The National Catholic Review

A series of essays in the semiofficial Vatican newspaper is urging the Catholic Church to allow women to preach from the pulpit at Mass, a role that has been reserved almost exclusively to the all-male priesthood for nearly 800 years.

“This topic is a delicate one, but I believe it is urgent that we address it,” Enzo Bianchi, leader of an ecumenical religious community in northern Italy and a popular Catholic commentator, wrote in his article in L’Osservatore Romano.

“Certainly for faithful lay people in general, but above all for women, this would constitute a fundamental change in their participation in church life,” said Bianchi, who called such a move a “decisive path” for responding to widespread calls—including by Pope Francis—to find ways to give women a greater role in the church.

Two nuns also contributed articles in the March 1 special section that is part of a new L’Osservatore Romano series on women called “Women-Church-World.”

In her column, Sister Catherine Aubin, a French Dominican who teaches theology at a pontifical university in Rome, noted that Jesus encouraged women to preach his message of salvation, and she said that throughout church history there have been many extraordinary women evangelists. Women today also lead retreats and in effect preach in other ways, she argued.

“Let us sincerely pose a question then,” Aubin writes. “Why can’t women also preach in front of everyone during the celebration of Mass?”

Another Dominican, Sister Madeleine Fredell of Sweden, wrote that preaching “is my vocation as a Dominican, and although I can do it almost anywhere, sometimes even in the Lutheran church, I believe that listening to the voice of women at the time of the homily would enrich our Catholic worship.”

If it happened, such a change would be a controversial shift.

In the early 13th century, as part of the movement toward consolidating church power in the papacy and the clergy, Pope Gregory IX effectively barred lay people—both men and women—from preaching, especially on theological or doctrinal matters that were considered the province of educated clerics.

While occasional exceptions were allowed, it wasn’t until the early 1970s that there were hints of a reconsideration of the ban, spurred by the growing calls for women—and all lay people—to assume greater roles and responsibilities in the church. In his article, Bianchi noted that in 1973 the Vatican gave the German bishops permission to allow lay people, most of them women, to preach with special permission for an experimental eight-year period.

But the election of St. John Paul II in 1978 launched a period of stricter bans.

The revised Code of Canon Law that John Paul promulgated in 1983 stated that the homily “is reserved to a priest or deacon” because it is an integral part of the Mass and must be done by an ordained male acting in the role of Christ.

Then, in 1997, a Vatican document backed by eight offices in the Roman Curia sought to further reinforce the proscription against lay preaching; it also warned bishops that they could not allow any exceptions.

Yet at the same time as the Vatican was bolstering the distinction between the laity and ordained clerics, lay people—many of them women—were playing a more visible role at Mass as lectors and Eucharistic ministers. Girls were also allowed to be altar servers, a practice that has become widespread.

Those changes have led some to decry the “feminization” of the Catholic Church, and any serious proposals to allow women to preach would certainly heighten their anxiety.

The argument for a change is not that it is “modernizing” the church but rather that it is returning to the tradition of the first thousand years of Christianity, when, as Bianchi and the other essayists note, women were regularly given permission to preach, and often did so in front of priests, bishops and even the pope.

Mary Magdalene, in fact, was known as the “apostle to the apostles” because the Gospels recount how Jesus appeared to her first on Easter morning and sent her to deliver the news of his Resurrection — the foundational Christian belief—to his male followers.

So what will Pope Francis do?

The pontiff has repeatedly called for women to have a greater role in the church, but he has also reiterated the ban against ordaining women as priests and has warned against “clericalizing” women by trying to make them cardinals or to focus on promoting them to higher church offices.

Then again, that the Vatican’s own newspaper would dedicate so much space to the issue of women preachers is intriguing, said Massimo Faggioli, a church historian at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.

“I think it is a big signal,” he said.


alan macdonald | 3/6/2016 - 10:24pm

It is very difficult to be a Catholic today in our secularized world. We are constantly being challenged by homosexualists, pro-abortionists, feminists who advocate female ordination et al. I don't look forward to yet another unnecessary battle within the Church. Perhaps the ever changing Episcopal/Anglican choice would be more fitting for those in flux.

