Click here if you don’t see subscription options
Kaya OakesAugust 18, 2022
iStock illustration

In 1992, the author John Gray published Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. The book, which purported to help men and women communicate, has sold millions of copies. In it Gray posits that men verbally shut down and retreat to their “caves,” whereas women want to talk about their feelings. He also states that women have a silent “points system,” with which they award men for listening, whereas men tend to say one “big thing” and then coast on their banked points, only pretending to listen. Gray’s idea that these traits are based in biology was largely debunked by academics in the fields of communications and psychology, who pointed out that any gendered differences in speech were instead the result of social structures. But the myth that men and women have inherently different ways of speaking and listening persists today.

But while communication differences between genders may not be based on biology, they are real—and so are their effects on how men and women move through society. Dr. Rukhsana Ahmed, chair of the communication department at SUNY Albany and an expert on gender and communications, says that understanding the ways men and women communicate means first acknowledging some socially ingrained differences. A “lack of recognition of basic differences” in communication styles can lead to a cascade of miscommunication and misunderstanding, something Dr. Ahmed says occurs across professional settings.

These misunderstandings can be especially problematic in faith communities, where structural power and gender often go hand in hand. Sometimes this is obvious to those without power, as they struggle to be heard. Sometimes it is not obvious at all because those power structures are so ingrained that those without power do not expect to be heard. But poor communication for any reason can have a significant impact on how effectively our church communicates, both in terms of conveying the good news of the Gospel and in terms of communicating within the community. It is crucial that church leaders are trained to be good communicators, which also means being good listeners. This training is especially important for priests, whose communications skills (or lack thereof) often set the tone for a parish and establish expectations for how the parishioners communicate with their priests and with one another.

Acknowledging Our Differences

Most priests in the United States are trained in seminaries that exclusively educate men, which means in their classroom debates and discussion they may become accustomed to more traditionally male styles of speaking and listening.

When it comes to differences in male and female communication styles, Dr. Ahmed says it might sound clichéd that women are more emotive and men either “mansplain” or verbally shut down, but these habits are indeed common. From a young age, men and women are socialized in different “speech communities” by their families, further sorted into different speech communities by teachers in education and bosses in the workplace, and also join different speech communities when they socialize with their friends.

How we express ourselves within these communities is affected by how others perceive our gender. For example, “generally women would tend to be more expressive and relationship-focused, where men could tend to be more competitive” within their speech communities, Dr. Ahmed said. Social media, according to Dr. Ahmed, has become another mediating variable in our communication, and because of the way people of different genders communicate online, this too can lead to misunderstandings and miscommunications between men and women.

How we express ourselves within these communities is affected by how others perceive our gender.

There are approximately 3,500 seminarians in training for the priesthood in the United States today. There are also nearly 40,000 lay ecclesial ministers working in the parishes those priests will serve, and many of those ministers are women. In most parishes, women make up more than half of the population in the pews; and given population trends, women will likely continue to outnumber men in the United States for some time to come. This means that numerous situations exist in which communications problems can become a factor.

A church that is unwilling to recognize how communications styles might enhance or hinder its ministry will be unable to do the necessary work of addressing them. But a willingness to discuss how we discuss is crucial—especially in the formation of the men who will be priests. Committing to this discussion is vital to the formation of a functional, healthy and holy church in the years ahead.

Learning to Listen

A review of the websites of many American Catholic seminaries reveals two things. First, many Catholic seminaries are still accepting only male students, although there is nothing keeping seminaries from offering degrees to lay students as well as priests; and second, very few women teach in seminaries, even those seminaries that are co-educational. The balance of gender representation among faculty often is better at bigger schools with larger theology departments, which gives seminarians an opportunity to study with women who are experts in topics like the Bible, church history and moral theology. But the majority of seminarians will go into parish work after years of study that, however rigorous, have not included regular classroom conversation with any women about theology or ministry.

