Who Am I to Lead?: Female leadership for the 21st-century church

Carolyn Woo did not grow up imagining herself in a leadership role in the Catholic Church. But now she is president and chief executive officer of Catholic Relief Services, the international aid organization that reaches 93 countries and nearly 100 million of the world’s poorest people each year.

“I never knew what opportunities were there,” Woo says. It was not because of a lack of exposure to the robust lives of Catholic women. Woo was educated in Hong Kong by Maryknoll sisters, who had a profound impact on her view of the world and concern for the poor. But as a girl who saw herself instead one day as a married woman, she did not imagine that leadership might be possible for her in the church. Yet today, Ms. Woo is, in many ways, the very face of Catholic female leadership in the United States.

In the United States, Catholic women are deeply engaged at nearly all levels of Catholic life, starting in their home parishes. Women are not only more likely to show up in the pews in any given week, but a 2012 study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate found that at the local level, a majority (57 percent) of responding pastoral leaders were female, including lay and women religious serving on staff, pastoral councils, social ministries and other parish duties.

Women also are increasingly influential in roles of authority inside the church, working as pastoral associates, managing school and hospital systems, operating dioceses as chancellors and consulting with bishops as canon lawyers and communications experts. They run the “big three” social service organizations—health care, charities and relief. Women hold more than one-third of all Catholic college and university presidencies, a notably higher rate than that of female leadership at American universities at large (26 percent).

But in other areas there are challenges. For centuries, religious life provided for women a pathway to leadership in the church. Now, as the number of religious women decreases, there are fewer formal structures that train lay women for similar roles. Women often possess the experience and knowledge but lack the power to influence governing authorities. So with Pope Francis—whom The Boston Globe’s John Allen reported to be the first pope who ever had a woman as a boss—encouraging continued conversation about women in the church, many Catholics in the United States see a new era for engagement and with it a new vision for what female leadership in the church can be.

Female Leadership in the United States

“It’s good for the church and it’s good for those organizations; it’s good for those individuals,” when women like Carolyn Woo take the helm of formal leadership at Catholic institutions, explains Kathleen Maas Weigert, the Carolyn Farrell, B.V.M., Professor of Women and Leadership at Loyola University Chicago. The full involvement of Catholic women in institutional leadership roles, first largely by women religious and now by a new wave of educated lay women, is not just part of the rise of the laity following the Second Vatican Council, experts say. It is also a structural affirmation of how women historically have been central to the faith.

“The Catholic Church in America could not have developed into the institution it did without women religious, and in the end without lay women, too,” explains Dr. Margaret M. McGuinness, professor of religion at La Salle University, and author of Called to Serve: A History of Nuns in America. “At a time when most women were really restricted in what they could do...women religious stepped into that gap.”

Less constrained in public spaces than lay women, American women religious dedicated their entire lives to building up structures to serve the needy through health care centers, educational systems and orphanages. They had little self-consciousness about broader cultural conversations to come about the role of women in the world; instead they gained authority simply because they were the only ones doing the work. In radical pursuit of the Gospel, American women religious became de facto trailblazers.

From Sts. Elizabeth Seton, Frances Xavier Cabrini and Katharine Drexel to prominent present-day activists like Helen Prejean, C.S.J., and Carol Keehan, S.C., the names of Catholic women religious are now inextricably intertwined with American history. Lay women leaders of Catholic universities and social services organizations are entering a new age of female leadership, one that is indeed influenced by the culture’s ongoing debate over the role of women in the home and in the world.

Leadership does not begin at the top, nor is it exclusively the domain of those in formal authority. Catholic women remain the heartbeat of American parish life, and it would be a mistake, say many active female leaders, to dismiss the crucial contributions on the local level, which provides a training ground for future leadership.