Bruce Snowden | 3/4/2016 - 8:14pm

She must have been about Fourteen, at the most Fifteen when she preached her first homily, saying in effect, “Yes, go ahead and do it, your word is good enough for me.” Then “The Word was made Flesh!” She preached again on a visit to her pregnant cousin, Elizabeth, saying “My soul magnifies the Lord!” She didn’t make God look greater, just more tangible. She embodied God! Another time when she was about twenty-seven she and her husband, Joseph, got the scare of their lives – on a trip to the Temple they lost their twelve year old son, Jesus! Did you ever lose a child, say on a crowded beach in summer? My wife and I did when our five year old child walked away from us as we chatted with friends. Sheer panic and guilt took over! Thankfully we found our five year old safe and sound, digging in the sand near the water’s edge, as did Joseph and Mary their twelve year old, not at the water’s edge but in the Temple questioning and answering the Doctors of the Law much to their amazement. It was customary in those days for women to walk with the women and men with men. Children could walk with either parent. Joseph thought Jesus was with his mother and Mary thought he was with his father. Speaks good to me about Joseph and Mary not being overly protective parents. When she and Joseph found him, the natural sense of panic and guilt evaporated but relieved anxiety sounded in the mother’s voice saying to her boy, “Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have searched for you sorrowing.” Homily ended the twelve year old gave in effect, the typical answer of a twelve year old, “I thought you knew!” Finally when she was in her late forties at a wedding feast she noticed an embarrassing thing was about to happen, so she whispered to her son, Jesus, “The wine is running out!” We know his answer. She said to the attendants, “Do whatever he tells you.” That’s’ the best homily Mary ever preached, Redemption activated in five words, “DO WHATEVER HE TELLS YOU!”

So, what am I saying? I’m saying the Mother of Jesus led the way homiletically, her body the pulpit so it seems to me. I hear her Incarnation “Yes” as the “yes answer” to “Can women preach in church?” The Spirit moves where it wills, resonating well in Mary’s gentle voice, prototypical as Jesus once said of himself, like “a mother hen gathering her chicks under her wings.” Jesus had no problem identifying with the female form. Why should he? After all, it was Trinitarian designed and as Faith assures he was “Personally” involved!

John Campbell | 3/3/2016 - 9:53pm

Wouldn't this be a good test matter for devolution to the local church?

William Rydberg | 3/3/2016 - 1:44pm

I always thought that an important part of the Mass was the ordinary (Secular) Public Occasion aspect (after all-the public are not barred from attending Catholic Mass). To the extent that it is (Secular) Public Worship, one would think that it would resemble formal (Secular) Public Occasions.

I suppose that is why famous Singers often present Songs and Dance Acts at these formal (Secular) Public Occasions. (e.g. President and First Lady + Speaker of the House and Senate Leaders are present).

Accordingly, I assume this is why gestures are highlighted in the picture above?

Although, I fail to comprehend how demonstrative gestures are solely associated with the feminine, for a history of the Franciscans would show that affective demonstrations were historically just as common in male institutions as they were in female over the centuries. (Affective displays are part of some esp. Southern European Catholic Culture).

Could an element be, keeping pace with the Secular norm (for the Public Meeting aspect)?

Finally, A large part of Catholic History seems to be ignored in this article, so I will mention just one. The large female Abbeys historically did their own preaching to their members as well as the visiting Public. An Abbess with a Crozier was not uncommon.

Finally, given the present failing state of the Rich German Church, I would heavily discount any suggestions coming from Germany in my opinion.

in Christ,

Amy Rosenthal | 3/3/2016 - 12:28pm

I heard too much lay preaching as a Protestant. If the idea is to allow female theologians to sometimes speak in masses, that is one thing. If it were to lead to opening the pulpit to any random lay person who felt the need to speak, we would see the kind of theological chaos that exists in much of the Protestant world. I could give examples of the foolish preaching I heard over the years, but there are too many to pick just one.