For men in seminary, they “probably don’t have experience in an interactional space” shared with women, according to Dr. Ahmed. For this reason, a supportive communication environment in classrooms is crucial. She said that male students often need to learn that a female classmate or professor also has a voice. Their bias may be unconscious, but it also means that male students often need to learn not only to listen, but also to ask questions; they also need to learn to ask women, whether classmates or professors or parishioners, for their thoughts and opinions.

Male students often need to learn that a female classmate or professor also has a voice.

In addition, Dr. Ahmed says men may need to be reminded not to judge women based on how they look or what their backgrounds are, but to instead focus on “dual perspectives” and trying to understand the environment from both points of view. This shift in perspective can help create a more professional context for communication.

Julie Hanlon Rubio is a professor of Christian social ethics at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley (where I have also taught), where Jesuit scholastics are educated alongside lay students, many of them women. She said that Jesuit scholastics arrive at the seminary near the end of their formation, whereas lay students, who are also eager to be trained as ministers, are often “not quite sure what form that ministry might take.” Many women who pursue a seminary degree will end up teaching in high schools or working in campus ministries at colleges, but the parish jobs many women sought in the 80s and 90s are not as available today. Sometimes, the different timelines in the students’ lives also result in age gaps between male seminarians and the lay female students that can also influence communication styles.

Dr. Rubio says emphatically that her male students have never been dismissive of her and are “incredibly respectful.” As a professor, she places an emphasis on “discussion as a social good.” In her classroom, she highlights the importance of intellectual humility and solidarity, which she says can simultaneously help draw out the less vocal or less confident students, whether they are seminarians or lay men or women. She also encourages students to meet her midway through the semester to talk specifically about their discussion skills. This helps ensure that students who tend to interrupt or talk over others are aware of this tendency and have time to work on better communication while still in the class.

Studying with women, whether as classmates and professors or by reading female authors, will help seminarians to “take those voices into their own theological communication in the future,” Dr. Rubio said. But it is also crucial to remember that women are not just in classes “so men can be better priests,” she said. Because of the diversity of voices and experiences in the classroom, men and women are not only better able to communicate; lay ministers and priests are prepared for “doing sacraments together, doing theology together.”

Communication and Clericalism

Dr. Gina Hens-Piazza, who teaches courses on the Hebrew Bible and the prophets at J.S.T., says that 20 years ago, the school made a commitment to educating students in non-classroom environments “in order to train students in contextual theology.” She says this has dramatically changed communication at the school. J.S.T. students work together outside of the classroom at community field sites and in parishes, where the familiar environment of the classroom disappears and students are confronted by different cultural settings and people with differing personal experiences. Dr. Hens-Piazza says this shift in perspective “undercuts and disrupts the well-learned patterns of the classroom, and students discover how much they need each other for input, insights and support.”

Too often there is a perception that the priesthood is “above” any role lay people can play in the church.

Getting to that point, however, can be a challenge for some men. This can be attributed, in part, to the enduring problem of clericalism. Too often there is a perception—whether because of ecclesiastical emphasis or a lack of understanding among the faithful—that the priesthood is “above” any role lay people can play in the church, despite the fact that the Second Vatican Council reaffirmed “the priesthood of all believers” in the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.”

In an article entitled “Do Women Really Talk More than Men?” the psychologist Catherine Aponte reports on a study that revealed “​​the amount that people talk is most likely related to the status of the person given the kind of setting in which the conversation occurs.” In a seminary classroom, a man who is training to be a priest will sometimes be seen as having a higher status than his female classmates by a professor or school dean. As a result, clericalism can affect communication in seminary classrooms just as much as it influences communication in churches.

Christopher McMahon, a theology professor who asked that his university not be named, attended an all-male seminary in Pennsylvania but left before being ordained, says that his opportunities for interactions with women during his time in seminary were very limited because there were few women on the faculty and none in class. Instruction on how to foster good communication with women parishioners or parish staff was “generally absent,” he says. As a result, Dr. McMahon said, interactions between female supervisors and seminarians at field sites and in parish settings were “often tense.”

