I’ve been meeting with Vatican cardinals about women in the church. Here’s what needs to change
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.
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.