The National Catholic Review
Women should have more leadership roles in the church.

When it comes to women and men in U.S. society, there is no equality yet. But in the United States, the church is ahead of most Fortune 500 companies and even the White House. When you look at the numbers and take ordination—a doctrinal question—off the table, women do better in the church than in U.S. society overall.

Recent statistics show that women currently hold only 5 percent of Fortune 500 chief executive officer positions and only 4.9 percent of Fortune 1,000 C.E.O. positions. Salaries at the White House also show women trailing men. The Washington Post reported in July that “the average male White House employee currently earns about $88,600, while the average female White House employee earns about $78,400,” a gap of 13 percent. A reason, the Post suggested, is that “more men hold the higher-paying, senior jobs in the White House, and more women hold the lower-paying, junior jobs.”

The Post also reported that the “White House pay gap is similar to the disparity within the federal government,” but it is less than that for the United States as a whole, given that “the nation overall has a 23.5 percent gap.”

Women in the U.S. church are in top leadership positions but not in proportion to their numbers and usually not as the leaders in the larger organizations within the church. Among Catholic Healthcare Association members, for example, there are 54 Catholic hospital systems, with budgets of an estimated $110 billion. Only nine of these systems are headed by women (who oversee a combined budget of $9.4 billion).

Yet the situation improves for lower-ranking leadership positions in the C.H.A. Of the 664 individual Catholic hospitals in the United States, 28 percent are led by women. Women C.E.O.s/administrators head up 1,049 or 70 percent of the 1,606 long-term care or continuum care institutions. The numbers show advancement in leadership—but not enough. Much more can and should be done to ensure that women have meaningful leadership roles in the church today.

Promoting the Gifts of Women

Much of the talent of top-flight women is not being used. Women’s gifts, which include intuition and relational skills, are not taken advantage of in decision making.

Some years ago I met with a group of men to draft a statement about a property dispute. I suggested we show the church cared. “Huh?” everyone else said, “What’s caring got to do with it?” Eventually they inserted something about caring. They were nice men, but their goal was to win in a property dispute, and caring was not a concern. Victory was.

This inequality sends a message that women are less capable, insignificant and unworthy. This is no small problem, considering we are taught that all are made in God’s image and likeness and have inherent dignity. It seems reasonable to believe that God has given women gifts for the church, and insofar as we do not let these gifts shine we diminish the church and neglect the divine gifts.

Women bring different experiences to the table. If the church is to minister to all its people, it needs to feel or experience their needs in many ways. In the early days of the crisis caused by the sexual abuse of children by members of the clergy, a key problem was that leaders identified more with Father Jim than with little Jimmy. They knew Father and his family and played cards with him. Having had more women in positions of leadership, especially mothers, might have shifted the balance more toward little Jimmy, a vulnerable child or teen.

Women lean toward consensus and recognize nuances. Two decades ago, I was director of communications for World Youth Day in Denver. The pope was coming, and I sought advice from the late Tim Russert.

Tim knew most of the people I would deal with were men and offered a common male approach. “You own the pope, so you’re in charge!” It was an adult version of sandlot sports: whoever owns the ball decides what position he will play.

I adopted this so-called male mindset to make the event work. But my maternal side took over too. A 19-year-old with a fatal disease wanted to meet the pope. That became a priority, and I gave her a special place at Mass and made it happen. A male organizer objected, saying she should be with children to meet the pope later. I argued that a 19-year-old belonged with adults. I saw a nuance that my male colleague did not.

Becoming a Role Model

Statistics from U.S. hospitals suggest women make a difference. Catholic hospitals, where one out of six persons in the country receives medical care, reflect women’s historical influence through their services. Many hospitals were founded by religious orders of women, and many still operate under their sponsorship, if not their direct administration.

The 2012 American Hospital Association Annual Survey, for example, shows that Catholic hospitals lead over government hospitals, other non-profit hospitals and investor-owned hospitals when it comes to provision of public health and specialty services. Catholic hospitals lead in offering traditionally “unprofitable” services: think birthing rooms, breast cancer screening, community outreach, geriatrics services, nutrition programs, palliative care, trauma services, behavioral services and more.

Some would argue that the church’s greatest strength in the United States has been the Catholic school system, built primarily by women religious. Right now, about 48 percent of the diocesan superintendents, 80 percent of elementary school principals and 38 percent of high school principals are female.