Dr. McMahon said that many seminarians, accustomed to clerical environments in which men were in charge, found it difficult to adapt to communicating with women in leadership. Dr. McMahon recalled working at a summer camp with the seminarians and a group of novices from a women’s religious order. The novices, he says, were “​​generally older, smarter and more capable” than the seminarians, but the group dynamics were “strangely competitive” and tense because of communication issues.

Many seminarians, accustomed to clerical environments in which men were in charge, found it difficult to adapt to communicating with women in leadership.

Dr. McMahon later taught at an all male school before going on to teach in co-educational environments, where, he says, as a lay person who chose not to be a priest, “outside a clerical context my perspective has changed dramatically.” After years of working for women professors as a grad student and later teaching in a co-educational environment, he now finds it much easier to communicate with women in leadership positions, women students and women colleagues. As his communication community expanded beyond an all-male environment (although there were a “few bumps along the road”), today, he says of working with women, “I value their leadership far more than I did in seminary.”

As much as this experience of clericalism and its impact on communication might be an issue at some seminaries, other all-male seminaries are finding ways to integrate women into the seminary experience. The Rev. Damian Ference, who teaches at Borromeo Seminary, the diocesan college seminary in Cleveland, says that in both the college and major seminaries in the diocese, “although the seminarians themselves are all male, the seminary communities are not.” At the college seminary, students attend classes three days a week at John Carroll University, a co-educational Jesuit college, where they study with and take classes from women. The seminarians live in an all-male community, but Father Ference says “it is certainly not a monastic environment, although I do believe it is a prayerful one.” He adds that the seminarians at all levels “study with women, learn from women, and minister side-by-side with women at their apostolates and field education assignments.”

Father Ference adds that the need to build good communication skills between seminarians and women is something Pope Francis has also emphasized. In “Ratio Fundamentalis,” the Vatican guide to priestly formation, it is noted that because there will likely be more women than men in most parishes, “the presence of women in the seminary journey of formation has its own formative significance.”

The Rev. Andrew Turner, who also teaches in the Cleveland seminary, says the seminary recently received a grant from the Lilly Foundation “to better equip pastors, supervisors and parishioners to assist in the integrated formation of seminarians.” One consequence of this grant, Father Turner says, would be improved communication between seminarians and parish staff as well as parishioners as they accompany seminarians during formation.

Change From Within

Some seminary students are taking on the responsibility to work on a solution to the problem of communication issues. Claire Erlenborn, a third-year student at Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, has felt that her communication with seminarians has been “a very good experience of kind of getting to see each other’s vocations being worked out.”

Many women who attend seminary and try to communicate with male classmates still find communication challenging.

Ms. Erlenborn and a Jesuit classmate recently formed clericalism discussion groups, and it struck her that “we don’t have language” for women’s experiences of clericalism in the Catholic Church. She compares it to the ways white people have had to learn to recognize and deconstruct racial privilege, and says that in her discussion group, they have started to become more aware of microaggressions of clericalism that happen at the school and to develop a vocabulary to help identify those incidents. She also echoes Dr. Rubio when she says that understanding between men and women in the classroom can only be beneficial to both when they go on to do ministry, and that encouraging communication can help develop friendships that can lead men and women to see one another as “people that we can depend on and go to ask questions.”

Still, many women who attend seminary and try to communicate with male classmates still find communication challenging, especially within the context of vocation. Male lay students have usually discerned their own priestly callings, but women do not have space to talk about their more marginalized place in the church. Erin Bishop, who attended the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkley, says she was good friends with many seminarians, but that conversations about awakenings that happened because of feminist theology, for example, largely took place among women students and outside of classrooms. Ms. Bishop says the seminary did a good job of including her on committees and in writing for journals, but she was included as a lay student, and not specifically as a woman. In hindsight, she thinks the seminary “could have done more for me to help me understand and deepen my own identity as a woman called to ministry.” Improving communication between men and women in the church, she adds, “must prioritize women’s voices and experiences.”

