The humble, indispensable women leading the Catholic Church you’ve (probably) never heard of

Coleen Heckner grew up immersed in Catholic culture. From her parents and her devout grandfather, who served as an usher in his parish, to the Daughters of Charity and the Sisters of Mercy, who educated her in grade school and high school, she was surrounded by examples of faith. A member of the Vatican II generation, she was influenced by St. John XXIII and became passionate about issues of social justice, in part because the peace activists Daniel Berrigan, S.J., and Phil Berrigan were among the speakers brought to her Baltimore classroom. “I grew up in a really neat time to have all these folks touch my life in some way,” she said.

In the years that have followed, Ms. Heckner’s faith commitment has not waned. While working as a psychiatric nurse practitioner, she has attended Mass weekly and has been active in parish life, having served as a member of a parish council and a eucharistic minister to the homebound. Her adult son spent some time in seminary, and she enjoyed her visits there. She would love to be a deacon someday and has a devotion to Mary (“I’ve always believed if you want to get something done you give it to a woman”). In 2011 she earned a master’s degree in pastoral studies from St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Albany, N.Y., which allowed her to serve as a chaplain resident at Albany Medical Center and now as a pastoral associate at a nearby nursing home.

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Her wealth of experience would seem to make her a natural role model for others looking to put their faith into action, but she shies away from the title. “I don’t see myself as a role model,” Ms. Heckner said. “I tend to work one on one behind the scenes.”

Yet Ms. Heckner is, in some ways, just the type of person many Catholic women name when describing their models of the faith: friends and family simply trying to do their best to live their faith authentically. According to the America survey of Catholic women, “parents, family, and friends” were cited as the most common example (38 percent) of where their “ideas/models of being a woman in the Catholic Church come from.” Catholic education and religious education ranked second (33 percent), followed by the Bible/saints/God/Scripture (19 percent), women religious (9 percent), “no one in particular” (9 percent), their own beliefs (8 percent) and their Catholic upbringing (5 percent).

Yet examples like Ms. Heckner, who was one of the 1,508 participants in our national survey, may be difficult to find. Her commitment to the faith represents a level of investment and involvement that our data show is uncommon among Catholic women in the United States (see executive summary, Page 12).

Catholic women have often been heralded as the people most likely to pass on the faith and are frequently described as the backbone of parishes. Yet the America survey found that significant percentages of the women surveyed, all of whom identify as Catholic, do not regularly go to Mass, do not pray on a regular basis and do not feel it necessary to be a part of parish life. Of the women surveyed, 51 percent said they prayed daily and 24 percent went to Mass weekly or more often.

“I don’t see myself as a role model,” Ms. Heckner said. “I tend to work one on one behind the scenes.”

Less than half of women surveyed felt it was “very important” or “somewhat” important to be involved in one’s parish. The survey found that women were most likely to have served in parish ministry as a catechist or religious education teacher (15 percent) and least likely to have served as an usher/minister of hospitality, an R.C.I.A. team member or sponsor, or in young adult ministry (4 percent each). As visible and valuable as these roles are, they are performed by a small percentage of Catholic women over all.

Of course, being active in parish life is not the only way to express one’s Catholic identity, and not all forms of meaningful leadership in the church exist within the church’s official structures. But signs of Catholic women’s disengagement with the organized church come with serious implications for the life of the church as a whole. Additional survey data in recent years also showed dispiriting results: a drop off in the involvement of millennial Catholic women in the faith.

America Special Topics: Women in the Church

“The sociological data shows that millennial Catholic women are more disengaged from the church than their male counterparts,” said Kathleen Sprows Cummings, an associate professor of American studies at the University of Notre Dame and director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism. “We are at a crisis point. For centuries, as long as we’ve been tracking these things, it’s always been the women who are more engaged. Historically, it’s the mothers who bring their children [to Mass]. If you lose the women you lose the children.” Ms. Cummings added that young Protestant women remain more engaged than their male counterparts, making the problem a uniquely Catholic one.

“Many people ask me, ‘Why do you stay in a church where many people have negative perceptions of women in the church?’”

