Click here if you don’t see subscription options
October 16, 2013

In Brazil for World Youth Day, Pope Francis met with the national bishops on July 28 and described challenges facing the church there: “Let us not reduce the involvement of women in the church, but instead promote their active role in the ecclesial community.” By losing women, Francis said, the church “risks becoming sterile.” We could not have said it better ourselves.

Five women colleagues in Catholic philanthropy and I have had the rare privilege to meet privately with prefects of pontifical congregations and presidents of pontifical councils. The purpose of our meetings with the cardinals in Rome, the highest ranking leaders in the Catholic Church, is specific in its simplicity: to discuss the role of women in the church and opportunities to elevate women to positions of meaningful leadership in the Roman Curia.

We are professional women who care deeply about the church and represent families with decades of service to the global church. We have studied Catholic theology at the master’s and doctoral levels, immersed ourselves in ecclesiology and canon law, raised our children in our faith and dedicated our lives to serving the church philanthropically. We have seen the church at its best: women and men, ordained, religious and lay, living lives of breathtaking holiness, championing justice, alleviating suffering, providing catechesis, education and health care, extending mercy and hope and promoting peace. These women and men are Christ-like, and through them the world is made aware of God’s presence. And because we are radically dedicated to helping the church thrive, we pay particular attention when the church fails to live up to its potential or manifests ignoble qualities: arrogance, exclusivity, fear, control, clericalism or poor management. When these qualities fracture trust, alienate people hungry for the Gospel, compromise sacramental life and result disproportionately in women and young adults turning away from the church, we are heartbroken.

A Conversation Begins

Chantal Götz, the effective and visionary president of the Fidel Götz Foundation based in Liechtenstein, has continued her family’s tradition of cultivating relationships with Vatican leaders to better inform the impact of their philanthropy. The Götz family sagely observed that it would be of mutual benefit for young women representing their family’s Catholic foundations and cardinals representing the Roman Curia to meet and to form relationships to better serve the church. In October 2007 we embarked on our first weeklong series of private meetings with cardinals in Rome to advocate for women.

It was fortuitous that earlier in his pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI lamented the dearth of women in senior-level positions in the Roman Curia. We were eager to respond to his dismay and to promote concrete examples of his subsequent prophetic call for laity to be co-responsible for the church.

My colleagues and I learned a long time ago that to do nothing is to be complicit, so we welcomed the opportunity to go to Rome to promote the role of women. Our passion for this goal comes, in part, from the belief that women deserve to be equally valued, to experience being equally valued and to be entrusted with leadership and decision-making responsibilities in the church. The dignity of the human person, equally accorded, is at the heart of Christianity. Yet our passion for these conversations is also deeply rooted in our conviction that valued female leadership is what the church deserves and needs in order to grow in its potential and to be more effective in its mission. By failing to attend properly to the leadership of women, the church misses out on the talent of half of the people made in the image and likeness of God to further its mission. Women bring unique experiences and alternative approaches to challenges. When companies and governments augment the percentage of women in leadership, prosperity increases. The church would likewise benefit, in terms of spiritual riches.

As evidence of the cardinals’ receptivity, we have been invited back on several occasions. The most recent meeting took place this month. We have been received with genuine warmth and interest in our analysis of the challenges and concomitant recommendations. We met each president at his dicastery, and often had an opportunity to meet his senior staff. We were admitted to the papal palace and celebrated the Eucharist in the crypt of St. Peter’s Basilica, and we were most grateful for the sincerity with which the cardinals listened and took seriously these discussions.

We have met with the secretaries of state, including the newly appointed Archbishop Pietro Parolin; the prefects of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Congregation for Bishops; the presidents of the Council for Justice and Peace; the Council for Promoting Christian Unity; the Council for Interreligious Dialogue; the Council for Culture; and the Council for Social Communications; as well as the president of Caritas Internationalis; the secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship; the general director of Vatican Radio and the director of the Press Office of the Holy See, among others.

Our thesis is this: When a young Catholic woman, particularly from the West, looks at the landscape of her professional life, she knows that she can reach high levels of leadership in any sector or industry. But when that same woman discerns a vocation of service to the church she loves, she is more often met with limitations on her leadership. She finds she cannot bring her full complement of competencies to bear on serving the church. So she turns her attention instead to the secular world, where she can excel, be promoted, be appreciated, lead and serve fully. The church becomes less and less relevant to her and by extension becomes increasingly less relevant to her children, both boys and girls. Without these highly talented, accomplished women, the whole church is impoverished.