“In a parish, for example, in Los Angeles that gets a lot of recent immigrants arriving—people come in from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador—you have incredible young women leading youth groups,” says Teresa Maya, C.C.V.I., congregation leader of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Tex. And like in many parishes across the United States, Maya says that Latino Catholic churches often see the majority of ministries run and operated by female volunteers. “If you go to more established Latino communities,” Maya says, the abuelitas of the parish run liturgical life and social ministries. “The parish priest is almost reporting to them.”

Bishops also sometimes defer to women on matters of their respective expertise; a growing number of women serve as diocesan chancellors, counseling church leaders on administrative matters crucial to the running of a diocese.

“I’ve never felt that my opinion hasn’t been valued or that something that I had to say at a meeting has been discounted because I was not a priest,” says Rita Ferko Joyce, chancellor of the Diocese of Pittsburgh and the first lay woman to serve as president of the Canon Law Society of America. Trained first as a civil lawyer and then, at the encouragement of a priest, as a canon lawyer, Ms. Joyce was also the first woman and layperson to serve as a marriage tribunal judge in Pittsburgh, where she evaluates canon law around annulment petitions and makes recommendations to priests. As a married woman, Ms. Joyce says, “I found that in the tribunal processes, I looked at things somewhat differently. I don’t apply the law differently. I just listen differently.”

 

A Clear Path?

Like Carolyn Woo, many Catholic women did not grow up imagining themselves in church leadership roles, because until recently lay women simply have not held them or because men, as priests, bishops, cardinals and popes, are often championed as the “true” church leaders—a worldview that even Pope Francis has questioned. More overt conflicts over the role of gender in appointing church leadership also inform the conversation.

“For women in secular society, if you want to be an astronaut, you want to be the first female president, the possibilities are endless,” explains Nicole Perone, who is 23 and a graduate student at Yale Divinity School, who serves as a lector, acolyte and eucharistic minister, among other roles in her parish. The lack of a similar path for female leadership in the church can be painful for some young women.

Around two thirds of American Catholics (68 percent) believe that the church should ordain women as priests, the Pew Research Center found in 2014. And many Catholics hold views on sexuality fundamentally at odds with official teaching: 77 percent support the use of contraception; 50 percent support same-sex marriage. Although Pope Francis and his predecessors have declared these matters settled, these discrepancies can profoundly affect the cultural divide between lay Catholics and the institutional church, particularly among younger Catholics.

“A lot of women flock in droves away from the Catholic Church and choose another denomination to be a part of that they feel is more inclusive of women,” Ms. Perone explains. She says she knows of 10 women studying religion at Yale who have left the Catholic Church because of their feeling of alienation from church teaching on gender and sexuality.

But for other women, church teachings on gender are less important than broader questions of lay involvement. “We don’t tend to say ‘we need more women’; we say ‘we need more smart, professional people,’” explains Bronwen Catherine McShea, a historian of early modern Europe and Western Christianity at Columbia University.

“There is a sense that there is room for better leadership, but that would include more courageous articulation and dissemination of the church’s official teachings on a range of matters, inclusive of the theology behind the consecrated priesthood, as well as more effective institutional governance and accountability on all levels,” rather than satisfying particular feminist demands, Professor McShea says.

Untangling priestly authority that is inherent in a sacramental understanding of the role from the cultural trappings of power is a challenge that Francis brought forth in “The Joy of the Gospel.” The priesthood, he wrote, “can prove especially divisive if sacramental power is too closely identified with power in general,” calling for an investigation into “the possible role of women in decision-making in different areas of the Church’s life.”

Fortunately for Francis and church reformers, many of the current crop of American female leaders have ideas about where to begin.

What Is at Stake

After Dr. Julie H. Sullivan became the first layperson and the first woman to serve as president of the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., she was surprised to be approached by so many women thanking her for taking the position. As the female leader of a once all-male institution, Ms. Sullivan says: “You have to understand the special responsibility that you have for helping young women—not only students but faculty, staff, alumni—understand that they belong in these roles. You have to help them see themselves in these roles. They see themselves in these roles by watching you.” It is that type of leadership modeling and mentoring that both secular and church leaders see as essential.

