Women in the Church: An Introduction


Women feel very often alienated from the Roman Catholic Church. Not all women, not everywhere, but a significant number of women see the institutional church as something alien to them. The following are some of the criticisms women make about the Church.[1]

First, they feel that they are not taken seriously within the Church. By this they mean that they do not have sufficient influence over setting the agenda in the Church, that they have no decision-making power that they are for the most part invisible in the liturgy of the Church, and they have little influence over the way that the Church arrives at moral decisions.

Second, they feel that an unfair burden has been placed on them by the Church in issues to do with sexuality. When the bishops speak about the decline of values in society in the context of these issues, they feel that they, as women, are being held mainly responsible for this decline. They feel that many men, including male Churchmen, see birth regulation as a matter for women only, and thus blame women when they resort to contraceptive practices. They believe that the task of passing on values to children has largely been left to women by men and that the official Church has colluded in this. The traditional interpretation of the women’s role by sections of the clergy means that many women experience guilt when they go out to work. They are resentful of what they perceive as being ‘talked down to’ by male Churchmen.

Third, women feel they get no support from the pulpit to be themselves, but are constantly cast into the roles of ‘housewife’, ‘mother’ and so on. They see women as being encouraged, either implicitly or explicitly, to have more children than is often good for their health. They are aware of much anecdotal evidence that if they face physical violence in the home, they will be advised by at least some priests to stay with their husbands. They hear little encouragement from priests for men to take on equal responsibility in the home. The preaching Church is perceived as being so silent about male violence against women in the home that it is somehow colluding with it. They are irritated by the amount of time devoted by the hierarchy to issues such as contraception, divorce and abortion, and by the lack of time devoted to violence against women in the home. In general they experience little overt support from preachers for the general concept of the equality of the sexes; clergy do not pay sufficient attention to countering gender stereotypes. The use of exclusive language in the liturgy is a constant bone of contention.

A Response

The Church cannot pretend that it is committed to justice and at the same time ignore the way that women are discriminated against, especially if the institutional Church itself is one of the perpetrators. There is also no doubt that many women experience great pain and a sense of exclusion at the way they are treated by the Church. The response of many Churchmen is to say that these women have no good reason to feel pain, that their reaction is irrational, that the Church can do nothing about it, and so on. Yet one suspects that if men were to express such pain, then the institutional Church would sit up and take notice.

There is obviously a strong subjective element in any evaluation of unfairness. However, it would be wrong to deny the reality of pain so widely reported by women, or to adopt a superior or patronizing attitude. Our Church is one of a declining number of institutions that excludes women from positions of influence and authority. We hear some priests, and perhaps at times we ourselves, slipping into forms of expression and behaviour that suggests that women are second-class citizens in the city of God. Moreover, the issue is not simply one of justice and human rights, but the impoverishment of the whole Church, men and women, as the contribution of women is radically restricted.

We look at some areas where in we are called to respond to the concerns of women.

[1] A vast majority of the ideas in this presentation are taken from: B. Lennon, S.J., G O’Hanlon, S.J., B. Toner, S.J., F. Sammon, S.J., Women in the Church: An Issue of Solidarity, Dublin 1995.

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