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New Roles for Women in the Institutional Church

New Roles for Women in the Institutional Church

by Jeanne Pieper

From: The Catholic Woman. Difficult Choices in a Modern World, by Jeanne Pieper, Lowell House, Los Angeles 1993, here pp. 156-180. Republished with permission by the author. See a review of the book. Copies still available from the author.

Review of the book

In this book we have given the reader a flavor of the feminist vision for the Catholic church, and predicted some of the changes that this vision is working to slowly bring about. The institutional Church itself has been working to include more women in both its rituals and its management as well. Anyone in contact with the Catholic church can easily see that much progress has been made to include women in many rituals as well as some of the lower echelons of Church management. Much remains to be done, however.

More Participation in the Liturgy

When we were children," a woman tells me, “girls were told they could only go on the altar [past the Communion rails to the front of the church] the day they got married. It made me angry, because my little brother was an altar boy and he could go up there any day he served Mass.” She obviously means during Mass or some other Church service, because women have been cleaning and preparing the altar since the Last Supper!

Another woman relates how, as a child, she learned all the Latin responses by heart and would get to Mass early each Lenten morning in the hopes that the altar boy wouldn’t show up and the priest would let her say the responses to his Mass prayers. She had to kneel in the pew, of course, because girls weren’t allowed up there with the priest.

“I can remember being told by a priest in the early 1960s that it was a mortal sin for a woman to be present in the sanctuary [altar area] of Church during Mass," Ruth Wallace writes.(63)

Those of us who feel discriminated against because we aren’t allowed to be ordained, or who angrily note the visible lack of women when three or four male priests huddle together on some special occasion to concelebrate Mass, have either forgotten or are too young to remember how much worse things were 20 or 30 years ago. “Ex-Catholics” who have been out of Church all these years are often shocked (many happily) when they happen to attend any Catholic service and see the number of women actively participating in each liturgy.

At the same time that Vatican II was telling the good sisters that they should become more involved in “the world,” it was telling the laity that they should become more involved in the Church. Changes in liturgical practices led the way for this participation. Mass prayers switched from the Latin few people understood to English or whatever the majority of the people in attendance preferred to speak. The altar was moved so that the priest could say Mass facing the people. Communion rails came down so there was no visual divider between the people and the altar. Occasionally, the altar was placed in the center of the Church so that the congregation could gather around the table. Laymen, followed shortly by laywomen, became lectors and read each of the changeable excerpts from the Bible during each mass (except for the Gospel, which is still reserved for the priest). Soon both men and women were also being commissioned as Eucharistic ministers and were allowed to distribute the consecrated hosts (and sometimes wine) during Communion time, which by the mid-eighties were placed in each recipients outstretched hand rather than on his or her tongue.

In many Churches these days, the entire congregation holds hands while they recite or sing the Lord’s Prayer. A sign of peace was introduced after the “Our Father” (right before Communion time) and everyone present was urged to greet one another. Although many felt awkward at first, the sign of peace soon became a long and noisy exchange of handshakes, hugs, and even kisses which are greatly missed if for some reason it is skipped. In the 1990s, even those people who once objected to liturgical changes have, by and large, accepted them.

“I think that the participation at Mass is a lot better now then when we had the Latin Mass,” Colleen remarks. “However, I was one of the first ones to scream about stopping the Latin Mass, but I’ve certainly changed my feelings about that.”

“I saw the benefits of having English,” Carol admits. “But I missed the Latin. Maybe on a spiritual level, the Latin was my way of praying in tongues. But fortunately, in my parish, the pastor was pretty careful about bringing in the changes slowly.”

By now, many of the liturgical “experiments” of the 1960s and 1970s have become commonplace and there is a continued effort by many liturgists to reintroduce both symbols and procedures that take people back to the way things were probably done in the early Church. The core parts of the Mass (including the prayers, in whatever language) are the same in any Church throughout the world, but the music and the ambience depend almost entirely upon the talents and enthusiasm of the parish liturgy team, as well as the participants.

The same Church laws that prohibit women from being ordained also prohibit women from preaching and girls from being altar servers. But how these laws are enforced depends on the parish and, even more important, on how public the particular Mass will be.

Fifteen or so years ago, when my brother was ordained a Dominican, he asked his eighth-grade niece (my oldest daughter), who was also his godchild, to serve his first Mass. But instead of long black robes, he said he wanted her “to look pretty,” and so he asked her to wear her new dress that she was also wearing to her eighth-grade graduation from a Catholic grammar school.

We approached our pastor and told him what was planned, and asked if she could “practice” at a few early morning weekday Masses (which had, at most, 15 or 20 people in attendance, almost all friends and neighbors) at our parish church, which was attached to her school. We didn’t really think much about our request, until, to our surprise, our pastor told us no. Fortunately, before we had time to panic, we remembered that the Sunday Masses at the nearby Claretian seminary gladly welcomed visitors and let the children sit on the floor around the altar and take turns “helping” the priest say Mass. So we went there for a few Sundays and my daughter soon got all the practice she needed.

Fortunately, my brother’s very crowded first Mass took place at a large, inner-city parish. He didn’t ask permission, he just had her up there with him as his altar server. Since he had other women, including me, do the various readings, no one particularly noticed or cared that his altar boy was really an altar girl.

Even in the 1990s, I’ve never seen a girl altar server at our parish, but many parishes have them, despite rules to the contrary. Sheila tells me about her Church “Lots of things are just evolving, like altar girls. Supposedly they’re not allowed, but if our Church didn’t have altar girls, there wouldn’t be anyone up there.”

As far as she knows, they just appeared without any big struggle or campaign to get them there. But for JoAnne, while studying law at Notre Dame, their presence was definitely a symbolic victory for feminism.