Before she was head of Catholic Relief Services, Carolyn Woo was dean of the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame, where she also researched corporate and competitive strategy, entrepreneurship, management of innovation and change, and organizational systems. She thinks the Catholic Church might do well to borrow from the corporate world’s diversity initiatives, which start by recognizing a demographic need, identifying and developing a pool of candidates, mentoring and training them, and, finally, even requiring quotas or mandates. It also means that women should not be discouraged from questioning authority, she says.

In the 1980s, Ms. Woo was the only woman serving on a diocesan committee when initial reports of a case of sexual abuse of children by clergy emerged from another region. When she asked whether the group needed to look at the cause of the abuse and whether it was present in their diocese, she was told to not speak out. “The response that came back to me was, ‘Carolyn, this is a matter for the brother priest, and this would not be the forum for discussion.’”

Ms. Woo also sees the tragic impact of sexism present in her work in the developing world, where women are often subject to the rule of their husbands and face a lack of basic rights to land and inheritance. In Africa, C.R.S. began a program called Faithful House to work with couples, helping them “to communicate with each other, training for them to then understand and respect each other.” This is the kind of constructive, life-giving partnership that Ms. Woo hopes will be present in broader church conversations about the role of women. The church also can help the secular world to recognize the unique role of mothers in their families, by advocating for maternity leave, flexible work and family-centered policies. For the secular and Catholic worlds, building up a new generation of female leaders is a process that takes time, She explains: “It’s a journey that begins with society recognizing what is not right when the feminine genius is not being used.”

Correction: June 8, 2015

Helen Prejean, C.S.J., was initially misidentified at Helen Prejean, R.S.M. Sister Prejean is a member of the Sisters of the Congregation of St. Joseph, not the Religious Sisters of Mercy. 

