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.