Practical Solutions

During our visits practical solutions are proffered in earnest and discussed in detail: Expand the number of women in professional roles in each dicastery. Increase the number of women who serve on advisory councils to each pontifical congregation and council, and expand the pool of candidates who are called to serve in such advisory roles. Restore women to diaconal ministry. Appoint women to the diplomatic corps and to the communications apostolate. Ensure in the selection of bishops that criteria include a candidate’s ability to relate well to women. Review the current Lectionary and reclaim the many Scriptural passages with women as protagonists that have been left out of the readings heard at Mass. Ponder the effect and impact such exclusion has had over time in the catechesis and participation of women and girls in the life of the church.

We also address the perceptions many have of the church with regard to its treatment of women. One suggestion is to consider as a theme for the pope’s next celebration of the World Day of Peace on Jan. 1, “The Church in Solidarity with Women and Girls.” Perceptions matter. If many perceive that the church leans toward exclusion, then the church should address and correct that perception head on. We fell in love with the church in large part because of its profound witness to the dignity of the human person and its advocacy for those in need. Women and children are disproportionally affected by poverty, disease, war and famine. They, the most vulnerable, are the face of humankind for whom the church extends the preferential option. We discussed providing resources for journalists at Vatican Radio and other media to cover life-giving initiatives being made by women all over the globe to alleviate poverty, eradicate human trafficking and educate the poor—like the heroic women religious in Syria, who at great personal risk remain in the country to care for orphans. These are the stories of faith in action, stories of mercy and courage that inspire us to be better people.

In our meetings with Vatican officials we have been impassioned advocates for women religious. Over the decades of our collective families’ philanthropy, it is women religious who have been center stage as part of the most compelling, courageous and effective ministries globally. Promoting, celebrating and expressing gratitude for their lives, leadership and example is right and just.

Our discussions and recommendations include the aspirational and practical. We offer simple, immediate steps that can be taken and more detailed projects requiring hard work and perseverance. A practical proposal we have championed is providing day care at the Vatican so that parents and especially mothers of young children who work there have safe, reliable and convenient child care. Likewise we have recommended that a network of women working in the Vatican be formed to support and promote one another.

We recognize that there are far more ideas worthy of consideration and action, and we encourage a global discussion among the faithful. What are the obstacles that might be removed in order to appoint lay women to the College of Cardinals? Perhaps Pope Francis could invite women to join his committee of advisors on reforming the Curia. Perhaps he could establish a Council for the Promotion of Women in the Church, and recruit women (and men) from every continent to serve.

The church should make use of the expertise of women religious who have served in congregational leadership at the international level. Must leadership in each and every instance require ordination? For symbolic reasons alone these appointments would be stunning, but also the decisions would reflect how much the church stands to benefit from such perspective and expertise. Strategies for evangelization would be significantly strengthened by the input of women. Women can help our beloved church be holier, more effective, more relevant, more welcoming and more faithful in its mission.

We point to successful efforts that promote the active participation of women in the church. Often we have been made aware of these examples through our philanthropy. We note the growing number of women who serve as chancellors and other senior diocesan leaders as a positive development. A fundamental precept is that it matters who is invited to sit at the table of responsibility and decision-making. Diversity of perspective and experience is advantageous. We are haunted by the conviction that had parents, especially mothers, been at the table when decisions were being made during the sexual abuse crisis of the church, outcomes would have been different.

In the United States the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management, of which I serve as executive director, advocates for the role of laity, particularly senior executive leaders from the secular world whose financial acumen, managerial expertise, human resource experience and communications skill could benefit the church. Complex, temporal challenges facing church leaders are solved with the assistance of these experienced and committed leaders. In the decade since the roundtable was formed, we have been acutely aware of a byproduct of this involvement by the laity: evangelization. This is an important lesson. When a professional woman is recognized for the skill, expertise and competencies she possesses and is invited to share those talents in service to the church, she is far more likely to be invested and committed.

Eager for Leadership

It is not just senior-level executive women the church risks losing. There are many well-educated young women who are capable of and eager for leadership in the church. Many young adults have a positive experience of church while at college, but upon graduation drift away from the church. For years it has been argued that they will come back when they marry, have children or experience a crisis. Never mind what a poor strategic plan this is. The fact is: It is not working. To address this challenge directly, Saint Thomas More Catholic Chapel and Center at Yale University, along with the Leadership Roundtable, created Esteem (Engaging Students to Enliven the Ecclesial Mission), a young adult leadership formation program currently on 12 campuses in the United States. Guided by a year-long curriculum and matched with mentors in their vocational fields of interest, the best and brightest Catholic students are prepared for leadership on parish pastoral councils, diocesan finance councils and boards of trustees of Catholic nonprofits immediately upon graduation. Preparing and inviting young adults to lend what they do best in service to the church in leadership roles keeps them engaged in the church more deeply and for much longer, and their visibility in turn communicates to other young adults that they are valued. And the church benefits.

