Signs of the Times: Women in Church and Society

Marie Dennis In the Headlines

The essay below is the tenth in a series of “Franciscan Response” reflections by friars and partners-in-ministry about issues facing our culture. The series is part of Holy Name Province’s response to the call to revitalize Franciscan life and ministry in the United States — a key objective of the leaders of the American OFM provinces. 

These reflections are meant to provide social analysis as part of the many considerations involved with creating a preferred future for the Franciscans of the United States. Because it is hoped that this initiative generates dialogue, friars are encouraged to provide comments about the content of the essays in the series. These essays do not represent the official policy of Holy Name Province.

Believing that every person is endowed with immense and equal dignity because he or she is a beloved child of God, Catholic social teaching is clear that the basic rights of women should not be abridged. John Paul II in his Letter to Women in 1995 wrote “Women’s dignity has often been unacknowledged and their prerogatives misrepresented; they have often been relegated to the margins of society and even reduced to servitude.” He apologized for ways that the Church participated in this oppression and lifted up Jesus’ way of honoring the “dignity which women have always possessed according to God’s plan…”

Although the Church tends to frame the place of a woman in society in ways that do not reflect U.S. women’s experience or vocation, the basic premise of women’s essential dignity should be a solid basis for just practice in the Church, but too often it is not.

The Vatican’s recent doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) and the Apostolic Visitation of Institutes of Women Religious in the United States are examples, although both ultimately highlighted in an extremely important way the enormous contribution of women religious and of women in general to the Church.

Many of the finest Catholic theologians, most faithful workers in impoverished communities, most creative liturgical musicians/artists and most dedicated parish volunteers are women. Women are currently leading three of the large Catholic organizations in the United States: Catholic Relief Services, Catholic Charities and the U.S. Catholic Health Association.

In the last century, U.S. women have taken significant strides toward equality with men — more so than in some other parts of the world — but familiar statistics demonstrate that we still have a long way to go. Examples include the pay gap between men and women in the same positions and the fact that women so often carry a much higher proportion of childcare and homemaking responsibilities than men, even when both partners are employed elsewhere full time. Our experience as women in the U.S. Catholic Church makes clear that a tremendous gap also remains in the institutional Church between teaching and practice.

Some areas that need attention in the Church reflect the national trends. For example, according to The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, women earn 11 cents less on the dollar than men as parish employees and because most high-level positions of influence in the Church are still tied to ordination, significantly fewer women than men serve in high-level diocesan positions such as chancellor (31 percent are women) or chief financial officer (16 percent are women).

But there are other significant — some more personal — expressions of exclusion that are acutely felt by U.S. Catholic women. For example:

  • English-speaking women have been saying for at least 50 years that gender exclusive language is alienating. We are not part of “mankind” or included with “all men.” Whether during the celebration of Eucharist or at other times of prayer or even in reading the remarkable documents of Catholic social teaching, the experience of exclusion for women is constant.
  • Despite sound theological reflection on the feminine attributes of God, these are most often lost in prayer and liturgical celebration.
  • Important stories of women such as Phoebe (Romans 16) or Lois and Eunice (2 Timothy 1:5) are left out of the lectionary or traditionally distorted (Mary of Magdala (John 20: 11-18).
  • Despite the fact that many faithful women after careful, prayerful discernment, experience a very distinct call to priesthood, those who openly support the ordination of women are punished more severely than many who have been found guilty of sexual abuse or other serious crimes.

In preparatory documents for the recent General Chapter, the Order of Friars Minor described minority in relationships as “an attitude and spirituality that leave space for the existence of the other.” Applying that posture to friars’ relationships with women would entail, for example,

  • Always being careful to use inclusive language, including in all prayer
  • Listening to women’s experiences without judging or reinterpreting what they say
  • Lifting up the stories of women in the early Christian communities
  • Reflecting on the feminine attributes of God

marie-dennisMarie Dennis, a resident of Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., is co-president of Pax Christi International and former director of the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns. She holds a master’s degree in moral theology from Washington Theological Union and honorary degrees from Alvernia University, Redding, Pa., and Trinity Washington University.


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