Roughly half of women surveyed (49 percent) strongly agree that they are proud to be Catholic. Nineteen percent agreed “somewhat.” Yet, even as participation declines, most women surveyed (82 percent) had not considered leaving the church. Of those women who considered leaving, 48 percent said that the status of women in the church “somewhat” or “very much” played a role in their choice to leave, and 69 percent said disagreement with a church teaching “somewhat” or “very much” played a role.

According to Ms. Cummings, the church would benefit from a more deliberate effort to reach out to Catholic women. “The Catholic Church has given young women so many reasons to dismiss it out of hand, and many people do,” she said, adding that she has not seen “the sense of urgency” within the church that is required to address the lack of engagement among many Catholic women. Ms. Cummings hopes that some concerns can be addressed in part by emphasizing the need for leadership roles for women in the church. As valuable as family-based role models can be, a longer list of examples in the professional and pastoral sphere could help keep women connected to each other and the faith.

“Let’s show women that there is a space for them in the church, a place at the table,” she said. “There is a rich history that they are a part of. Women are not always seeking attention, and they’re almost never getting it.”

Catholic women have often been heralded as the people most likely to pass on the faith

Many people may be unaware of the leadership positions that are already available to women because these often are roles at the diocesan level, like chancellor or chief financial officer or superintendent of schools, which are crucial but largely behind the scenes. Ms. Cummings said that lacking knowledge of these roles, many women believe that positions of leadership within the church are restricted to priests and look elsewhere to share their talents.

“Women look around in the secular world, and there’s a lot of doors open to them, but they look at the church and they see this door that is closed to them,” Ms. Cummings said. “A lot of my students in my class don’t know that the call to leadership flows from the sacrament of baptism, not the sacrament of ordination.”

•••

Mary Edlund has been chancellor of the Diocese of Dallas since 1997, a role that involves serving as a canonical advisor to the bishop. It was not always her aim to work for the church; in her early career, she worked as a microbiologist for the federal government while also volunteering as a religious education teacher at her parish. But she realized that “increasingly what was giving me more joy was the C.C.D. role.” A male lay colleague welcomed her as his assistant at her parish, and the parish helped to pay for her graduate degree in religious education at The Catholic University of America.

Signs of disengagement with the organized church come with serious implications for the life of the church as a whole.

Today, Ms. Edlund also serves as the victim assistance coordinator for the diocese and has earned a canon law degree with additional financial assistance from the diocese. (She also sometimes texts with Cardinal Kevin Farrell, the former archbishop of Dallas, who now serves as the head of the Dicastery of Laity, Family and Life—she recently sent him a congratulatory message for appointing two laywomen to the Vatican department.) In many ways, Ms. Edlund is a perfect example of how a Catholic laywoman can combine a calling with a career, yet she hesitates to call herself a role model and says that most people in the diocese likely do not know about the role of chancellor or that a laywoman holds the position. She is happy to have it that way and is more concerned with servant leadership than celebrity.

“I work at my job and my ministry in a way that I hope is responsive and in service to the people,” Ms. Edlund said. Still, she wishes more women knew that the church could be part of a viable career path, and she wishes that the church would do more to help make it one, providing more opportunities for others to receive the mentorship and especially the tuition assistance that she received. “I see a lot of structures that entice women to volunteer positions in the church but not to career opportunities,” she said.

Just under one-fifth of Catholic women in the America survey (18 percent) felt that women were “very much” involved in decision-making at their parish. (The total rises to 53 percent when including those who responded women were “somewhat” involved.) For women who attended Mass frequently, the percentage who agreed “very much” was 32 percent versus 11 percent for those who attended a few times a year or less, indicating that those attending Mass frequently are more likely to be aware of the women in those leadership roles—or may even be the ones making the decisions.

“The Catholic Church has given young women so many reasons to dismiss it out of hand, and many people do.”

Parishioners at Holy Family Parish in South Pasadena, Calif., do not have a hard time finding women in visible leadership positions. The parish is led by Cambria Tortorelli, the parish life director, who is one of seven lay people in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to hold this role. Of the seven, three are women (two laypeople and one religious). In this role, Ms. Tortorelli tends to both the spiritual life and administrative needs of a parish, working collaboratively with a priest minister and team of weekend presiders, who tend to the sacramental needs of the parish.