Diane Walter studied at a midwestern seminary where many of her classmates were diocesan seminarians. Many of the priests and lay staff, she says, were good listeners and willing to step in when miscommunication occurred. But she says the diocesan seminarians she encountered talked to women in intrusive and bossy ways that mirrored the culture of clericalism. These men, she says, would sometimes ask inappropriate questions about her motives for being in seminary. As a married woman who could not have children due to endometriosis, she was met with some suspicion. Diocesan seminarians would ask why she was “not at home having numbers of children, or why I was ‘allowed’ to teach high school without having children of my own,” and even went so far as to suggest she should have become a religious sister to “spare her husband the shame” of not having children. Ms. Walter said she hoped the seminarians would realize the pain these questions could cause, but that she never received apologies for these comments, which led to further tension and breakdowns in communication.

One way to overcome these differences in speech communities is to think of the seminary as a space for creative and collaborative encounter.

Ms. Walter says the diocesan seminarians also did not listen to concerns from lay students about earning an income or maintaining health care while working for the church, and were often dismissive of lay students’ comments in class. Ms. Walter said she believes that priests should be “willing to listen” rather than dismiss “the most basic of human conditions and daily struggles,” and that pastoral work should involve giving people the “confidence to advocate,” which also involves developing an empathetic listening response.

Emotions and Empathy

Renée Roden, who volunteered to teach a theater workshop at St. Joseph’s Seminary and College in Yonkers, N.Y., in 2018, says the formation director there told her that part of why she was hired was that it would be beneficial for the seminarians to learn from a woman. And while she adds that many seminarians did not feel communication with women was a problem, being able to “express emotions freely” in the context of theater gave them a sense of relief. Ms. Roden says that, in seminary education, “a system of formation in which you are constantly being screened, scrutinized and evaluated,” the surveillance can undermine “human formation,” and as a result, lead to the loneliness many diocesan seminarians feel.

Anyone who has been a teacher knows that encouraging your students to talk in class is difficult, but encouraging your students to actually listen to one another and take in what the other person is saying can be even more difficult. But it is not impossible. One way to overcome these differences in speech communities is to think of the seminary as a space for creative and collaborative encounter. Dr. Rubio’s idea that the classroom is not a place to prepare students for different jobs in the church but rather for working together in the church is part of this reinvention. So too is Dr. Ahmed’s idea for men to try and understand the seminary environment from a woman’s point of view.

It takes courage for a woman to enter a seminary classroom dominated by male students or to strive for leadership roles in a parish or church where men are in charge. Future priests who demonstrate a willingness to be a listening ear and to practice communicating as an act of understanding can help create the sort of seminary culture that values and lifts up the contributions of women in the classroom or beyond. That can also mean clearer, more transparent, more loving and merciful communication in parishes, and in the broader church and the world—a shift that would benefit all of us.

Correction: Aug. 24, 11:34 a.m.: An earlier version of this article stated that Renée Roden's role at St. Joseph’s Seminary and College was paid. In fact, it was a volunteer role.

The latest from america

President Joe Biden's decision not to seek re-election is surprising—but don't call it unprecedented. It happened once before, in 1968.
James T. KeaneJuly 22, 2024
In her keynote address at the Eucharistic Congress, Gloria Purvis warned that disloyalty to Pope Francis, the sin of racism and putting political parties above God threaten the unity of the Catholic Church.
Gloria PurvisJuly 22, 2024
Close up shot of green olives, almonds and bread served on a dining table, to snack on as appetizer during a dinner party. (iStock/fotostorm)
In face-to-face conversations, Catholics can disagree without being disagreeable, moving beyond caricatures to better understand each other’s humanity and heart.
Tim BuschJuly 22, 2024
A Eucharistic pilgrimage from Indianapolis to Los Angeles is being planned for spring 2025, while congress organizers who had been discerning an 11th National Eucharistic Congress in 2033, are now considering planning the event even sooner.