“I made the law school priest decide whether or not he was going to have female altar servers. The bishop had told him not to,” she remembers, smiling. “But the priest knew it would cost him a lot if he said no, because I would be on his case forever. And after thinking about it for a while, he said yes. So I signed up to be the first female altar server. And a woman came up to me after that first Mass and said, ‘I don’t really know what is going on, but seeing you up there, I finally feel like I belong in the room.’ On hearing this, the tears just came!” As she talks, JoAnne starts to tear up again.

In researching her book Generous Lives, Jane Redmont found that about half of the parishes that she visited have altar girls. She tells about one Midwestern parish where girls serve Mass every Sunday except those rare times that the bishop comes to visit.

“Preaching” is something very different, however. Although Ruth Wallace talks about women who are parish administrators giving sermons at a Mass, it is really less prevalent than having altar servers.

Sister Mary Margaret has been working together with a priest in a parish for the last five years, and she stresses the word with. “I won’t work ‘for’ a priest anymore,” she maintains. “I will work ‘with’ him or I won’t work.” But since they both like their bishop, who they claim is very liberal, they have decided that it is safer if they don’t have her preach at Sunday Masses. “I do feel called to ordination,” Mary Margaret confides, “but not in the clerical power structure that exists.”

There are many ways around the current rule against a layperson (even a man) actually giving the Sunday sermon at a Mass. All the priest has to do is say a sentence or two about the Gospel of the day and call his few words the homily, and then turn the microphone over to someone else who can talk about whatever he or she wants, as long as necessary. Or the priest can even leave his sermon out completely and go on with the Mass, and then have someone else “say a few words” after Communion time. If the event is a relatively private affair, no one even attempts to enforce who preaches.

My sister tells me that at large convent gatherings that have outsiders there, the presiding priest always gives the homily. But at events that are just for the sisters themselves, usually one of them does the preaching. I myself have “preached” at two Masses, once at my sister’s 25th anniversary Mass for being a nun, and once (by proxy—I wrote the speech and had my sister deliver it) at the funeral of an aunt I had taken care of for many months before she died. I have been to countless other services where women preached but they have always been “family affairs” and not a regular Sunday Mass open to the entire parish.

More Participation in Church Management and Service

According to a recent study, “About 20,000 lay people and religious are employed at least 20 hours a week as parish ministers in half the 19,000 Catholic parishes in the United States. This is in addition to those on the staffs of the parochial schools and those in support or maintenance positions. This number represents a dramatic change from a generation ago when there were few such parish ministers other than the organists or music directors or the parish visitors (catechists) in mission areas.” (64)

Of these new ministers, 85% are women, and 60% are laypeople. More than half of them have a master’s degree. Forty percent are involved in religious education, 27% are pastoral associates (the fastest-growing job description) who do many of the jobs that assistant priests used to do except say Mass or officiate at the other Sacraments. They perform a growing number of new social outreach jobs as well. Most of these women are married and white middle-class, or nuns, because they are often the only people who can afford to work for the $13,000 to $20,000 full-time yearly salary.(65)

However, these salaries I just quoted are substantially higher than those reported in another study, which claims that 92% of women in ministry are unpaid. Of those who do receive a salary, only 13% earn more than $10,000 a year, and 67% earn less than $5,000.(66)

Regardless of which study is more correct, there is no disputing the fact that no one works for the Church for the money. Often only suburban and middle-class parishes (or very large inner-city parishes) can afford to pay their lay ministers salaries.

Money is a very real problem for both sides of the equation, especially since other studies indicate that the average per family donation (in real dollars) is close to half of what it was 30 or so years ago. Furthermore, many parishes require their lay ministers to be “certified” by attending various classes and workshops in a certain field, another investment in both time and money.

I was waiting to interview the head of Hispanic ministries at a Catholic college when I overheard a prospective student discussing how she might come up with the tuition for a required course. Not only was she not getting paid for her many hours of parish work, her pastor was unable to reimburse her for any of the costs for her education. This angered and frustrated her, but she didn’t seem to be considering giving up her ministry.

Financial necessities keep many interested women, particularly minority or single women, from answering a call to minister. The pastor of another man I interviewed happened to mention to me that he was hoping she would agree to be the head of the Renew program that he wanted to start. “I know she has the time,” he confided, “since she is unemployed.”

I knew she would be thrilled at the opportunity, but suggested he find a way to pay her for some of the many hours this would entail since I knew her unemployment payments had run out. He looked surprised and reminded me of his very tight budget. When I told her about this conversation later, she thanked me profusely. “I would love that kind of a job, but I could never have brought money up to him,” she remarked.

Another priest friend was complaining to me about the principal of his school. “But I have to take whoever the sisters send me,” he sighed. He was shocked when I suggested that if he stopped expecting “slave labor” from the nuns and instead offered a fair salary to his school principal, regardless of her state in life, he, as employer, could then choose whomever he wanted to hire. However, such a pay increase for a nun would require going around the rules of his archdiocese, which arbitrarily (often in spite of input from women religious leaders) sets the stipends one may pay a religious employee.

Regardless of any talk about justice and fair wage practices, the truth is that many, many Catholic parishes throughout the country are in serious financial trouble, just as the entire Church is in trouble in many areas of the world, even the Vatican. Most people, particularly non-Catholics, don’t believe this, and point to cathedrals and artwork, among other assets, which prove to them how rich the Church is.

In fact, the Church is “land poor” and many areas have an increasing problem in meeting day-to-day operating expenses, particularly since there are fewer nuns able or willing to work for the token amounts they once received. (My nun sister claims that she would not consider working for the institutional Church, and her order may soon not be able to afford to have too many of its members work for it either, considering how many retired sisters each working nun must now also support.)