Ms. Tortorelli is a convert to the faith who arrived in California by way of England and Japan. It was while studying for a master’s degree in religious studies that she was inspired by two Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary to begin thinking of herself as capable of taking on a leadership role in the church. They prompted her to “step up” as a volunteer in her parish. She found herself wanting to become even more involved and went to the archdiocesan Office of Parish Life, where her nonprofit background, religious training and parish experience made her a great fit for a role as a parish life minister. Six months later, she received a call asking her to interview at Holy Family, beginning a process of mutual discernment with the parish.

“I watch and I see the difference that a woman makes in a conversation. I see how important it is that we show up.”

When she began her time at the parish, Ms. Tortorelli met even more Catholic lay people and clergy eager to encourage her in her role. “One of my struggles with Catholicism [when deciding to convert] was that you don’t see women in formal leadership roles in the church,” said Ms. Tortorelli. Yet she said she took heart, not only from learning about the “marvelous examples of women saints” but from the women around her, particularly those in the Bible study group at her parish.

Ms. Tortorelli now says that “by virtue of my role and job” she often is seen as a role model in her community. “I know young women have shared with me that they’re encouraged to see me in this role, and parents have shared that they’re happy that their daughter is in a church where they will grow up with the assumption that a woman can be a leader,” she said. “But ultimately, it’s not about you. You’re trying to hear what God’s call is.”

“Let’s show women that there is a space for them in the church, a place at the table.”

Kathy Enright, the director of the Office of Parish Life for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, was another person who encouraged Ms. Tortorelli to listen to that call. It is one she worked hard to hear in her own life as well. Ms. Enright’s role is to help with the formation of lay ecclesial ministers, including pastoral associates and parish life directors.

Prior to finding a career path in the church, Ms. Enright trained as a spiritual director and participated in a Bible study program and was passionate about her faith. But after the death of her husband in 1999, when she was 53, she sought a way to both pursue her passion and support her five children. At the invitation of a friend, she started work at a parish, where she built a religious education program and an R.C.I.A. curriculum, created a parish bookstore and established a Scripture study group and a bereavement ministry. “It was real, live ministry, and I loved it,” she said.

Despite receiving consistent encouragement from her parish community, Ms. Enright said she did not have an example to follow. “I’d never seen a woman in any of these roles,” she said, a fact that is still true for many of the women she works with in her current position. “Sometimes my people get discouraged,” she said of the women training to be lay ecclesial ministers. “Sometimes priests are not open. I have to keep reminding them that they’re pioneers. They’re forging a new path. Sometimes people see them doing things they recognize, but because they’re laywomen and not a priest, the people in the pews don’t always know how to handle all of this.”

Yet Ms. Enright makes clear that she sees her role and that of her lay ministers as team players. “I am not here to show the men that the women can do this better,” she said. “I don’t have an agenda. I’m just here to serve.”

Many women believe that positions of leadership within the church are restricted to priests and look elsewhere to share their talents.

Though she has influenced many men and women through her work, Ms. Enright also hesitates to call herself a role model in the church. “I’m not a role model like Sheryl Sandberg, who maps out a path to get to the top,” she said. “I wasn’t ever thinking about that.” Her role as a mother and now grandmother is more complicated still. She said her family has been supportive and her children traveled from all over the country to be with her when she was commissioned as a pastoral associate, but that her daughters express frustration with the fact that she is still involved with the church.

“As a role model for them, I think I’m that connection to the hem of the skirt of the church,” she said. “I’m attached to the church, and they’re attached to me.” She said the church’s teaching on same-sex relationships has become a sticking point for many young people she knows; and she sees many young people “maintaining a faith life independent of the church,” including many young women “who are mad at the church and they cannot understand a church that doesn’t welcome people at all levels.”

Yet she says she finds hope in the many “outstanding women and men” who remain in the church and feel called to serve, and she appreciates what each brings to the table: “I watch and I see the difference that a woman makes in a conversation. I see how important it is that we show up. We need the two halves of the whole. God made us in his image, male and female. It’s got to be both.”