The success of Catholic schools where women have been empowered as leaders testifies to women’s gifts. For decades we have seen students in Catholic schools, generally led by women, succeed despite sociological obstacles like poverty and challenging family circumstances. One very recent example is U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who got her educational start at Blessed Sacrament School in the Bronx.

Women predominate in social services, but women lead only 65 out of 165 major Catholic Charities agencies. Still, these 65 women oversee services annually for more than 2.2 million people, with a budget of almost $655 million, and supervise almost 10,300 staff members. But how might we continue to improve the role of women in the church?

Open more leadership positions to women. Pope Francis speaks of shaking up his curia. There are offices there where women would be logical leaders, like the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. This congregation oversees most of the world’s estimated 722,000 women and 186,000 men in religious orders.

Other offices that could logically accommodate women at the top include the Pontifical Council for the Family and the Pontifical Council for the Laity. Given the presence of women in top government positions, the time also seems right to add women to the Vatican diplomatic corps.

There ought to be a place for some of the growing number of women theologians at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Pope Francis recently advised Cardinal Gerhard Müller, head of the C.D.F., that he wanted more women on the International Theological Commission, an advisory body to the C.D.F. on contemporary issues, where up until now there were but two women. Recently the number increased to five, and they now constitute 16 percent of the new commission’s membership. It is easy to argue that 50 percent of the commission members should be women—or even more, as a kind of affirmative action. The addition of women to C.D.F. professional staff also is long overdue.

Acknowledge what women already do. In virtually every U.S. parish, women read the Scriptures at Mass and distribute Communion. Perhaps it is time to welcome them officially into the ministries of lector and acolyte. Historically, lector and acolyte were referred to as orders and seen as steps toward ordination. Given the changed reality, could this be reconsidered? An increasing number of women also serve as parish-life coordinators and parish pastoral associates, positions that might be better acknowledged in the church through installation services.

Promote women in major archdioceses. Women can be promoted to positions like chancellor, director of Catholic Charities and superintendent of schools. Women already hold such positions in smaller dioceses, but not in many large ones. Put more women on seminary boards and other consultative groups. Make women’s positions meaningful. Promoting women to the position of chancellor is step one. Making the position more than that of official record-keeper would be step two. As the number of women educated in canon law increases, it may be time to name women as heads of diocesan tribunals.

Promote more women leaders in Catholic colleges and universities. The first president of the consolidated Jesuit-run University of Detroit and the Sisters of Mercy’s Mercy College, now the University of Detroit Mercy, was the Dominican sister Maureen Fay. The Jesuit-founded LeMoyne College in Syracuse, N.Y., caught higher education’s attention in 2014 when it named Linda LeMura as the first woman president of a Jesuit college or university. For over 100 years, sisters have successfully led colleges and universities established by their orders; their track record in educational leadership is well established.

Establish leadership academies within professional groups and ensure that half the participants are women. Study where women have not succeeded as top leaders. Did they lack resources or decisiveness or boldness of vision? If this is a trend, can remedies be suggested?

One barrier to promotion of women in the church may be that ordination has become equated with power, which is a theological distortion considering that ordination is for service. Pope Francis never suggests he will ordain women, but he has stated, “The feminine genius is needed whenever we make important decisions.”

Last January at a national conference in Italy, Pope Francis said he hoped the space for women to contribute incisively to the life of our church would continue to increase. Months later he appointed the first woman to head one of the seven pontifical universities in Rome when he named Mary Melone, a Franciscan sister, rector of the Pontifical University Antonianum, run by male Franciscans of the Order of Friars Minor.

Women bring unique gifts to any situation. Women in the Catholic Church have made powerful contributions, but they can make more. Women’s talents and the need for them are slowly finding recognition in the Catholic Church. That is progress. Fortune 500 companies and the White House need to catch up. And the church needs to boldly set an example too.

Mary Ann Walsh, R.S.M., is the U.S. church correspondent for America.


Julie Paavola | 2/5/2015 - 2:53pm

To Mary Mills: Congratulations on your up-coming graduation. I got my MA in Religion in Society in 1998. I couldn't agree with you more, women need more than a degree in order to serve in today's Church. Sadly, a degree can even be a problem. I worked for many years as a spiritual director, and speaker, but since we have moved a lot as a family, each time I arrived in a new parish or diocese I had to begin all over again to build trust and find welcome and it often left me feeling like an outsider. Today, I am studying to become an art therapist because of the lack of a place for women like me in ministry. I hope the best for you and hope you will see a new Church that welcomes a variety of vocations for women and can find a way of validation, as you say. Find a good mentor! My prayers for you, that your vocation will be fostered and your ministry supported!!