As the need for social services, particularly in the inner cities, continues to accelerate, operating costs on every side skyrocket as well. Sister Ellen insists that despite the obvious need for more ministers in a Church where the clergy is aging and ill, declining in numbers, and generally considered overworked, the religious job market is really drying up.

“There are fewer openings each year from parishes and diocesan organizations,” she explains. “The reasons cited are the economy, the need to trim the budget, and the high cost of salaries for religious. It is a fact that in our western state, nuns and ex-nuns are seeking a wage that is in parity with the laity .... But I wish to work with others in ministry, not for them. Collaboration in the work of building God’s kingdom is a requirement for many of us today.” (67)

It used to be that nuns were assigned to a job by their Superiors and were moved at will, often without any consultation. Salary was not an issue; it was considered part of their vow of poverty that it be minimal. But that was also when nuns had no other clothes except two habits to their name, and no one could tell if there was a run in a stocking. They relied on the laypeople for transportation And there were many, many young hands, working many different jobs at once. But times have changed, and now there are cars, clothes, tuitions for advanced degrees, health care, and especially the many needs of the older nuns as each order becomes more top-heavy with retired sisters. All these are costly items that now become necessities if nuns are to continue their mandate to work and live among us in the modern world.

Suddenly their vow of poverty means learning how to economically care for each other while at the same time making preferential choices to help the poor. For the first time, an “unemployed nun” must often find her own job, not have one assigned to her, and feel the pressure of money and the lack of it. Today nuns, almost all of whom are middle-aged or older, are having to understand and worry about money, like other women have always had to do.

Parishes: The Center of Loyalty and Discontent

For most Catholic women who feel any connection at all to the Vatican, their loyalty is mainly symbolic. Often this can be said about their relationship to their diocese as well. Although many women insisted that one of the things they like best about being Catholic is the emotional and physical link their Church gives them to Christians throughout the entire world, in actuality, their local Church—their parish—is usually what they mean when they talk about “my Church.” And for many, their like or dislike of their parish depends primarily on their like or dislike of its priests.

“In the nineties, I am once again very active in my Church,” interior decorator Diane writes me. “I have found a pastor with whom I resonate and a way to bring my personal gifts to the church.” When this priest left the parish, Diane was tempted to leave with him, but finally decided to first give the new pastor a chance.

Many priests themselves have as little to do with their chancery office as possible. And as the laity (who are hired by each pastor) take over parish jobs that priests and nuns used to do, there is even less need for priests to have much contact with the institutional Church downtown. Furthermore, women are not the only group of Catholics who are making up their own minds about Church teachings. Many priests are equally as doctrinally independent, which comes from dealing daily with hurting individuals, not with laws.

The result is, that while the Church of Rome may be being restructured from the top in a way that would appear geared toward erasing the spirit of Pope John XXIII and the teachings of Vatican II, the Church of the neighborhood is becoming more independent. “The Vatican and the bishops are leaving the Church,” Father Harvey Eagan, a retired pastor, remarks with irony, confirming what many women have also told me.(68)

Most women who are employed by their parishes in these new jobs are proud of their new careers. Although one woman in particular, who had practically run her parish singlehandedly for many years, often “covering” for very inept and irresponsible priests, told me horror stories about parish work which finally caused her to look for another job, almost every other woman I talked to was extremely enthusiastic about her ministry. Dr. David DeLambo, whose dissertation was the study on new parish ministers for the National Pastoral Life Center, confirms my impressions. “We expected to find many more angry people, and to our surprise, and the surprise of groups I have lectured to about the study, our results show that over 90% of the lay ministers are satisfied in almost every category,” he tells me. “Their satisfaction correlates highly with their spirituality. Many people get involved with these certification programs because they are interested in furthering their own spirituality. They are going to a professional program, but the professional program is geared towards their personal development.”

By taking classes and then sharing what they have learned, not as guru but as participant, these women help form intentional faith communities for themselves and other interested parishioners. “I know my mother’s participation began that way,” David remarks. “When my father died, she was looking for a stronger support system, and she got involved in renewal in the parish, and that group became a community and they started doing things together, and started a social justice group.”

However, only a few women parishioners that I interviewed who function primarily just as “women in the pew” were as enthusiastic about their parishes. Margaret is one, but then she is hardly an average woman in the pew because she is heavily involved in parish activities as a volunteer and her parish sounds like it is exceptional.

“We have a very active, spiritual program,” she explains, “a parish council, all kinds of activities. We have people going into the seminary and the convent from here constantly, and those who don’t make it come back and take up leadership roles in the parish. We have Anglo programs, Hispanic programs, prayer groups, youth groups. We feed the homeless. We are involved in ecumenical programs. We had 800 people at our organization fair last weekend.”

Margaret claims that the success of her parish is due to the fact that they have three very holy priests. “They call us to holiness,” she explains, “which is what their job description is.”

They currently have 17 adults studying to become Catholics, and their CCD (the religious education program for public school children) has about 1,500 kids enrolled. Her own teenage son is a boarder in the diocesan junior seminary, which Margaret insists is for boys who are serious about their religion, not hermits, and, unlike years ago, encourages them to socialize with girls. Although Margaret works nights as a medical transcriber and has to sleep during the day, she is so enthusiastic about her parish that her evenings are reserved for Church groups.

Many other women, however, were so unhappy with their own local parishes that they have searched out a more compatible one. “Our parish is very orderly and quiet,” relates Sharon, who also has had many run-ins with her pastor over the years. She prefers to go to Mass at a local monastery. “My healing [with the pastor] has been to consider that I go to my parish and see what I can give them, not what I get from them. But I have a need to have a little bit of warmth and joy and nurturing, so I go where I can get it.”

