Responsive image
Nederlands/Vlaams Deutsch Francais English language Spanish language Portuguese language Catalan Chinese Czech Malayalam Finnish Igbo
Japanese Korean Romanian Malay language Norwegian Swedish Polish Swahili Chichewa Tagalog Urdu
Women in the Life of the Church by Elizabeth Carroll from 'Women Priests'

Women in the Life of the Church

by Elizabeth Carroll

from Women Priests, Arlene Swidler & Leonard Swidler (eds.), Paulist Press 1977, pp. 61-64.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions

Elizabeth Carroll, RSM, was at the time Staff Associate at the Center of Concern, Washington, D.C. With degrees from Pittsburgh and Toronto, and a Ph. D. from Catholic University of America, she has served as professor, dean and president of Carlow College, Pittsburgh; as president of the Pittsburgh Sisters of Mercy and of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

The life of the Church continues the earthly life of Jesus. It depends upon the force of the Spirit revealing, animating, empowering, just as Jesus did.(1) Jesus laid the basis of the Church by attracting and forming disciples, women as well as men.(2) Jesus counted upon women to understand and integrate his message, to act upon it and to proclaim it.(3)

By admitting women to Baptism the early Church acknowledged the full potentiality of the female to live the new life of the risen Christ, to receive and be driven by the charisma of the Holy Spirit, and to fulfil the promise of their Creator as imaging God.(4)

Throughout the history of the Church cultural conditions and human failures have prevented women from fulfilling their potential and from having their services honestly named.(5) The Declaration singles out two “foundresses” and two Doctors of the Church for mention.(6) It is noteworthy that the Law of the Church has not upheld the prerogatives of leadership based on such “foundresses”(7) nor has the teaching authority of the Church built upon the truth inherent in the fact that if women are among the Doctors of the Church they are thereby acknowledged as part of the magisterium.(8)

The truth is that today women are performing most of the functions which Jesus mandated to his disciples as ways of being like him. At home and in innumerable Church functions women serve in that provision of food which was so often for Jesus a setting for friendship, acceptance of the outcast, and teaching.(9) Women continue in works from personal nurture to community organizing to help people accept and form bonds of mutual supportive services.

Jesus commissioned his apostles to preach the Gospel.(10) Today, according to the Sacred Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, one-third of those “engaged directly in evangelization” are men, two-thirds are women. The Congregation declares that: “. . . the history of the missions has for a long time borne witness to the very large role played by women in the evangelization of the world.” This congregation details some of the areas in which women participate in the pastoral work of the Church:

In how many parishes already does not a Sister, in the absence of a priest, preside over the liturgical assembly of the faithful on Sundays and weekdays, and exhort and instruct them in their Christian duties.(11)

Even in parishes within which priests reside women are performing important pastoral activities as team members or as staff. In some parishes they regularly deliver homilies, thus bringing feminine experience into reflection on the Scriptures.(12) An example of the leadership being afforded women in this field is the appointment of a woman as chairperson of the Homiletics department of a major seminary.(130 From teachers of prayer and moral decision-making in the home and nursery school to professors of theology in university and seminary, women are at present shaping much of the perception of the message of Jesus. Women, moreover, are increasingly active in the preaching and directing of retreats, in spiritual direction, even of priests, in leading shared prayer and group study of spirituality and of Scripture. Women are engaged in many parishes as "ministers of liturgy," helping to prepare liturgies, to train persons for their participation in them, to make their meaning explicit.

In fields relating closely to jurisdiction women have been authorized to serve as Chancellor of the diocese, as Vicars for Religious, as directors of diocesan departmcnts.(14)

In the Catholic tradition the life of Jesus is transmitted not only through hearing his word but through the sacraments. A considerable amount of the work of preparing persons for the sacraments is in the hands of women. The instruction of catechumens and of catechists of catechumens, the delicate task of preparing children for first communion and first confession, the youth ministry that precedes Confirmation all enlist the talents of women on a very large scale. As the document of the Council for Evangelization, The Role of Women in Evangelization, indicates:

It is often a Sister too whose presence makes it possible to have the Blessed Sacrament reserved; and she distributes it to the faithful both during Mass and outside of Mass when necessary.

There are cases where Sisters are permanently in charge of parishes, with the authorization of thc Bishop, and administer baptism as well as preside at marriages as the Church’s official witness.(15)

One of the distinguishing marks of Jesus’ ministry and a focus of his presence was its welcome to sinners and the abandoned, its outreach to the needy.(16) In the experience of St. Paul Christ declared himself as the person of the persecuted.(17) In Matthew’s scene of the Last Judgment the Son of Man identifies himself with the hungry, the homeless, the sick, the prisoner.(18) Today in the administration and service of institutional works, hospitals, refuges for the unwanted, training centers for the afflicted and delinquent, women continue to extend that welcome, thus “being” Christ for those in need. In one-to-one visits with the psychologically depressed, the guilt-ridden, the aging, women help persons to that conversion of heart which is integral as means and end to every sacramental grace.(19)

Women’s services in the Church today present an anomoly. As regards offices of leadership their work can be rendered “official” by an exceptional authorization, an indult. In the sacramental order their emerging roles constitute a challenge to the understanding of sacrament. Does God forgive sins confessed to a person whose ministry has helped the sinner to conversion of heart? Or does God forgive only sins absolved by an ordained priest with appropriate faculties? Is it respectful of the mercy of Jesus or the humanness of women to allow women to anguish over the incompleteness of their reconciling mission (in forgiveness of sin or sacrament of anointing) because no priest is available? Is the ministry of a woman who in day-by-day loving service gathers a parish for prayer, scriptural remembering, and distribution of the Eucharist the focus for the full presence of Christ? Or do the words of consecration alone provide the sacramental union of Christ with and among his people?