Mary Mills | 2/3/2015 - 11:49am

Both men and women receive a calling by God to enter into a life of ministry. How the Church validates and distinguishes a man's call from God is to ordain them. And how is a woman's call from God validated by the Church? Unfortunately I believe that many consider a woman's "job" (secretary, faith formation director, youth minister, etc) within the Church as that validation.
I graduate in May with a Master of Divinity degree. Attaining this degree is very God driven and yet there currently is nothing in place by the Church that validates and distinguishes my call from God. I personally have no desire to be ordained but I do have the desire to be valued for the leadership qualities that I possess.

Julie Baum | 2/3/2015 - 11:09pm

Although women may be only 5% of CEOs of the largest corporations, they are 0% of the "CEOs" in the Catholic church. Progress will have been made when 5% of parish pastors, 5% of bishops, 5% of the college of cardinals, and 5% of the heads of Vatican Curial offices are held by women - including married women. That would at least show baby steps.

Ordination is the only path to real authority in church governance - so the church must drop mandatory celibacy and begin also ordaining women. This might spare future generations some of the horrors inflicted by the all male group who are in charge, and it is the only way that the worst of the church's teachings related to marriage, family and gender will be changed. It's long past time for the ancient patriarchal regime to pass. The church cannot take too much more of it.

john abrahams | 1/31/2015 - 6:37pm

Approaching 75 in a few months. Chose to retire earlier than usual as a diocesan priest. Request granted by an out-going cardinal & counsel. Most grateful. Discern a true vocation to retirement. Time of my life. If you will hear the preceding data as overture to my sacred saga with Holy Church, may I end on a note of exhaustion with the topic under discussion. Clerically incognito now, I am at peace joining the laity at mass now. This issue and others, i.e scandal, have exhausted me-- but not my faith handed, lovingly & true, down to me by women & men belonging to 'The One True Holy…." . My prayers for the best of outcomes. May the best woman win.

Jack Rakosky | 1/31/2015 - 2:14pm

While Francis has not taken the issue of women deacons off the table he has not put it on the table.

One of the reasons I think he has avoided the subject is that he has a record of not being very much in favor of male deacons. He has questioned in the past whether it is a good idea to ordain outstanding married men who are good lay leaders as deacons. Does this really promote lay leadership? It is clear that Francis is for more laity in roles of leadership and wants to discourage clericalism. I suspect he is concerned about setting up a career ladder for laity which would culminate in the deaconate. People need to articulate an understanding and practice of the deaconate and of lay leadership that appeals to him.

Francis clearly is very interested in three areas that would make us closer to the Orthodox: synods, divorce and remarriage, and married priests. Women deacons would be a fourth area. If we did all four we would be much closer to the church of the first millennium, and all these would be a substantial change from the present probably as much as Vatican II. I wonder how many liberals or traditionalists would support such a vision for the future?

Gerardine Luongo | 1/31/2015 - 1:57pm

When our young girls are taken off the alter and prohibited from serving we loose hope of developing a cadre of women who can advocate for and step into greater leadership roles whether those roles are for specific programs, schools, etc. or ultimately through ordination. When our girls are taken off the alter, we all loose and we loose so much.

Cody Serra | 1/30/2015 - 9:52pm

The article provides interesting descriptive and statistical information on the status of women in the church. However, regardless of the status level positions mentioned, from CEOs to high level administrators in different organization, institutions and in the Vatican councils, there is one commonality among them: neither have any power of decision making on Church policies at higher levels of the teaching magisterium which requires ordination.

Church teachings that affect everyone in the church, by its traditional paternalistic structure, are only decided by the ordained male clergy. I am not referring about changing dogmas, but to the teachings and pastoral policies of our church, where 50% of its membership are women.

Francis has publicly recognized the situation. I celebrate that he has appointed some women in the Roman Curia discasteries and councils, but I doubt, given their minority status, their influence in governing the Church will be significant, at least now or in the near future. It is a step forward, however.