But she also has good friends in the parish. “Priests come and go, but your neighborhood is going to stay the same, and that’s your community,” she explains. “And sometimes priests do change. I know a priest who was just impossible, and then he went on a Marriage Encounter Weekend as one of the presenters, and changed completely. He was at our church before we moved here, and he was one of the reasons we bought into this neighborhood. But then the pastor changed, and the new one was just like he had been before so now some of us are saying, ‘Maybe the charism of our parish is to convert the priest.’ ”

Cynthia used to be very active in her parish, but now she and her family go to Mass in a convent of social service nuns across town each weekend. “They have Mass in their living room, and we listen to real prayers of the faithful, from women who are working with real people. There are between 15 and 25 people there each Sunday, and it is very multiracial. The retired sisters live there and they like to have families come and join them. We are developing an intentional faith community, but I don’t think that the sisters know that’s what they are doing.”

Although a priest comes from a nearby Church to say the Mass and preach the sermon, there is full participation from the rest of them as well. Cindy particularly likes her sons to see women being prayerful and spiritual. “I don’t say anything, but I want them to experience that. I don’t want them to think that men . . .” She stops and frowns. “How do you raise children in a church that hates women?”

Ann Z. and her husband are registered, paying members of the parish where they live, but they don’t go to Mass there. “I don’t care for the message in almost every sermon I have ever heard there,” she explains. “The more I went, the less Christ-like I thought the priests and the community were.”

She goes to Mass every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation, and often even on weekdays, and daily rosary has always been a part of her life. Although she used to feel obligated to go to one parish and participate, she no longer does. “We go to different Churches each Sunday, depending on our other plans for the day. But our choices are definitely based on what the sermons are like, what the philosophy of the priests are, and what teachings they decide to emphasize. Before, I would not have understood anyone who was shopping around like this.”

Several other women told me they had left their suburban parishes to join multicultural, inner-city churches. But for the most part, suburban parishioners and inner-city parishes have little, if any, contact with each other. Occasionally, two progressive parishes will link up with each other and exchange priests or their choirs for a Sunday. Or, at Christmas and Thanksgiving, a richer parish may send contributions of both food and money to their poorer neighbor. But for the most part, they are completely separate entities, which is a loss particularly for the suburbanites, who would find—if they ever ventured out of their upper-middle-class ghettos—that very often it is the inner-city parishes of the 1990s that have the most vitality.

Parish Councils

Although many women assume that a successful parish must have a good parish council, Margaret was the only woman I interviewed who was on one. To my knowledge, my own parish has not had one in any of the 28 years that we have been parishioners. We had a “pretend” one once, in the mid-1980s, as a result of an archdiocesan directive that told each parish to elect 10 representatives to an archdiocesan convocation.

Those of us elected concluded that this was the closest we would ever get to having a real parish council, and decided to act as if we were one. We really represented the huge spectrum of religious philosophies present in our small parish and immediately began to make enthusiastic plans and suggestions about new activities we were both willing and able to carry out.

However, our usually very tolerant pastor and not so tolerant deacon were very threatened by the group, and it soon became obvious that we were engaged in an exercise in futility. As soon as we discovered that “downtown” (who had set up the program) had no intention of actually letting the laypeople make any real decisions there either, we all slowly drifted back to our passive roles as “only people in the pew.”

Our archdiocese does promulgate parish councils, however, and has a coordinator who puts on workshops for them. The paperwork they send me talks about the “1990s consensus building of a group of parishioners called together by a discernment process, who engage in overall planning for the parish that emphasizes spirituality.” It claims that this is very different from the “majority vote” of “elected representatives” with “task-orientated” ideas of a few decades ago.

This distinction is really just academic when the pastor is unwilling to give up any real control. Even our last pastor, who was theologically very liberal, refused to have one, despite how many times I brought it up to him. He as well as many other priests, actually believe that parish councils just end up causing a lot of problems.

Not only are most pastors afraid to give any real control to their parishioners, Bridget tells me that, according to Church law, parish councils can only be advisory anyway. Cassandra had already given me the same information. Her pastor was not too happy with her, however, when she suggested to the members of her parish council that they go into the rectory and look in the book about Canon Law and find out that it really didn’t matter a lot about how they voted, because no one was planning to take their vote seriously anyway.

The result of these undemocratic processes is that many parishioners refuse to spend hours in discussions about how to run a parish or a diocese when they find out that no one plans to follow their recommendations any way. And it is also very likely that this lack of democratic process also causes the anger or, more likely, the indifference that is behind the falling weekly cash flow ratios of many parishes. For it is only “when the parishioners get involved in actually running the parish,” Ruth Wallace found, “they become part of the solution themselves, not only by their volunteer services, but also by contributing more to the Sunday collection.”(69)

Not everyone is that enthusiastic about democracy, however. Women for Faith and the Family leader Sherry Tyree insists that the Protestant churches in America are in decline precisely because of their democratic practices. It obviously depends on each particular parish whether it is responsive to the ideas of its parishioners, just as it depends on the “scientific” study that you read whether the average Catholic really wants the Church to be more democratic in its operations.

A June 1992 Time/CNN study claims that 83% of Catholic women are satisfied with the leadership of their parish priest, 80% are satisfied with the leadership of their bishop, and 90% with the leadership of the Pope.(70) But this survey talked to only 145 Catholic women, who obviously thought differently than most of the women I have interviewed. The women I have talked to are more in accord with a Gallup poll conducted about the same time. It claimed that 74% of people surveyed thought that elected parish councils should decide parish policies, including the use of church funds. 68% agreed parishioners should choose their pastors; and 72% wanted bishops elected by priests and people—all practices in opposition to current Canon Law.(71) You can prove any point you want if you look around long enough for the “right” statistics.

