The Catholic Church is the largest global humanitarian network with enormous potential, and therefore responsibility, to address human suffering and complex global challenges. It is also the vehicle through which the Catholic faith is transmitted to nearly 1.3 billion people.
Sui generis, with a divine mission, the church is distinct from secular institutions. Nevertheless, it is comprised of people, facilities, property and finances that deserve to be handled with the highest levels of ethics, care, accountability and contemporary best managerial practices. That level of care should be commensurate with the degree to which its mission is important, urgent, beneficial and salvific.
Deep within the Catholic imagination, if not universally applied in practice, is “imago Dei,” the conviction that all people are created in God’s likeness. All forms of prejudice and discrimination are contrary to Catholic teaching. This faith claim alone argues for the full participation, value and equal respect for women as for men.
Decades of substantive Catholic social teaching have brought inviolable insight to how Catholics and people of goodwill ought to comport and conduct ourselves. An especially important assertion is the preferential option for the poor: those of us most in need, most marginalized and most vulnerable deserve the particular attention, care and advocacy of those of us to whom much has been given.
It bears noting that women and children are disproportionally, adversely affected by poverty, war, climate change, illness, unemployment and forced migration, and least likely to cause or contribute to such deleterious conditions.
The church is embroiled in a particular set of crises: clergy sexual abuse and concomitant leadership failures. Better analyses of root causes, more effective solutions and a commitment to positive cultural change is best achieved when women are included at the tables of decision-making. This is true in every sector and context.
The church needs the insightful, prophetic, experienced perspective, voice and contribution of women now more than ever.
Add to this the growing disaffection of young adults and young women in particular with the church. Young women need role models and clear understandings that their service to the church will not be met with gratuitous limitations on the exercise of their full complement of gifts and talents as they live out their vocation.
For those who value the church’s mission and vitality, its impact as a global humanitarian network and the restoration of trust in church leadership, concern about the role of women is a matter of managerial and moral urgency.
How compromised is the church by failing to include women at the highest levels of leadership and at the tables of decision-making in the Roman Curia and throughout the institutional church? Nearly every institution in the world has accommodated and incorporated women in leadership — often reluctantly at first — only to admit the practical, tangible value of having done so. Corporations with women on their boards have a better return for shareholders; woman doctors are less likely to be sued for malpractice; universities, the military, the judiciary, government — are all strengthened by the presence of women in leadership and decision-making. To be clear, it is not that women are smarter, more judicious or holier than men. Each of us is inherently myopic on our own or within our own uniform groups. We only know what we know. We need and benefit from a diversity of perspectives and experiences to be wiser and more prudent. Recruiting competent women to positions of leadership and increasing the percentage of women serving in such roles to approximate that of men is crucial. In the U.S. there are increasing, and inspiring, examples of women serving in senior diocesan positions and serving as CEOs of national Catholic apostolates.
Do we have as many women as men serving on pastoral councils, diocesan finance councils and boards of trustees of Catholic charities? If not, why not?
What informs the reluctance to appoint women as pastoral life coordinators overseeing parishes given the very serious priest shortage? What impact does the insistence that authority, leadership and decision-making be solely tied to ordination have on the presence, participation and active engagement of women in the church?
We can help the church emulate what it advocates. We can provide a strong signal to young women that women are valued in leadership and decision-making in the church by ensuring that they are, and visibly so. We can work toward better human resource policies and structures that take seriously lay vocations.
How do we identify, recruit, form, train, place, compensate, evaluate and promote women in the church? Do we invest in their formation? We can reimagine seminary formation to ensure that it is conducive to healthy lay-clergy collaboration and co-responsibility. We can insist that a candidate’s ability to work collaboratively and effectively with women be a requirement in the selection and appointment of bishops.
We can establish effective mentoring programs for young Catholic women. And we can expand our imagination and appoint women to the diplomatic core, communication apostolates and the prefectures and presidencies of dicasteries.
Women are essential to the future of a vibrant church.
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(Kerry Alys Robinson is a writer, speaker and advocate of philanthropy, spirituality and women in the church. She is global ambassador of Leadership Roundtable and the author of “Imagining Abundance: Fundraising, Philanthropy and a Spiritual Call to Service.”)