People see a natural resemblance to Jesus in the love conveyed, the service rendered, the self shared, much more than they look to a physical characteristic like sex.(20) The fact that people in physical, psychological, and spiritual need accept the ministry of women belies the contention that women cannot be recognized as images of Christ.(21)

Matthew represents Jesus as declaring, “It is enough that the disciple should grow to be like the teacher....”(22) Women as well as men will be accepted as bearing a natural resemblance to Christ as they grow like their teacher, Jesus, as they “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”(23)


1. “Constitution on the Church,” nos. 4-8, in The Documents of Vatican II, ed. W.M. Abbott (New York: Association Press, 1966), pp. 20-22; Mt 4:1; Mark 1:10, 12; 4:14.

2. E.g., Lk 11 :27-28: 8:21: Mary, the mother of Jesus, “heard the word of God and kept it”; Lk 10:39: Mary of Bethany; especially Lk 8:1-3; 24:10; Mk 15:40-41; 16:9; Mt 27:55-56; Jn 19:25: On the way, women as well as the Twelve accompanied Jesus.

3. E.g., Lk 2:52: Mary “kept all these things in her heart”, Jn 11:1731: Martha’s dialogue with Jesus on the resurrection, Jn 4:5-42: Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan woman.

4. Gal 3:27-28 represents a baptismal text, emphasizing the equality of all baptized. See also Gen 1:26-27; “Constitution on the Church,” loc. cit.

5. The Church rose out of the patriarchal culture of the Jews. Despite the initiatives of Jesus in cutting through the legal impediments on women, cultural habits prevailed, to be reinforced in the dualism of patristic thought and the turmoil of Germanic migrations. Both men and women lacked insight into the non-Christlike structure; men fell into machisimo or chauvinism, women into timidity and manipulation.

6. St. Clare and St. Teresa; St. Catherine of Siena and St. Teresa.

7. The Code of Canon Law (c. 506) requires that elections of many religious superiors of women to be valid must be presided over by a man, in all cases may be required to have a man presiding, and in some instances need men as tellers.

8. In B. Forshaw, “Doctors of the Church,” New Catholic Encyclopedia (1967), Vol. 4, it is stated that there are no women who are Doctors of the Church, nor was it likely that any would be because of the “link between the title and the teaching office of the Church.” Yet Pope Paul in 1970 in his homily on St. Teresa went to great length to explain that in her case “Doctor of the Church” was not a matter of “a title entailing hierarchical teaching functions.” See Pope Speaks Vol.15 (1970), p. 221; see also Spiritual Life, Vol. 16 (1970) pp. 210-263; see also Acta Aposto/ica Sedis, Vol. 62 (1970), pp. 594f.

9. On Jesus’ application to himself and to women of the verb diakonein, to serve, see Elizabeth Carroll, “Women and Ministry,” Theolgical Studies, Vol. 36, No. 4 (Dec., 1975), p. 662.

10. Mk 16:16.

11. Pastoral Commission of the Sacred Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, The Role of Women in Evangelization (Rome, March, 1976) No. 5.

12. Elizabeth Carroll, Report to Committee on Women of the Canon Law Society of America, Bethesda, Md., April 15-17, 1977.

13. Aquinas Institute (Order of Preachers), Dubuque, Iowa.

14. Carroll, op. cit. A woman is Chancellor in the diocese of Nelson, British Columbia. Vicars for Religious are women in Denver, Providence, Youngstown, New Ulm, and Detroit. Canada lists women as constituting 27% of directors of diocesan departments.

15. Pastoral Commission, op. cit.

16. Mt. 9:10; Lk 5:12-14; 7:36-50; 8:43-48, etc.

17. Acts 9:4-5; 22:8; 26:15.

18. Mt 25:31 -46.

19. Mt 18:3; Lk 17:4.

20. One woman pastoral associate affirms this influence on attitudes as she writes, “This town would not favor the ordination of women, but (because of my long service here) they would like me to be ordained.”

21. Declaration, par. 26.

22. Mt 10:25.

23. Rom 13:14.

See also her article Women and Ministry, from Theological Studies Vol 36.

Contents of “Women Priests” book Support our campaign Sitemap Contemporary theologians Join Campaign activities Go back to home page

Wijngaards Institute for Catholic ResearchThis website is maintained by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.

The Institute is known for issuing academic reports and statements on relevant issues in the Church. These have included scholars' declarations on the need of collegiality in the exercise of church authority, on the ethics of using contraceptives in marriage and the urgency of re-instating the sacramental diaconate of women.

Visit also our websites:Women Deacons, The Body is Sacred and Mystery and Beyond.

You are welcome to use our material. However: maintaining this site costs money. We are a Charity and work mainly with volunteers, but we find it difficult to pay our overheads.

Visitors to our website since January 2014.
Pop-up names are online now.

The number is indicative, but incomplete. For full details click on cross icon at bottom right.

Please, support our campaign
for women priests
Join our Women Priests' Mailing List
for occasional newsletters:
An email will be immediately sent to you
requesting your confirmation.