The Feminization of the Catholic Church

Although many young men with priestly vocations are getting more conservative, many women in the Catholic church, especially those that now make up a large portion of the students who are studying theology and pastoral ministry in Catholic seminaries and universities, are getting more liberal. As these laywomen take over day-to-day local parish operations and programs out of necessity, they bring their feminine priorities and leadership styles with them. They look for spiritual and psychological support for themselves and the rest of the parishioners, and expect to operate through collaboration rather than authority. This often causes problems with the male cleric “old Church” pastor.

However, there are many liberal “new Church” (post-Vatican II) priests who are beginning to embrace feminine viewpoints and are suddenly finding themselves looking for emotional support and “connection” that go beyond a day on the golf course or a fishing trip to Mexico with fellow priests. Furthermore “old Church” pastors frequently have become so burned out by the effort required to maintain their old practices in a changing world that they are happy to relinquish much of their work to the laity, if not any of their power. Priests also often find themselves in the untenable position of having unsupportive “bosses” downtown and in the Vatican who have outdated, even bad, management techniques and many of the people in the pew second-guessing their organizational pronouncements as well as their theological ones.

Priests are not the only group of males feeling the effects of the feminization of the Catholic church. Gone, or going, in many parishes are the men’s clubs, the Holy Name societies, the sports teams for young men and their fathers, even the Knights of Columbus. The National Pastoral Life Center found that of all the possible contributions the new male and female ministers felt they were making, the ones that they felt least confident in providing were sensitivity to men’s concerns and a way to involve men in the active life of the parish community. Parishes have yet to become adept at enabling parishioners who hold paid jobs to reflect on the linkages between their faith and work or to find encouragement for creativity and integrity in their occupations (72).

It is a vicious circle. With fewer males (as priests) to do the work more women are doing it, which, in turn, often leads to less involvement by the men.

Women as Pastors

The new Code of Canon Law, published in 1983, made some provisions for the expansion of women’s roles in the Church. While still excluding women from ordained ministry (as well as preaching or being altar girls), the new code opened the following positions to women on the diocesan level diocesan chancellors, auditors, assessors, defenders of the marriage bond, promoters of justice, judges on diocesan courts, members of diocesan synods, and financial and pastoral councils. This also allowed women to become pastoral administrators in priestless parishes.(73)

By 1990 there were 210 parishes in the United States administered by someone other than a priest. Of these, 62% were headed by nuns, 22% were headed by deacons (men), 9% by laity, 6% by religious brothers and l % by a pastoral team. While worldwide, about 34% of parishes are without a priest, in the United States this number drops to around 10%, but the number is growing in both places.(74) And when there is no priest available to head a parish, more and more often the new “pastor” is a woman.

Ruth Wallace recently studied in depth 20 of these U.S. Catholic parishes administered by women. While she found that the majority of parishioners are very happy with their women “pastors,” the ambiguity of the pastor role is a constant source of strain. Since these women cannot be members of the clergy (which includes deacons), they cannot legally give homilies (comment at Mass on the readings of the day), say Mass, baptize, or preside at marriages. Instead, each has to have a real priest come in on Sundays and for other sacramental occasions. The priest often tries to make it appear that the woman administrator has a larger spiritual role than she is actually allowed.

As one nun pastor explained, “This is the first time in any ministry I have been in where I have not had the credentials to do what I am asked to do. Now we are asked, by the bishop, to be the spiritual leader of a parish and we can only do so much. We can’t give absolution, even though we hear confessions all the time in the parlor. We can’t anoint when we go to the hospital, even though we bless them.”

Another nun pastor gave the analogy of trying to dig a hole without tools. “You need to dig this hole here, but I tie your hands, so do it,” or “The tools are here, but you cannot touch them.” She claims that she knows, deep down, that she is called to minister, and that is why she feels so bad that she has been given the job, but her hands are tied.(75)

Because a woman pastor has no aspirations to membership in the hierarchy of the Church, however, she can often stand up to a bishop better than a priest can because she feels she has less to lose. And the very fact that women are being assigned to these jobs and show strength in their position is changing their image. “Even those parishioners who described themselves as traditional Catholics told me that they had changed their attitudes and actions regarding women in the church as a result of their experiences with their woman pastor,” Ruth writes. “The overwhelming majority of the parishioners I interviewed no longer support patriarchy and gender discrimination and they attributed their change of attitude to their women pastor.”

“What is unique about woman pastors is the way they manage to transform constraints into opportunities in the daily enactment of their role,” she continues. “Although many were resented when they first showed up, they viewed their problems as a challenge.” Not being members of the clergy they could identify with their parishioners better. Their leadership style which incorporated their parishioners as peers, eventually led to a greater spirit of community in these parishes.(76)

Mary Leach, assistant to the chancellor at the University of Maryland, is in one such parish. She writes me “I enjoy my parish, which is about as liberal as can be imagined and has no priest assigned. Its pastor is one of the most creative nuns it has been my privilege to know. She is heavily engaged in personal and parochial empowerment and meaningful social service activities.”

Some parishioners feel only anger when the bishop sends them a woman instead of a priest. Their anger is probably less about the gender of their new pastor than it is about their feelings of rejection because their bishop doesn’t think enough of their parish to send them a real priest. Many of these view points appear to be changing, however.

“I think the nineties will see much more acceptance, not out of good will but out of necessity, of lay women in ministry,” Anne Brotherton concludes “And that is going to raise even higher the issue of ordaining women, especially when women are the major churchgoers and the major church workers. Now they are going to be doing the kind of ministry that has been reserved only for priests and sometimes for religious women. So we are going to continually see the emergence of a new lay Church.”