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Paul Ferris
2 years 4 months ago
I am happy to read that so many women are in leadership roles but Catholic mothers have been left behind by constant reinforcement of Humanae Vitae by the hierarchy which endangers women's lives.
Martin Eble
2 years 4 months ago
Humanae Vitae, founded on the written Word of God, constantly preserved and applied in the Tradition of the Church, set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium (cf. Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium 25, 2), was nothing new. It simply reaffirmed the teaching of the Catholic Church regarding married love, responsible parenthood, the sanctity of life, the procreative and unitive nature of conjugal relations, and the continued rejection of most forms of birth control. The prohibition of contraception and abortion dates back to Church Fathers such as Clement of Alexandria and Saint Augustine. Pope Pius XI wrote the encyclical Casti connubii (On Christian Marriage) in 1930, reaffirming the Catholic Church's belief in various traditional Christian teachings on marriage and sexuality, including the prohibition of artificial birth control. Between 1980 and 1984, Pope St. John Paul II delivered 129 addresses fully vindicating Humanae vitae. The "hierarchy", that is the teaching office of the Church, cannot change the conclusions of Humanae Vitae because it is a teaching, not an opinion. As Paul VI wrote in that very document: "Since the Church did not make either of these laws, she cannot be their arbiter - only their guardian and interpreter. It could never be right for her to declare lawful what is in fact unlawful, since that, by its very nature, is always opposed to the true good of man."
ed gleason
2 years 4 months ago
Martin Eble You seem to never use the words 'ex cathedra' when you proclaim your insistent and ever- extending claims about what's infallible. With the above quoted percentage of Catholic women using birth control even a HS student would advise the Pope to declare, if the Pope wanted more clarity on this issue, to give us a one sentence proclamation that Humanae Vite is infallible.. Your constant infallibility proclamations' are not 'ex cathedra' either...they are more off the top of the head. ..
Martin Eble
2 years 3 months ago
Ex cathedra definitions are the least common exercise of infallibility. The most common exercise of infallibility is the the ordinary and universal Magisterium (cf. Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium 25, 2) proclaiming from the Deposit of Faith which is itself infallible. https://www.ewtn.com/library/CURIA/CDFADTU.HTM "6. The second proposition of the Professio fidei states: ‘I also firmly accept and hold each and everything definitively proposed by the Church regarding teaching on faith and morals.' The object taught by this formula includes all those teachings belonging to the dogmatic or moral area, which are necessary for faithfully keeping and expounding the deposit of faith, even if they have not been proposed by the Magisterium of the Church as formally revealed." "Such doctrines can be defined solemnly by the Roman Pontiff when he speaks 'ex cathedra' or by the College of Bishops gathered in council, or they can be taught infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium of the Church as a ‘sententia definitive tenenda'. Every believer, therefore, is required to give firm and definitive assent to these truths, based on faith in the Holy Spirit's assistance to the Church's Magisterium, and on the Catholic doctrine of the infallibility of the Magisterium in these matters. Whoever denies these truths would be in a position of rejecting a truth of Catholic doctrine and would therefore no longer be in full communion with the Catholic Church." The Catholic who rejects the ordinary and universal Magisterium is hardly going to be persuaded by a one sentence proclamation that Humanae Vite is infallible or Pope St. John Paul II's 129 addresses fully vindicating Humanae Vitae. Your argument is directly with the Church's teaching authority, not with me.
Lisa Weber
2 years 4 months ago
We need leadership specifically for the feminine side of the church. Men in the church hierarchy cannot see what the women in the pews experience because they are looking from a position of power - everyone is on their best behavior when they are around. We have no women leaders with a mandate from the women to be our leaders - to speak for us or to govern in any way. This disconnect between leadership and the governed on the feminine side of the church may be a large part of the reason that so many people have left the church: my personal experience supports that theory. Women leaders for the women should be elected by the women. Leaders would then be accountable to those they lead. Women in the pews would have a much greater voice in advising the men in the church hierarchy because those who speak for the women would be chosen by the women. If one's intuitive sense is that election of women leaders would greatly change the face of women's leadership in the church, it is because the women's leadership needs to change radically.
Jack Rakosky
2 years 4 months ago
Carolyn Woo has it right: “borrow from the corporate world’s diversity initiatives, which start by recognizing a demographic need, identifying and developing a pool of candidates, mentoring and training them, and, finally, even requiring quotas or mandates.” This is true for lay men as well as lay women. It is a laity issue as much or even more than a women’s issue. Vatican II asked for laity to have increasingly responsible roles in the Church. It has always seemed very obvious to me that the reason we have fewer vocations to the priesthood and religious life in the developed world is that the Holy Spirit is inspiring less vocations because laity are supposed to take up many of roles formerly done by priests and religious. In the USA we should have been doing this for decades for all our Catholic institutions.
Luis Gutierrez
2 years 4 months ago