We want to encourage all who have the best interest of the church at heart to join in contributing to this wider conversation, begun by generations preceding us, and offer creative ideas, practical solutions and diverse perspectives. We encourage sons, fathers, husbands, deacons and pastors to lift up their mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, nieces and women colleagues in ministry and be a part of this dialogue and advocacy. Let us turn our deliberations into action and hold ourselves accountable. Let us give faithful, articulate and prophetic voice to the importance of baptismal rights and responsibilities of every member of the church, and be part of the global transformation of consciousness that celebrates, invites, affirms and encourages the leadership of women in service to the church’s mission.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Luis Gutierrez
10 years 9 months ago
With regard to the priestly ordination of women, the door is closed but not locked, and it can be opened at any time by using the power of the keys given by Christ to the Church. The lack of female presence in the hierarchy of the church is doing severe damage to both women and men in both church and society, as it perpetuates the patriarchal mindset of male hegemony. As May Daly pointed out years ago: "The Church has been wounded in its structures, for it has deprived itself of the gifts and insights of more than half of its members. It has been grievously hurt in its members of both sexes, for in a society which welcomes and fosters prejudice, not only is the human potential of the subject group restricted, but the superordinate group also becomes warped in the process." The exclusively male priesthood is an obstacle to integral human development. It has nothing to do with revealed truth. It is rooted in the same patriarchal culture that corrupted the original unity of man and woman (Cf. Genesis 3:16) and is now disrupting the harmony between humanity and the human habitat. Just as we are now aware that slavery and racism are moral evils, we must become aware that gender discrimination is a moral evil that must be eradicated if solidarity and sustainability are to be attained. The need to reform patriarchal structures applies to both secular and religious institutions. Overcoming patriarchy is a "sign of the times" to the extent that it fosters authentic gender solidarity and nonviolence for the good of humanity and the glory of God. Given the enormous influence of religious traditions, it is especially critical for religious institutions to extirpate any semblance of male hegemony in matters of doctrine and religious practices. It is hard to imagine Pope Francis, or anyone else, getting the Vatican off the hook gracefully on this issue. But, just like a woman cannot be 50% pregnant, this is an either/or situation. Either a woman can be a successor of the apostles, or she cannot. If the exclusively male priesthood is revealed truth, let's properly define it as such. Else, the church must have the courage and the humility to recognize that doing something wrong for 2000 years is no justification to keep doing it. Just dancing around the issue is no longer credible. Lord have mercy!
Rick Sherman
10 years 9 months ago
Could intelligent and mature women please advise the clergy at all levels about how they can teach young women and men more effectively about human sexuality? We have to do something about the 50% unwed pregnancy rate among women 30 and under in the US. This sets women up for lives of poverty and increased marginalization. Could this be the number ONE womens' issue in the US today, inside and outside of the Church? How can women reach out to women? After 40+ years, artificial contraception doesn't seem to be the answer. Perhaps see the 'loving naturally' article in today's issue.
Robert O'Connell
10 years 9 months ago
Reading the preceding comments prompts me to make two of my own: (1) whether the door is closed but not locked on women being ordained as priest, we seem to be getting much closer to a Church that "celebrates, invites, affirms and encourages the leadership of women in service to the church’s mission" and (2) reading this article, indeed this whole issue of America, teaches me about women who are doing amazing things that I had never heard about before. Thank you!
10 years 9 months ago
Chantal Gotz, Kerry Robinson and company are to be applauded for using their financial leverage to gain access to what have traditionally been the power centers of the Vatican. They are equally to be applauded for using their philanthropic platforms to promote the larger issues around the role of women at those levels of the institutional church. Their unparalleled access gives them an unparalleled responsibility. Money speaks, especially in the church, and the very presence of these young women who now control their family foundations ought to alert the men in the Vatican to something we women have always known....these days it is the women in the family who most often have the greatest influence not only on the spiritual riches of which Ms. Robinson speaks but clearly on the way the temporal riches of their family are distributed. I wish them success in their efforts but I also hope that in the time of a Pope Francis a woman will not have to be head of a foundation in order to have this level of access and conversation.
Nicholas Clifford
10 years 9 months ago