•••

Sara Hoverstad, 25, grew up in a Catholic family in California, with parents who taught her to appreciate diversity and to be of service, values she says were reinforced by her diverse public school experience and stories from Scripture like that of the Samaritan woman at the well. Yet for all her formation in the faith, she also said that “conversations about what it means to be a Catholic woman didn’t specifically enter my sphere of understanding” until she “started to break down those different categories of experience” in graduate school at Boston College, where she is studying theological ethics. “Many people ask me, ‘Why do you stay in a church where many people have negative perceptions of women in the church?’” she said. “But I have had the opportunity to encounter so many women who have encouraged me and used their own voices so well in the church, and I see my continued engagement as an opportunity to engage my own voice but also to be a voice that challenges.”

 

Just under one-fifth of Catholic women in the America survey felt that women were “very much” involved in decision-making at their parish.

The America survey found that many Catholic women had few people to reach out to for spiritual guidance in times of hardship. Overall, nearly half (49 percent) would reach out to a family member. But among Catholics less involved in parish life, 44 percent were not “very likely” to speak to anyone. Yet the maintenance of a supportive faith community has benefits beyond those apparent in a crisis. Often members of the community are instrumental in helping one develop a clearer picture of one’s identity as it relates to the faith.

For Ms. Hoverstad, a crucial experience occurred in college when a campus minister encouraged her to work on finding her voice as a Catholic woman and to consider how she might use it. “It was powerful for me to acknowledge that there is a voice in me that wants to say something and that this person recognizes in me that I haven’t really used it,” Ms. Hoverstad said.

Ms. Hoverstad draws strength from Scripture, too, but at times has felt discouraged that there are not more women in the scriptural tradition and historical writings of the church. “It is easier to engage with women who are living their faith now,” she said, adding that she admires many women working in theological ethics today. “I can imagine that these women are like the women that have been reading and speaking within the church through the centuries but of whom we don’t have records now,” she said.

The power of the modern-day examples of faith became clear to Christina Garcia, 35, when she took a course on Catholic social action at Cornell University. Now a lawyer living in San Antonio, Tex., she had grown up admiring the faith of her grandmother and today counts her godfather, her sister and her pastor among her greatest supporters in the faith. But the course was the first step in helping her to see faith as more than memorizing prayers. “I couldn’t believe I had gone through all those years of C.C.D. and I hadn’t heard of [modern-day examples like] Dorothy Day or Mother Jones or Helen Prejean,” she said. “They are Catholic, and they are also women who have done great work. And I consider them role models in the work that helps to form my identity.”

“Ultimately, it’s not about you. You’re trying to hear what God’s call is.”

•••

Although supportive communities, leadership opportunities and positive role models in the faith are helpful in maintaining a connection to one’s faith, the America survey found that most women named two things as the most important aspects of what it means to be Catholic: helping the poor (79 percent said “somewhat” or “very much”) and receiving the Eucharist (69 percent said “somewhat” or “very much”). And when Beth Murphy-Snodgrass decided to convert to Catholicism in college, it was these very things that drew her in.

Ms. Murphy-Snodgrass grew up in a nondenominational Christian household but began dating a Catholic during her freshman year at Ball State University in Indiana. They attended Mass together, and while the relationship did not last, the impression the Catholic Mass left on her did. She felt the Catholic Church treated the Eucharist “with the sanctity it deserves.” She was also awed by the fact that “the church is one of the most philanthropic organizations in the world.” She said that “though I know that the church as an organization has done wrong and individuals have done wrong, when it comes down to it they do far more good than damage.”

Now a graphic designer in Scottsdale, Ariz., Ms. Murphy-Snodgrass was also drawn in by the church’s art and history. She considers herself a “raging feminist and a Democrat” as well as a “Marvel comic books nerd” who enjoys listening to podcasts by Father Roderick Vonhögen, the “geek priest,” and says friends often are surprised to learn she is Catholic. Ms. Murphy-Snodgrass does not mind, since she says she “likes to play against type, and I like other atypical women,” which she said is what instilled in her a devotion to Mary, Undoer of Knots. “There are things I do not agree with,” said Ms. Murphy-Snodgrass, “but the best way to change something is from the inside.”

 

“I am not here to show the men that the women can do this better. I don’t have an agenda. I’m just here to serve.”

