but who often have no intention of raising their daughters, or sons, in the Catholic church. Those who don't understand this, and the reasons for it, are in denial.

Why are women leaving, especially young women?

"Nicole Perone, who is studying for a doctorate in Divinity at Yale University, spoke of the pressing need for “a cultural shift” in the Catholic Church’s attitude to women. “Women have every opportunity in the secular world—I could even be president of the United States!—so why not in the church? "

Young adult women of today are part of a generation of women who were raised to believe that they are equal to men, and mostly encounter this as settled fact in their educations and careers. They are not willing to be subservient to men in the church. They have not had to fight for equality in these spheres, at least not legally, as their moms (my generation) paved the way. So the only place they regularly encounter misogny towards women is in the church they grew up in. They understand that the men in Roman collars, especially the men in mitres, have all the power, and that these men have the arrogance to presume that it is their right to define women's roles for them. Older generations of women put up with it. Many of this generation will not. Thanks be to God!

This is another reality that the men have not yet faced. The mothers and grandmothers of today's young adult generation hung in there, for decades. They did all the work, and thought that at some point the church would recognize that denying women equality in the church, including access to all seven sacraments, would be among the developments that would occur during their lifetimes. They know now that it will not happen. Many of this generation have quietly left. Even of those who remain, few protest when their young adult children tell them they don't wish to get married in the Catholic church. They don't protest when their adult children announce that they will not be baptizing their own children in the Catholic church. They understand exactly why their adult children are making these decisions to leave the Catholic church and often support them in it.

So sad that the group that met is pretending to think that somehow the women can achieve equality with men in this church if someone - the someones being all men - will simply open a few more doors for them. Doors the men themselves will choose, if the men choose to do so. Then they will pat those nice little girls in women's bodies on the head and 'let" them do a few more tasks that support the men.

It's time to ordain women. It's time to ordain married people, both men and women so that the clergy and hierarchy of the church integrate the lived understanding of those who live in the real world - as singles, as celibates (a few) as married people and as parents. These single celibates who spend so much time "pontificating" on the family and on the world will then be forced to work as equals with people who actually know what they are talking about, force to work with women as not only their equals, but as their superiors. It will be an enormous shock to these men who are raised in the closed mostly all-male environments of seminaries and rectories and chanceries, indoctrinated to see women as some kind of separate species, inferior, but needed to do the church's real work on the ground and in the world, and especially to have babies to fill the pews and write the checks in the future.

alan macdonald | 3/10/2016 - 9:10pm

Let me repeat what the last three popes said about female ordination:
Pope Francis, "No"
Pope Benedict "No"
Pope John Paul II " No".

Sandi Sinor | 3/10/2016 - 9:50pm


Lisa Fullam | 3/10/2016 - 8:29pm

Hear Hear!

William Rydberg | 3/9/2016 - 1:27pm

Some interesting points, but what about winning souls for Christ?,not a word on that score...

I appreciate the goal though, but it starts out with the wildly inaccurate assertion that "women are knocking on the door of the Church". Because as long as I have been alive, THE GATEKEEPERS AT LEAST AT THE LAY DIOCESAN LEVEL FOR ALL PRIESTLY VOCATIONS ARE WOMEN. Nobody becomes a Diocesan Priest without the Sisters, Teachers, etc.. or other respected women's support.
Don't know enough about Religious Priestly vocations, but I expect the same applies to Religous Orders...

Just my opinion...