Slowly but surely, women are quietly working at integrating the chancery office (the business offices of the institutional Church) downtown as well. Some 30 or 40 dioceses throughout the country now have a commission on women, which is made up of women who study and offer guidance to the local hierarchy on women’s issues. The number of dioceses with these commissions is growing so fast that the U.S. Bishops’ Conference has put out a handbook to guide their development.

Women are now in charge of many kinds of institutional Church offices everything from superintendent of schools to heads of charity and fund raising, and occasionally even the organizational head of the diocese. All report directly to a bishop, though. One fortunate change in Church policy is that 85% of the Vicars for Women Religious in the United States are now other women religious instead of male bishops, as they once were.

Sister Mary Glennon has been the Vicar of Women Religious in Los Angeles for several years and is the first woman in her diocese to have this job which she took over from a bishop. She definitely believes her presence is making a difference. She reports directly to Cardinal Roger Mahony, whose office is only a flight of stairs away from hers. “Although both he and I prefer that I make an appointment to talk to him,” she tells me, “I can go and knock on his door any time I need to.” Her job description, as written in a pamphlet she hands me, is very diverse.

Despite her very busy schedule, she most graciously talked to me for close to two hours and was very frank and open. Although her greatest joy comes from her personal encounters with individual nuns who need her help, and she is very anxious to finish a degree in psychology so that she can better serve them, Mary also realizes that she is filling an important role as a “bridge” person in the institutional Church. Although she has more in common philosophically with the radical feminist nuns than they think, who may contend she “has sold out” by working so closely with the hierarchy, she also sees the necessity of having a woman like herself in the job.

“I know the men in the Church are changing,” she tells me. “I go to the priests’ council meetings every month. I have gone to the Archdiocesan Assembly of priests as well. We all know that we need each other. But it is women who have moved at a rapid pace. We have had to move fast. We have had to do our work. And unless we had to do it, we wouldn’t have done it. The priests didn’t have to. They saw us going off to all our meetings and they joked about it .... So it is only now that they are saying that the sisters are way ahead. The priests, and men in general, are seeing the light. Collaboration is certainly not just a woman’s issue.”

Laywomen are filling increasingly higher jobs in the chancery offices as well. Betty is a mother, wife, college philosophy professor, and nurse. Somehow she finds time to serve on her archdiocese Commission on Human Life. Although one of the male members of the group is internationally known and the leading theologian on this subject, Betty is the chairperson of the subcommittee on end-of-life issues. They began by studying the Vatican Encyclical on Euthanasia, and then looked at what various bishops all over the country have said, particularly about food and water withdrawal from a dying patient.

“Our work is to advise the archbishop about end-of-life issues as he informs his priests,” Betty explains. “When he asks our opinion, I like to start my letters to him with ‘Thank you for asking.’ I’m always amazed that, number one, I am allowed to be a chairperson of this subcommittee, and number two, someone would ask me for the response of the committee. In a male-dominated society like we have, I’m pleased to be asked my opinion. Things may be changing slowly, but at least they really are changing.”

Each year, women are being asked to fill higher and higher levels of jobs in the U.S. Church, and if Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland (admittedly one of the most liberal bishops in the Church) has his way, women will be filling top Vatican jobs someday as well. In a December 6, 1992, oped piece in the New York Times, Weakland said that the top three positions in each of 21 Vatican offices (prefect, secretary, and undersecretary) are currently filled by cardinals, archbishops, and monsignors. “Women must be given places in these ranks,’ he wrote.(77)

Although no one is holding their breath until this happens, it is theoretically possible that it can, even if the ban on ordination is never lifted.

The Bishops' Pastoral on Women

When the U.S. bishops decided to tackle the subject of women in society and the Church in the early 1980s, I doubt they had any idea of how long it would take or the difficulties that would arise. As they have done when researching other issues, they decided to talk to experts on the subject, which in this case was women all around the country.

Innocently enough, they devised a process to ask Catholic women how they had been affirmed or oppressed by both society and the Church. What followed for many of the bishops was a conversion experience as they suddenly found out how far removed they were from the lives of the ordinary woman in the pew. For the first time in history, Catholic women not only had the opportunity but felt free to come forward and articulate their feelings to the whole Church without fear of discrimination or recrimination. The process was as exceptional and liberating for the women involved as it was for the bishops.

“We knew that we needed a process for the listening sessions,” says Cindy, who was a leader of her diocese’s committee, “and we knew that we needed rules for listening, because Catholics don’t seem to have a good history about listening to anyone except authority. We wanted everyone to feel that they had their own authority by being created by God and living a life. So we set up the rules and the process, and we knew that the bishops were in big trouble. But they asked us to do it! And when we had the information all compiled and gave it back to the bishops, we knew that there was no way that they could handle what we told them!”

The first draft of the bishops’ Pastoral on Women was a miracle. It was obvious that the bishops had actually been listening. Unfortunately, their hands were tied if they were to remain in good standing with the Vatican. While the bishops faithfully wrote down almost everything the women told them and even beat their breasts about the sin of sexism in the Church, they were unable to actually make or even promise to make any real changes.

What was written was a schizophrenic document full of many “yes, buts” that contradicted each other. If women had written it, we would have been ridiculed for our illogic. Instead, the bishops were censored by the Vatican for almost any attempt to offer solutions.

By November of 1992 the bishops’ Pastoral on Women had been rewritten four times, each time getting more conservative but not conservative enough for some bishops and very traditionalist women. The radical feminists thought the pastoral should have been written about the sin of sexism in the Church and how to rectify it, which included allowing the ordination of women. The fundamentalists thought it should be about the sin of feminism.

