Institutional Progress towards Women’s Leadership in the Catholic Church

The Cummins Institute will host a panel discussion on Women Leadership in the Catholic Church on Saturday, April 17, at 4:00 p.m. (PST). College President James Donahue will moderate a conversation with three speakers, Sister Barbara Reid, O.P., President of the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, Professor C. Vanessa White, Associate Professor of Spirituality and Ministry at the same institution, and Most Reverend Michael J. Barber, S.J., Bishop of the Diocese of Oakland, California. The discussion will complement the College’s spring celebration of 50 Years of Women at Saint Mary’s. We are taking our cue from Pope Francis, in his recent encyclical on integral human development and solidarity, “The organization of societies worldwide is still far from reflecting clearly that women possess the same dignity and identical rights as men” (Fratelli Tutti, paragraph 23). The society of the Church, itself, is under scrutiny today over the question of the place of women in leadership. The very question has been slow to emerge, for many reasons. Ecclesial patriarchy shares in the more global patriarchal history regarding public deliberation and governance. Furthermore, negative magisterial responses to inquiries about the ordination of women have naturally made sensitive the more general question of women’s leadership in the Church. Pope Francis has sought to separate these two questions. His remarks and writings on the subject of women assuming leadership roles in the Church represent a novel interest on the part of the papacy, as a review of Vatican documents reveals.

A key contemporary source for official Church teachings on social issues is the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church, published in 2004. 0f the 119 mentions of women, 105 are part of the formula, “men and women” defining the laity. Fourteen mentions of women, per se, all deal with women’s right to work. There is nothing yet in this document that addresses women in leadership roles in the Church.

Pope Francis has introduced the question of women’s leadership from the outset of his papacy. In his apostolic exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel (2013), the Pope took the teaching of the Compendium and applied it to the social structures of the Church.

“I readily acknowledge that many women share pastoral responsibilities with priests, helping to guide people, families and groups and offering new contributions to theological reflection. But we need to create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the Church. Because “the feminine genius is needed in all expressions in the life of society, the presence of women must also be guaranteed in the workplace” [Compendium, #295] and in the various other settings where important decisions are made, both in the Church and in social structures” (The Joy of Gospel, #103).

The lived reality of ecclesial life today, which sees widespread participation of women in the pastoral and public services rendered to fellow Christians and the world at large, opens the door to Pope Francis’s theoretical reflection (e.g., the need for “the feminine genius”) on the role of women in leadership and their greater participation in decision-making.

In 2019, during an address to the participants at a plenary session of the dicastery (Vatican office) for the Laity, the Family, and Life, Pope Francis emphasized the need for women’s leadership in a long passage in which he was trying to explain the importance of women in the work of the Church due to the very image of the Church being that of a woman. He instructed those assembled, “We must move forward to insert women into councils, and into government, without fear” [1]. His argument regarding the image of the Church as a woman follows upon his earlier reference to the “feminine genius.” The Pope is searching for a way to communicate the complementarity of men and women as fully representing humanity in its capacity to collaborate with God’s work in the world.

His has been an almost solitary—and male— voice for the papal magisterium on the question of women leaders in the Church. Recently, though, through his appointment of a woman as undersecretary of the Synod of Bishops, with the right to vote, Pope Francis has begun, however haltingly, to realize a new vision of Church leadership. Sister Nathalie Becquart, xav., recently spoke at a conference, “The Voices of Women in the Synodal Path,” where she likened men and women of all ages working together to a dance that reveals truth [2]. The conference was sponsored by the International Union of Superiors General, a group representing communities of consecrated religious. The sisters gathered there created a hashtag, “#SistersEmpoweringWomen.”

In January of this year, Pope Francis opened lay ministries at the Eucharist, including lectors and altar servers, to women. His explanation was that such ministries are open to “all suitable faithful, whether male or female” [3].

I think that history will bear out the fact that change most often comes from below. Our diocese of Oakland, California, was a pioneer in entrusting leadership positions to women. In addition to women pastoral administrators who have stepped in as needed, Bishop John Cummins, in his first year in office, appointed a woman as Diocesan Superintendent of Schools. Sister Rose Marie Hennessy, O.P., served at this post from 1978 to 1993. Women led the first Diocesan Pastoral Council, with Gesine Laufenberg and Priscilla Scotlan as chair and vice-chair, respectively [4]. Perhaps Pope Francis’s long years as chief pastor of the Church of Buenos Aires has prepared him, as well, to think more holistically about Church leadership. The entirety of the Catholic faithful is in dialogue with the papacy. Allowing for wide cultural differences among the 1.2 billion Catholics, what can local churches do to be in dialogue with each other and with Rome, in all charity, as they seek to honor the dignity of women and welcome them to full participation in the counsel and governance of church matters?



[1] “Dobbiamo andare avanti per inserire le donne nei posti di consiglio, anche di governo, senza paura,” Pope Francis, “Speech to the Participants at the Plenary Session of the Dicastery for the Laity, the Family, and Life,” November 16, 2019., accessed 4/5/21

[2] See Elise Ann Allen, “’Synodality’ and Women’s Empowerment Go Together, Leading Sisters Say,” in Crux: Taking the Catholic Pulse, March 27, 2021., accessed 4/6/21.

[3] Pope Francis, Spiritus Domini, Apostolic Letter, motu proprio, 1/10/21

[4] See John S. Cummins, Vatican II, Berkeley and Beyond: The First Half-Century of the Oakland Diocese, 1962-2012. A Bishop’s Memoir (San Bernardino, Ca.: 2015), chapter 10, “The Laity Empowered: Council Builds on Vigor Already Present” and chapter 11, “Religious Women on the Rise: Sisters Launch Pastoral Initiatives,” pp. 127-150.

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