Catholic parishes should form outreach groups for women who feel unwelcome at church and strive to make sure women’s voices are heard when parishes make important decisions. Those are the takeaways from some Catholic leaders reacting to a recently published survey of Catholic women in America, which found growing levels of women disengaging from the church along with low-levels of women who agree “very much” that women are involved in the decision-making of their parish.
“Catholics are a family: we’re joined together by our baptism in Christ. Women are at the heart of that family in so many ways, and women's perspectives should be at the heart of conversations about how to build up the Church,” Kim Daniels, a member of the Vatican’s communications advisory body and a former spokeswoman for the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told America in an email.
Ms. Daniels said collecting data to understand the experiences of women in the church is “common sense” and that it “can help us think through how to convey our faith effectively so that we can better reach those we’re not reaching now.”
“The first step in reaching people is to listen to them,” she added.
"Women are at the heart of that family in so many ways, and women's perspectives should be at the heart of conversations about how to build up the Church."
Archbishop John Wester, who heads the archdiocese of Santa Fe, told America in a recent phone interview that he thinks parishes could do a better job of providing space for busy women who might not feel completely welcome at church.
“We live in an era now where both parents are working, or you have single moms who are working, and they’re trying to make ends meet. The kids are more active, they’re always in different clubs and organizations and classes and sports events. So there are all kinds of activities that women are monitoring and supervising. I just think that the religion, the faith, kind of gets lost in the shuffle,” he said.
To ensure that women feel welcome at church, he suggested parishes “reach out to women” and listen to their concerns.
“What are their challenges, what are the things that they're facing these days?” he asked. “Try to listen to them more, and then ask, how can the church help them, and how can we support them?”
Bishop Robert Barron, an auxiliary bishop in Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries, pointed to the “the Catholic Action model that was so prevalent in the period prior to Vatican II” as a possible model for engaging women.
“Gather people of similar backgrounds, experiences, and formation and teach them the method of ‘see, judge, and act,’” he wrote in an email to America. “So yes, parishes could bring together single mothers, widows, etc., and invite them to understand their lives in light of the Gospel. I would suggest that the leaders of these groups would then comprise a core group of disciples whose prayer, wisdom, and charismatic outreach would be invaluable to pastors and the parish community.”
Bishop Barron said the number of women walking away from the church “represents a serious challenge to evangelization, for, as you indicate, women have traditionally played a crucial role in passing on the faith.”
But, he said, he is “equally concerned about the massive attrition of men, for study after study have indicated that the fidelity of fathers and grandfathers has a substantive impact on the faithfulness of boys and young men.”
The number of women walking away from the church “represents a serious challenge to evangelization,” says Bishops Robert Barron.
When it comes to how women influence decision-making in the church, Archbishop Wester noted that women hold key roles in many dioceses and parishes. But he said at issue is a culture—not unique to the church—that might not take the insights of a woman as seriously as a man’s when it comes to big decisions.
“I sense that women still face barriers. Not that we intend there to be, but there are,” he said. “You'll notice at meetings, in the parish meetings, our parish councils, or liturgy committees, that a woman’s voice doesn't carry as much weight as a man's voice. I think that’s true in our culture.”
He said others may disagree with him, that if women are present there are not additional problems to rectify, but he contends that “deep down, it's hard to quantify it, it's hard to measure it, but I sense that it's true.”
According to the survey, just 18 percent of women felt “very much” that women are involved in the decision-making of their parish, with another 35 percent saying they somewhat agree.
“We're all children of God, and because of our Blessed Mother, we have so many connections to lifting up the importance of women, and so I think the church needs to take leadership in that.”
Bishop Barron said that in his experience, as a priest in Chicago and now as a bishop on the West Coast, women are heavily involved in the church’s decision making processes, though he added, “ It’s certainly true that, given the hierarchical constitution of the Church, the final call is typically made by the pastor or the bishop.”
Archbishop Wester said lay people, both women and men, need to take on leadership positions, saying “too few laity have a say in what goes on in their parishes.”
“Pastoral councils have to be more dynamic. They have take a leadership role. They have to be an integral part of how a parish is run, and they have to work closely with the pastor, and in a dialogical way, in a way that's complementary, and with the pastor really listening to them and working with them as they take leadership in the parish,” he said.
Regarding the crisis of women facing sexual harassment and the #MeToo movement, Archbishop Wester said the church should be a leader in demonstrating respect for women.
“I think the church has, by her very nature, a deep respect for women, because of our respect for life, and our belief that we're all created equally in God's eyes,” he said. “We're all children of God, and because of our Blessed Mother, we have so many connections to lifting up the importance of women, and so I think the church needs to take leadership in that.”
Bishop Barron noted that 90 percent of Catholic women said in the survey that they had not experienced sexism in the church, which made him “wonder whether any other organization could put up numbers as good as these.”
About 60 percent of Catholic women said they support ordaining women as deacons.
“Would 90% of women in the corporate world, in Hollywood, in government, in education say that they never experienced sexism? I doubt it,” he added. “I think these numbers indicate that, though we still have a lot to do to address the problems of sexism and misogyny in the Church, we have indeed come a long way.”
About 60 percent of Catholic women said they support ordaining women as deacons, an idea currently being studied by an international commission at the request of Pope Francis.
Archbishop Wester said he would welcome the idea—provided the church discovers it has the authority to make such a move. (The Catholic Church does not ordain women as priests, saying it does not have the authority to make such a move. The pope’s commission is currently studying whether the church historically ordained women as deacons and if such a move would be licit today.)
“First and foremost we have to ask, ‘Is it possible?’” Archbishop Wester said. “But, having said that, I would be delighted if the church would say, ‘We see now that we can do it.’ I would find that welcome news, because I think this is an area where women could serve the church very capably.”
For her part, Ms. Daniels said that holding up examples of women providing strong leadership in the church will go a long way toward encouraging other women to remain a part of the institution.
“Just look at the women profiled in this issue: they're models of how to live mercy, and faithfulness, and life in solidarity with others,” she said. “It’s this kind of witness to self-giving love—not expressed in abstract terms, but lived out among the particular circumstances of real people—that keeps people Catholic, and brings others home to the Church.”