“We have always said that the listening sessions were very positive,” insists Maureen Fiedler of Catholics Speak Out. “The problem is that the bishops have since ceased listening to women and are listening to the Vatican. Each of the four drafts has become more and more Neanderthal. It has been an educational process for all the bishops, and the hearings were very beneficial in that they helped women to organize themselves in ways that they haven’t done before. But now, it is not a pastoral on women’s issues. It is a document on the Vatican’s concerns. I think they ought to say that the process was good, but the product terrible, so scratch it.”

Which is what they did. In November 1992 the U.S. bishops’ Pastoral on Women became the first pastoral letter that came out of committee, was voted on by the bishops, and was then defeated. A core of progressive bishops persuaded prominent moderates that passage could do serious damage to Catholic women. Although 137 bishops voted for it and only l l0 bishops voted against it, a two-thirds majority was needed to pass the measure. No one expects it to be voted on again.

How Women View the Hierarchy Itself

Very few women have personal relationships with bishops or cardinals, nor even a clue about how these men spend their time, other than what they read in the newspaper. So it is as easy for many women to put down or make fun of the hierarchy, or even to discount their work entirely as it is for women to worship them in awe. “The hierarchy for me stops with Father Art,” explains Jamie, a recent convert, talking about the associate pastor who baptized her.

“I love the Church I belong to,” Ann Z. explains. “But it doesn’t have very much to do with a bunch of bishops sitting around in conclaves talking.”

But women who actually know these men up close and personal are much more charitable and positive than the average woman in the pew who has never met them. Dolores Leckey is a laywoman who works closely with many of the bishops at their U.S. headquarters in Washington D.C. She has worked as the director of the Secretariat for Family, Laity, Women and Youth for 15 years, and she speaks highly of the many bishops she knows. She is particularly saddened when I relate to her that many of the women I am interviewing claim that the bishops and the rest of the hierarchy don’t practice what the Gospel preaches.

“I have worked with these bishops,” Dolores explains. “I can tell you of the struggles they go through. And I have met some of the holiest people I have ever known among the hierarchy . . . men who really will lay down their lives for anyone. And it is inspiring. The sadness is that some of them get caught in a kind of maintenance/administrative role, and people who are not close to them and do not work with them every day don’t realize their inner struggles.”

According to Dolores, the American bishops must do a balancing act in public, and they have to use the human tools at their disposal, which include the art of compromise. “They are trying to be true to several things to their own inner selves, to the magisterium, to whatever is a workable solution to something, to their own conscience, and to the validity of the Bishop’s Conference,” she insists.

“They are balancing a lot of things. They are all trying to be men of integrity,” Dolores continues. “And so they also know that there is a whole group of people who think that things are being lost. They want women to sit down and realize that. We all belong to the same Church. It is really not good for us to be judging the motives of other people. That is very dangerous and uncalled for. In most cases, on both sides of the spectrum, each side assumes that it has the whole truth. They are not dialoguing with each other, not trying to hear the other one, not trying to believe that this person or this group is really sincere. They are not willing to really look at each issue from the other side’s angle.”

Most of the women I talked to who actually knew a bishop personally shared Dolores Leckey’s opinion. Patricia Miller was particularly vocal. “I am encouraged by the many, many bishops I have met personally who have a larger vision of the Church and who see the laity as part of that vision. And they see women as an important part of that vision. There are many courageous bishops who are speaking up for women, and for homosexuals, and for Native Americans, and for all of those people who can’t speak for themselves. They are courageous men who are stepping forward, regardless of whether it hurts them politically in the Church. It makes me very proud to be a Catholic.”

Patricia believes that the U.S. bishops reflect the total U.S. population, and if only 7% of American Catholics are conservatives (she prefers the word traditionalists because it is less political), then probably only 7% of the U.S. bishops share these views. She does not think that we are heading for a split between the U.S. Catholic church and the Vatican, because too many holy and talented bishops are working too hard to prevent such a thing from happening.

Papal Infallibility and Church Authority

Listening to the above makes me wonder if the only reason many of us Americans have such a bad opinion about the Vatican hierarchy is because we don’t really know them. As much as she likes the U.S. bishops, it is the Roman Church—the Vatican—that frustrates Patricia Miller. “I feel they are out of touch with what’s going on in the individual lives of many of the Church’s members, and that their leadership is coming out of fear.”

Many other women, those who are involved with official Church activities as well as average women in the pew, made identical comments. “The Pope, for many Catholic women, is a distant figure and not a subject of intense preoccupation,” Jane Redmont found. “Several of the women I met expressed admiration for Pope John Paul II. More often women were highly critical or expressed a blend of criticism and admiration. John XXIII remained their favorite pope.” (78)

Few people know that it was not until 1870 that the constitution abou the infallible teaching authority of the Pope was approved, or that 55 bishop who opposed this teaching left Rome the night before the vote so as not to embarrass the Pope or shame themselves by voting against the proclamation of this teaching.(79) Few people also realize how rarely the Pope speaks infallibly about a doctrine. It is a very specialized and rare process. Teachings like those against artificial contraception have never been declared as infallible.

Even though many American Catholics don’t seem to take papal pronouncements all that seriously anyway, it is clear that Pope John Paul II does. In 1987 he declared that assent to the magisterium (the teaching authority of the Church) constitutes the basic attitude of the believer and is an act of the will as well as the mind, and that in the area of Church teaching, dissent is unacceptable. According to Father Michael Crosby, this means that instead of turning our minds and wills over to the power of God, the Pope wants us to turn them over to the magisterium.(80)

What dissent really means, however, is “public, publicized disagreement”, which theologians are forbidden to do. They are free to believe—in private—whatever conclusions they come up with, and they may even confront the Pope and the magisterium, as long as this is all done very quietly. This is rather hard for a theologian, whose daily business is to lecture and write about his or her intellectual opinions and findings. It is not so difficult for most average women in the pews. As more and more American Catholic women become more educated, more accustomed to thinking for themselves, and more willing to assume the responsibility for making their own choices (which includes being willing to make their own mistakes), the infallibility of anyone has less and less relationship to their real lives.