While it is recognized the equality of dignity of all human beings, there is not practical evidence of it in the church 'governing'. We are constantly reminded that men and women are not the same (biologically true) and therefore, are called to different roles. It seems that in the secular world, those differences are no an obstacle to appoint and/or elect women for the highest political positions of the countries.

Until our Church shows in practice it recognizes that women's potential is more than motherhood, but also includes intellectual, spiritual, theological, philosophical and leadership talents, and women's intuition and compassion, the inequality will continue. Women are called by God to be apostles the same as men, to serve and to lead within the church.
Jesus lived in a culture and at a time when women did not have public authority and would have unlikely been accepted as apostles by the population in a new church tradition being born. Still, He had several women disciples and friends in spite of the local culture. I wonder how would He choose apostles in today's world.

Women's present executive authority in some service organizations, so well described in the article, does not make them equal members within the paternalistic Catholic church structure. I celebrate Francis Roman Curia changes in its bureaucracy, but the role of women in the church is still dominated by an emphasis in motherhood and family. Let's pray for the Spirit wisdom and guidance in the times ahead.

Sara Damewood | 1/30/2015 - 9:49pm

Amen! One aspect of women's spirituality is to see power in a new way: "power within" or "power with others" (the Holy Spirit?) vs. "power over" others.

Matt Nannery | 1/30/2015 - 6:51pm

When I was in the seminary in Huntington, L.I, almost in passing I mentioned to a fellow seminarian that my heart goes out to women who feel a strong call to the priesthood. I would feel awful, I said, if I couldn't follow my own call which is terribly strong. I'd feel like the floor dropped out below my feet. His answer caught me off guard, as it was quick and definite. "Matt," he said, "Jesus would never have called them in the first place. They're misguided."

PHYLLIS ZAGANO | 1/30/2015 - 5:13pm

women deacons.

Luis Gutierrez | 1/30/2015 - 11:15pm

Women deacons may be the way to go in the short term, but it would not resolve the central issue, which is the "icon of Christ" mentality in the Orthodox churches and/or the stuff about "in persona Christi Capitis" in the Catholic church. I may be wrong, but my impression is that ordaining women to the diaconate, without resolving the central issue of the redemption of the body, male and female, so as to clarify that women as well as men can be ordained to be part of the "head" in the mystical body of Christ, will simply prolong the agony and do much harm to both "head" and "members." Consider the painful process leading to Anglican women priests and bishops. It is hard to imagine that this is what Christ wants for the other sacramental churches.

Ryan Hoffmann | 1/30/2015 - 3:55pm

"One barrier to promotion of women in the church may be that ordination has become equated with power, which is a theological distortion considering that ordination is for service."

Why, then, does ordination confer special authority and privileges and why is it (still) a job requirement for many powerful positions?

Luis Gutierrez | 1/30/2015 - 2:50pm

Taking ordination off the table means excluding women from leadership in the sacramental economy. This means that the sacramental economy is impoverished, for men as well as women. This is not about what the church is doing for women, and is not about what women (or men) want. This is about discerning what Christ wants for the Church in the 21st century, for the glory of God and the good of souls.

The eternal Word became "flesh" (John 1:14), the maleness of Jesus being a particularity of God becoming embodied and "like us in all sins but sin." Likewise, the choice of the 12 male apostles by Jesus is a particularity of his earthly mission to the people of Israel and, except for the very unpersuasive "reason" given in CCC 1577 (and Ordinatio Sacerdotalis), no justification has been given for making that choice normative as the church becomes incarnate in post-patriarchal cultures.

As long as this discussion is not officially reopened, discussing the role of women in the church is reduced to sociological arguments of minor consequence in the sacramental life of the church. Who cares about statistics? Who cares about women making "contributions" to decision making as long as sacramental power, and therefore real decision making power, remains in the hands of a male-only hierarchy? Sure, sacramental power is about service rather than domination, etc., etc. If sacramental power is really about service, the church should start ordaining nuns and other celibate women who are gifted with the 'signs of the priesthood."

Based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church and John Paul II's Theology of the Body, my understanding is that the ordination of women to the priesthood would be in perfect continuity with apostolic tradition:

Ordination of Women in the Sacramental Churches

After reading this article by Sister Mary Ann Walsh, I am not sure whether to laugh or to cry. Rather than trying to rationalize how well the church is doing in gender relations, perhaps we should discuss less and pray more.

Ryan Hoffmann | 1/30/2015 - 3:54pm