Kitty Hanley, C.S.J., understands what it is like to struggle with the church at times, but she also has found great strength and encouragement in the Eucharist and in the Gospel call to serve, though along a slightly different path. Sister Kitty, a cradle Catholic, academic and spiritual director, worked as a teacher and administrator at the College of St. Rose in Albany and as the dean and director of St. Bernard’s School of Theology Ministry, where Coleen Heckner was her student and mentee. Sister Kitty now directs Holy Ground, a two-year program she co-founded to form spiritual directors, training both clergy and lay people.

She hopes that those with whom she works can see both the beauty of the church and the challenges that continue in the midst of its imperfect members. She encourages her students to network and recruit each other, to model that church for each other. She draws strength from examples like St. Teresa of Avila, the Maryknoll martyrs of El Salvador, and her fellow sisters. What the church needs, she says, is leaders who are filled with joy and a desire to serve. “The leaders who have impressed me are joyful women and not ‘Jolly Little Mary Sunshine’ but deep joy,” she said. “That’s what drew the disciples to Jesus. And along with deep joy, it’s good to have a deep skill set and a sense of a call that this is where I need to be—because it isn’t always easy.”

She said that if one’s primary goal is to lead an organization, the church may not be the easiest place for women to start but that their skills should be no less welcome. “One of the major challenges is to keep inviting, to keep saying, ‘Your home is here and your home is not perfect, but you can only change it if you stay within it and love it and speak your truth,’” Sister Kitty said.

“Why I stay has little to do with opportunities for women,” she said. “It’s because of Jesus. This is my church, and I am church, and I believe that with my whole heart. This is my home.”

America Special Topics: Women in the Church

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Barry Fitzpatrick
8 months 1 week ago

Outstanding article that brings to mind the memories of the many women who influenced me as a man growing up in the Catholic faith. Other than my own mother, the greatest female influence in my earliest years was the Sisters of Charity of Halifax, Sr. Michael Marie prominent among them. Teaching 72 of us in the same room in first grade (that's right 72!) with the help of two young college students from St. Joseph's College in Brooklyn, Sister made me feel like I was the only person in the room. Gifted with a great love of reading, she instilled in us a desire for more, sort of a "magis" for first graders. Her life exuded her spirituality, and we all benefited from being in her presence.
As I grew up it began to occur to me that some of the women I was taught by and was interacting with in my Church were far better at communicating the faith and its many nuances than many of the men trying to do the same thing. I later worked with many such women in Catholic secondary education for forty years. I think of Loretta Favret who taught with me in the Washington, DC area, who, as the mother of a brood of her own, knew just how to coax the very best out of high school boys in her religion classes.
You bet it is their Church every bit as much as it is the Church of any cleric, titled or not. There remains an attitude problem, however, among the dominant male culture in leadership that always approaches any discussion of expanded roles for women in the Church with the proviso that ordination is off the table. Sounds like no DACA without the WALL! Or at least it has the same credibility. Time we changed the conversation from one that excludes first to one that honors prior contribution and looks forward to even more.

Catherine McKeen
8 months 1 week ago

How were the 1500 women selected for the survey? How was the survey formulated and was there an expected outcome? Was the intent to survey women already working in significant leadership roles in the Church?

Lisa Weber
8 months 1 week ago

I am glad to see this article about women in leadership in the church! We so need visible examples of women in leadership positions. I hope that we will soon have women deacons because we need women to be able to preach at Mass.

Joseph Clavijo
8 months ago

Tradition seems to be the glue which unites the faithful within the Roman Catholic Church in Christ, and that seems good and in fact lovely.
The authority within the Anglican Communion rests upon what we call the Three Legged Stool of: Scripture, Reason and Tradition. This added element of Reason is in fact the glue which unites, and sometimes temporarily separates those of us within the Anglican Communion.
One of the Fruits which have flowed from our Reasoning is Women priests and deacons.
Just as the Dominican Sisters played a significant role in my early Christian formation, so do these ordained women priests and deacons within the Episcopal Church continue to play significant roles in my adult formation.
We’re always in formation, we’re always in Reformation.
Blessings to all Roman Catholic women within the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church today, of which we all are ONE.

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