This article is another admirable, and surely well intentioned, attempt to rationalize away the need to ordain women to the priesthood. This is not about the dignity of women, or about recognizing the leadership qualities of women, or about valuing the "feminine genius," or about how women feel, or about how men feel, or about any other sociological factor. This is about the fact that, according to the creed we profess, the church is "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic," but not necessarily male-apostolic. It is about allowing apostolic succession to be *vocation-based* as opposed to gender-based. It is about allowing the Lord to call women to sacramental, priestly ministry if He so desires. The male-only priesthood may have been a reasonable practice for the past 2000 years, but not once we recognize that it is an artificial contraceptive of female priestly vocations. When are we going to give the Lord a chance to include the "feminine genius" in the church hierarchy?
Martin Eble
2 years 4 months ago
Over two decades ago a formal declaration from the Chair of Peter was made that the ordination of women was not possible in the past, not possible now, and will not be possible in the future citing the infallible ordinary and universal Magisterium that a male only priesthood is to be held always, everywhere, and by all, as belonging to the deposit of the faith. As Catholics were are seriously obliged to accept the Church's teaching on this matter, a teaching which is not a discipline and is irrreformable. http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19951028_dubium-ordinatio-sac_en.html
Anne Chapman
2 years 4 months ago
None of this eliminates the need for the church to open all sacraments to all Catholics. It doesn't matter how many colleges, hospitals, or international NGOs affiliated with the Roman Catholic church are now run by women. Until women are equal to men in the church as priests, these women are simply high-level administrators and executives. They can be overruled in any decision they make by a male cleric. Carolyn Woo is prohibited from helping the poor women served by CRS with modern contraception. Even though she clearly understands the abuse that occurs, and is doing her best to teach men to respect their wives, she also knows that "N"FP will not work in many of these cultures and that women who refuse their husband's sexual desires during her fertile period risks physical abuse. She knows that the maternal mortality rate in some countries is one in eight. She knows all of these things but she can't do anything because the male clerics forbid it. The top level woman in any diocese cannot do anything her boss does not want her to do. So if, for example, a lesbian couple wishes to enroll their child in a Catholic school, the bishop will decide. In some dioceses, the answer is no. In others, it might be yes. It's all up to the Bishop. So if a woman is head of the Diocese's school system and, as a mother, has a lot of compassion and concern for children, and she believes it is not moral to turn away the children of gay couples, she can be over-ruled in a nano-second by the bishop. Until women are bishops they cannot govern. They cannot make any decision except with the approval of the male cleric. Finally, women must be priests in order to become part of the tiny group that defines teachings. All those young women at Yale Divinity school who have left the Catholic church because of teachings represent thousands, maybe millions of women (and men) who have left the Catholic church and are continuing to leave because of teachings related to gender, marriage, sexuality, family. These are teachings that have been defined exclusively by male celibates, whose understanding is limited by the simple fact that they are male celibates. Their interpretation of scripture reflects their own understanding and excludes the understanding of women, of all laity, married or single, straight or gay, parents or non-parents. Unless the church figures out a way to actually bring in the understanding and insights of THE church into its doctrines, those doctrines will be suspect. So women have left. Women are leaving, and especially young adult women. All the data support this. Promoting women to head colleges and charities and to be Chancellors of Dioceses is not enough.
Lisa Weber
2 years 4 months ago
The points you make about the male clerics being unable to see the feminine side of the church are true. However, my experience is that the most significant problems in the church are not the ones associated with the male clerics but with the women they put into leadership positions at the local level. The women in the church have no leadership that they have chosen themselves. We have women leaders in some positions but they do not represent the women in the pews nor are they expected to provide women's leadership. No one wants to look at or talk about this problem, but it is the reason that there is not much support for making women priests or bishops. The last thing I would support is for women to be ordained as priests until we have women leaders specifically chosen and formed to lead women, and they are able to effectively lead women. Until we successfully learn that aspect of leadership, women are not ready to be priests or bishops.
Martin Eble
2 years 4 months ago
Those who will not be pleased unless and until the sacrament of Orders is opened to women will be unable to find happiness in either the Catholic Church or the Orthodox Communion. Both have examined the Sacred Tradition and found that the Church lacks the authority to change the sacrament to suit modern dispositions and secular feminist ideology. http://americamagazine.org/issue/who-am-i-lead#comment-72365 In the Catholic Church teaching authority does not adhere to graduation from Yale Divinity school because teaching authority is a charism, not an academic avocation. St. Peter was a fisherman, not a a theologian. While women - and men - have left, the Catholic Church is not trying to win a popularity contest. It is charged with teaching the Faith, hard or not, liked or not, popular or not.
Bill Mazzella
2 years 4 months ago
The talent was always there. An incredible suppression stifled it. Only in the last 50 are we giving Mary Magdalene here due as a giant in the church. Paul also mentions all those effective female leaders in the church. Thankfully, we are able to glean that from the texts. But, as Elizabeth Johnson points out (with many others) there must have been tons of others that never got into the texts.

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