It would be an interesting mind game to play if we were to ask whether the Church would be in quite the mess it finds around it today -- at least in the West -- if more women had held higher positions of authority and leadership. Would they have tolerated, for example, turning quite such a blind eye as Rome has to child abuse? Might they at least have had suggestions about how to stem the massive numbers of defections from the Church that we have seen in Europe and North America? The managerial style of women appears to have been quite effective in helping to minimize the harmful effects of parochial male-only leadership in a number of fields, including governance. Might the Church now be humble enough to learn from others? As for women priests: yes, it certainly sounds as if John Paul II and Benedict XVI pretty well slammed the door on such ideas. But then the historical record is full of examples of the Church making U-turns as knowledge of doctrine develops. Are we honest enough to admit this?
Mia Crosthwaite
10 years 9 months ago
I just asked my 12yo daughter if she planned on being Catholic when she grew up. She said she didn't know. I asked if it would make a difference if women were priests. She said it would, that she'd probably be more faithful to the Church. Wow. I think you nailed it.
Marie Rehbein
10 years 9 months ago
I recently decided that my daughter should be confirmed whether she likes it or not. I have come to feel that the sacrament of Confirmation isn't about affirming the Catholic Church, but that, similar to baptism, it is a conferring of the power of the Holy Spirit upon the individual. My daughter knows about Jesus and his teaching, and now she needs the help of the Holy Spirit, just like the followers of Jesus at Pentecost, so that she can carry out God will. The reason she gave for not wanting this is that she cannot believe everything that the Church teaches. Well, it really isn't about what the Church teaches about itself or the judgments it makes about people she befriends or the disciplines it puts forth for its members to follow; it's about being able to share Christ with those around her, isn't It?
Christopher Rushlau
10 years 9 months ago
I was going to ask Ms. Robinson where she thought this exclusion of women in/by the Roman church sprang from. This statement from JPII raises the question of where he derived, doctrinally, the authority to ordain men. Following the natural law progression of thought, it would seem implicit in that reasoning that women are not entirely human, else their reasons and reasoning would be as significant as men's, which would have an effect on who debated this issue and to what result--without going all the way to a show of hands. But, aren't basic constitutional questions also the most amenable to direct democracy: don't the axioms of any system necessarily command the most immediate assent? Isn't "I know I am here" as a basic natural law principle something that every person can subscribe to, for example? So where does "women are excluded from leadership" stem from and where does it stand on natural law reasoning? Let me quote Dean of the College of Saint Joseph's College in Maine Sister Dolores, RSM, Ph.D. to me in a hallway when I was pursuing Catholic studies after already gaining a BA at a very Protestant school and experiencing the real world of Peace Corps in Kenya. This was about 1981. Kenya then was apparently much as it is now, both internally and as a US aircraft carrier, as it were. She quipped to me, more or less out of the blue, but I was probably talking about how trustworthy Catholic leaders must be (or else, what was I doing there?), "Some of the most evil men I've ever met were Jesuits." Not just a quip, no. Since then I've met several Jesuits, in person and via their communications. I know what she meant. Now there's a natural law principle, akin to the principle of "I know what I saw".
Bill Mazzella
10 years 9 months ago
As important as Kerry's contribution to advocating women in leadership, we should not overlook the subject of leadership in the church. Which Kerry's group has a lot to say about. http://theleadershiproundtable.org/churchepedia/default.asp Leadership groups were common after Vatican II. But lazy pastors under the cover of orthodoxy eventually made all such groups scarce. The Leadership Roundtable is something all of us might rally around since it is very detailed in bringing true leadership into the parishes and dioceses. Click the URL I provided and check it out.
Mary FioRito
10 years 9 months ago
Whether it's written by a man or a woman, I am always a bit disheartened when the word "leadership" is used, even conversationally, more than the word (or even in place of the word) "service." If we could all speak a bit more about who gets to serve whom, rather than who gets to be in charge of whom, maybe we'd have a clearer idea of what it means to be a person of influence in the Church.
Effie Murphy
10 years 9 months ago
Hi Mary, There are two ways of looking at leadership. One is "who is in charge" and the other is guiding. The impression I got from this article is that the leadership in question is not about power, it's about making sure we don't lose our way.
Beth Cioffoletti
10 years 9 months ago
I totally agree, Mary. The same way that we idolize money and power in the secular world, we assume that the same structure holds for the Church. If the Church is to be radically true, it's going to turn the structure upside down and "leadership" will be from the bottom. This is how we will find our way. Women are in a good position for being a part of this upheaval, especially now with Pope Francis giving them their place at the table.

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.