Where you stand depends on where you sit. If you are one of the 24 percent of Catholic women who sit in the pews at least once a week, some of the results of America Media’s comprehensive survey of women in the church, featured in this issue, could be disheartening or even dismaying. Over 50 percent of Catholic women attend Mass a few times a year or less; 70 percent go to confession less than once a year or never; very few take on parish ministry roles like lector or eucharistic minister.
But there are also more hopeful findings. All the women who responded to this survey still identify themselves as Catholic, however far they may have strayed from a consistent practice of the faith they were raised in. Despite their low level of traditional engagement in the life of the church, 82 percent said they never considered leaving Catholicism; the vast majority have no or little doubt about the existence of God; 68 percent “strongly agree” or “somewhat agree” that they are proud to be Catholic.
Despite their low level of traditional engagement in the life of the church, 82 percent said they never considered leaving Catholicism.
What are we to make of this wide and growing gulf between sacramental participation and Catholic identity? One reaction can be that of the older brother in the Gospel of Luke: dismiss apparently prodigal believers as unworthy of the designation “real Catholics.” A more productive and Christlike response would be to go to the peripheries of the church to listen to what is driving women from the pews—and to learn what is keeping them nonetheless Catholic. The America Media survey reveals several explanations for the former, from disagreement with church teachings to dissatisfaction with their local pastor or parish, that deserve deeper exploration.
The data should invite neither complacency nor despair. Most respondents said helping the poor (79 percent) and receiving the Eucharist (69 percent) are “somewhat” or “very much” important to their Catholic identity. Whatever human or institutional failings have led Catholic women to disengage from the church, Jesus and his good news continue to shape how they see themselves and the world.