ANNE PATRICK | 3/3/2016 - 8:53am

In view of Pope Francis' characterizing preaching as "a mother's conversation" in Evangelii Gaudium #139 this development is hardly surprising. I hope, of course, that greater exposure to the insights of women preachers will in time cure the tradition of its stereotypes about "woman's nature," which is just as mysterious and diverse as "man's nature," though one would never know this from reading most official documents. Like crocuses emerging next to snowbanks, these essays inspire hope for greater appreciation of all lay ministries in the near future, and for the eventual restoration of the diaconate to women!

Michael Lujan | 3/3/2016 - 1:25am

This argument, "we've done in the past, a long long time ago, so why not do it now?" has limited value. The Church and its theology has been defined and detailed. The term Catholic represents a corpus of dogma and doctrine and supporting philosophy which is essential to conserving and preserving from corruption. Having an educated clergy is essential to this task. A Holy Woman like Mother Angelica preaching at a Mass would not offend me actually would attract and inspire me but how does one select through the potential and arrive at the actual with Mother Angelica or Mother Teresa as the preferred outcome?

Luis Gutierrez | 3/2/2016 - 10:01pm

Indeed, this is a good sign. Another sign that should be considered in the increasingly widespread intuition that the male-only priesthood is an artificial contraceptive (if not an abortifacient) of female priestly vocations. The massive rejection of the wise teaching of Humanae Vitae is another signal. The continuing news about the child abuse crisis is another signal. The Church is dysfunctional in matters of human sexuality, plain and simple; and the only way to reconstruct the functionality of the Church as the family of God is to leave behind that Hebrew and Greek/Roman patriarchal culture of male domination and female subordination, which predates biblical times and emerged after original sin. Nothing less will do, and nothing will suffice until qualified and fully tested women are ordained to the priesthood and the episcopate.

Lisa Weber | 3/2/2016 - 9:39pm

The church needs to allow women to preach partly because women experience and understand the Gospel in a way that is slightly different than how men understand it. Allowing women to preach would add to the fullness of understanding. Laypeople also have a different understanding than those in religious life because they share in the life that more than 99% of those in the church live on a daily basis. This is most encouraging news.

Women don't need to be ordained if they can preach at Mass. Plus there are logical reasons that women should not be ordained, the primary one being that women will always have two cultures to deal with while men have only one.

Nicholas Clifford | 3/2/2016 - 7:25pm

Women preaching in the Church? Two points.

a) I have actually heard a woman preach in church. It was in a country I shall not name for fear that the wrath of God will ope the heavens and rain down fire and brimstone (as some no doubt would think proper). It was in a small town (rather a tourist town) where on Saturday evenings each week a visiting priest would come to say Mass. A woman of about fifty, let’s say, seemed to be in charge of looking after the church, and also served Mass. One evening, after the priest had read the Gospel, he seated himself behind the altar, and looked on, clearly pleased, while the woman preached. She did so in a language that I could mostly, but not entirely understand, and though I can’t remember what she said (this was about ten years ago), I found it both thoughtful and intelligent. (I might add that on another occasion in the same church, a visiting priest from the Church (or do I mean ecclesial community?) of England was invited to do the first and second readings which he did (in English) while someone else translated them back into the local language). Again, we were spared the fire and brimstone.

b) If we are going to allow women to preach in church (and I hope we do), what about laymen, or lay folk in general? Survey after survey after survey seems to show that what most upsets churchgoers (in this country at least) is the appalling level of preaching. Ordination may have many virtues, but a golden tongue is not one of them, and I have long thought the Church insists on shooting itself in the foot by restricting the pulpit to those in orders.

Mike Evans | 3/2/2016 - 7:24pm

Creak! The door creeps open by another inch. But will the priests be embarrassed by the spiritual competition?

Tom Poelker | 3/3/2016 - 11:25am

Public competition is the very antithesis of clerical culture. Their sense of entitlement to the attendance and support of "their" people precludes seeking to attract people through better public skills. All of their advancement depends on their status within the local clergy, and competing otherwise is resented. Being embarrassed by non-cleric preachers may not be possible, so long as it does not affect their standing within the closed clerical caste.