“One of the things I find most offensive about the treatment of Curren and Hunthausen [a theologian and a bishop who were both censored by the Vatican during the 1980s] is the assertion by one of the archbishops involved that you can’t tolerate what will confuse the simple faithful,” Abigail McCarthy contends. “Well, there are no simple faithful anymore, due to television and the high level of education in the U.S.” (81)

Archbishop Rembert Weakland agrees with her. In an address at the Catholic Press Association’s 1992 annual meeting in Milwaukee, he asks

“Could I broach here a very delicate subject and one that no one writes about but that is very important? As I travel around the country, I find a growing disaffection from Rome ....

It takes two forms. At times, it is rather just an expression of indifference to what Rome says. People just do not find that it matters much to them. I find this attitude very pronounced in the academic circles, but am always surprised to find it elsewhere as well at all cultural levels.

In addition to this indifference, there is also a second group that shows much anger, and some degree of animosity toward Rome.”

The Protestant Reformation would never have been possible if there had not been a separation of affection from Rome on the part of clergy and laity long before the event that broke the ties.(82)

Archbishop Weakland obviously has his ear to the ground about what is going on in the American Catholic church these days. To give an opposing view, however, a few women I interviewed were enthusiastic about the Pope. Maria is one of them. “The Pope is our shepherd, and we are the sheep and we follow and we obey,” she insists. “And it is wonderful having that submission to him. I am completely submissive, because I believe in everything he says. I think he is doing a wonderful job during a very difficult time. I am behind him 100%. I think he is a very spiritual man. He has tremendous insights. We only see one little portion, but he is seeing everything from a bird’s-eye view, a worldview.”

Needless to say, Maria does not represent many of the women I’ve talked to. The majority of them are like Carolyn, who respects the Pope for what he represents and considers herself a loyal Catholic, but would never dream of considering herself a sheep. For a while, Carolyn disagreed with the Pope on several different subjects, and she found herself feeling increasingly angry and alienated from the Church. Then one day, she realized that it was all her fault. “I stopped giving the institutional Church the power that I had given it before, but this was gradual. I had to realize that it was my own fault for having let this happen. It was not the institution that was imposing this on me; it was my own ego that was allowing the separation.

“I didn’t feel the need for a ritual to get back into good standing,” she admits, “but I felt that going to confession would be my admission to myself that I had allowed this barrier to be erected. And it was proof that I could accept some of the bad along with the good, because the good far outweighed the bad, and that I could accept that there has to be an institution for administrative purposes. Even though I may disagree with the institutionalization of some of these things, I can ignore all that. I must break through and not let that erect a barrier.”

“Today I figure that the hierarchy are members of the Church the same as I am," Carolyn continues. “And we are all different. The Pope and the bishops are doing some things that I agree with, and some things that I don’t, and I hope it all works out in the end. I’m not going to kiss their rings, but I’m also not going to let them keep me out of the Church!”

Christi, a recent college graduate, sums up what many women two and three times her age believe but have trouble explaining. “In grammar school and high school you were taught about the authority of the hierarchy, or the tradition of the hierarchy, as the guiding force, and how they set a pattern for your life. But in college, you begin to study the letters, the papers they wrote. You begin not to exactly criticize the teachings but to explore it all a little more critically. You stop just taking Church pronouncements word for word and instead try to first understand exactly what they are saying. Then you ask yourself, How does this apply to me personally? Is it something I can embrace? Or do I have to challenge it?"

In the 1990s most of the women who decide to challenge are doing so not out of anger but out of love. This reminds me of a time when things were difficult in my marriage, and I had gotten a single friend of mine to give me an extra key to her apartment, because I kept thinking that the only solution was for me to leave. Then, one summer afternoon when I was feeling particularly bad, I dove angrily into our swimming pool and began swimming laps furiously, crying, and all of a sudden it came over me: This is my house, my family, my life. And if anyone is leaving, it will not be me!

I was talking to a new friend—a highly visible woman in the Catholic church—during another interview, and she had almost the identical story. Comparing our experiences with our husbands to why we both stayed in the Catholic church, we suddenly laughed and agreed that the answer was obvious We and many, many other women like us had finally decided to grow up at last!


63. p. 324, Jane Redmont, Generous Lives, William Morrow, New York 1992..

64. p. v, Philip J. Murnion, New Parish Ministers, 1992, by National Catholic Life Center.

65. p. vi, Ibid.

66. p. 240, Catherine Mowry Lacugna, “Catholic Women as Ministers and Theologians," America, October 10, 1992.

67. p. 580, Whatever Happened to the Good Sisters?, 1992, ed. K. Fitzgerald and Claire Brault, Whale’s Tale Press.

68. p. 1, Tim Unsworth, NCR, October 19, 1992.

69. p. 178, They Call Her Pastor, by Ruth Wallace, 1992, State University of New York Press.

70. p. 65, Richard Ostling, “Cut from the wrong cloth”, Time, June 1992.

71. p. 6, Arthur Jones, “Gallup Poll Results unlikely to please Vatican”, NCR, July 3, 1992.

72. p. 12, New Parish Ministers.

73. p. 6, They Call Her Pastor.

74. p. 13, Ibid.

75. p. 143, Ibid.

76. pp. 165-168, Ibid.

77. p. 7, NCR, December 19, 1992.

78. p. 243, Generous Lives.

79. p. 77, Michael Crosby, The Dysfunctional Church, Notre Dame, Ave Maria Press 1991.

80. p. 77, Ibid.

81. p. 250, Generous Lives.

82. p. 20, Archbishop Weakland, quoted in NCR, May 29, 1992.

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