The rise of women in the Catholic Church

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The rise of women in the Catholic Church

Women in prominent positions within the Catholic Church – it is a sight that is not often seen. Most clergy are men, but in the light of gender equality, more and more women find themselves fighting for a role in the Church. How are they doing this, and does everyone agree with their views?

Women in prominent roles in the Catholic Church
One could argue that the Holy Scripture states that both men and women should be deacons in the Catholic Church. In Germany, theologian Marlis Gielen has done so. Gielen refers to Paul’s letter to the Galatians, which states that both men and women receive the Holy Spirit when they are baptised. Thus, she argues, both men and women are able to represent Jesus Christ in the Holy Communion, for they have become part of the clergy after baptism.[1] However, after the church separated its hierarchical system into deacons, priests, and bishops, it resulted in solely male clergy. Another German theologian, Ulrike Auga, says that interpreting religion has always been a masculine case, and it is leaving out the female part. However, women have always been present in religious stories. Auga emphasises that the female, more critical perspective should be incorporated in religious studies.[2] In other words, women have to be given more attention.

Also men are paying attention to the role of women in the Church. In the beginning of 2020, Pope Francis appointed Francesca di Giovanni to be the undersecretary for Multilateral Affairs in the Section for Relations with States of the Secretariat of State. Before Di Giovanni, no other woman had held this position. It indicates the pope’s attention to the current female question.[3] [4] In Bavaria, Germany, three women have been given prominent roles in the Church. They now execute jobs as the director of a pastoral care office, as the state’s new director of diocesan education and culture, and as official in diocesan administration.[5] Although these are still no clergy roles, it is a change in the direction of having more women in office. In February 2020, although the pope would not allow married men being ordained to solve the lack of priests in the Amazon, he did state that the roles of women could be expanded to help out.[6] Pope Francis also installed a commission in the Vatican that researches possibilities for ordaining women as deacons.[7]

These examples illustrate the greater demand for more females in the Church. Similarly, Bishop George Bätzing from the German Bishop’s Conference called for reforms in order to ordain women as deacons.[8] His fellow, German Cardinal Marx, published a text explaining why change for women in the Church is so preferable.[9] Furthermore, Cardinal Marc Ouellet expressed that it is important for priests to have a healthy relationship with women. He wants to achieve this by having women present in seminaries, because priests are ‘afraid’ of women. However, although women are good for teaching emotional experience, spiritual guidance is still only for men, Ouellet stated.[10] [11] This can be seen as a slight change, but is at the same time still holding on to only having men in official positions.

Women turning their back on the Church
Although some changes are visible, not everyone agrees with them. There are many women that do not agree with the Church, for the Church would deny female basic human rights. Protesters for women’s inclusion in the Church in Germany stated that not having women in leadership positions is not in accordance with the Holy Scripture.[12] Furthermore, an Austrian study showed that young women are less and less affected by the Catholic Church and do not think the Church is relevant for them anymore. They find the current social discourse on gender equality and the attitude of the Church towards this discourse very contradictory, and thus feel that the Church is discriminating against them. In the long run, this will cause the Church to empty, unless reforms are being pursued.[13]

There are recent examples of women who want to take up roles in the Catholic Church, but are still not allowed to. For instance, in Lyon, France, a 73-year-old Catholic woman, Anne Soupa, had applied for the vacancy of bishop. According to her, women bring other perspectives to the table and could initiate improvements.[14] However, Soupa was not appointed as bishop, because women cannot be consecrated as bishops in the Catholic Church.[15] Moreover, the Dominican François Daguet stated that Soupa forgot who installed the Church: Christ himself. Soupa, however, still wants to combat the ‘evil’ in the Church in the ongoing discussion about the place of women in the Church.[16] [17]

How can changes be accomplished?
Gender equality and having women in the same positions as men is still a long road. What can faithful do in order to change anything? Several religious women use their position to fight for women’s rights, as did Pastor Mia Rahr Jacobsen from Denmark. She states that Christianity has been formed by men over the years, and it would have looked different if women had interfered with it more. Jacobsen looks for ways to change power relationships in narratives, for as a woman, she can more easily ‘bounce’ on what has been said so far by men.[18]

Another example of change is portrayed by an exclusive ‘women’s supplement’ in the Italian newspaper L’Osservatore Romano. Focusing on women who suffer for their faith, they break down the stereotypical ‘weak’ female figure. The newspaper hopes to empower women in this way and to gain more equality in the Catholic Church.[19]

Change is coming
All in all, there are many changes to be seen and many voices regarding more equality in the Catholic Church. However, not all news is positive and there still remain more conservative voices, leading women to turn their backs on the church. Nevertheless, one could carefully say that change is on its way.

Astrid Hamberg

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[1] Salzburger Theologin Gielen für Zugang von Frauen zum Priesteramt
[2] Religionswissenschaft und Geschlechterforschung. Gegen die männliche Deutungshoheit
[3] Svolta del Papa, nomina la prima donna sottosegretario nella Segreteria di Stato
[4] Pope appoints first woman to senior Vatican position World/15 Jan
[5] Women shatter stained glass ceiling in Germany, rise to management positions in three dioceses
[6] Pope shelves proposal to allow married men to be priests in remote areas
[7] Pope “takes up challenge” of more women’s rights in Church, creates new commission to study female deacons
[8] German Bishops’ head wants permission from Rome to ordain female deacons; thousands of Catholic women protest for Church equality
[9] Germania: due scritti del cardinale Marx su ruolo delle donne nella Chiesa ed ecumenismo
[10] Vatican cardinal: “We must radically change” how priests interact with women
[11] Il cardinale Ouellet: come formare meglio i preti? “Con più donne vicine a loro”
[12] German Bishops’ head wants permission from Rome to ordain female deacons; thousands of Catholic women protest for Church equality
[13] Studie: Katholische Kirche für immer weniger junge Frauen relevant
[14] Una giornalista cattolica di 73 anni si auto-candida a fare il vescovo di Lione, sede vacante da mesi
[15] Qui est vraiment Anne Soupa, l’écrivaine qui défie l’Eglise catholique
[16] Anne Soupa, la théologienne qui défie le clergé français
[17] Anne Soupa relance le débat sur la place des femmes dans l’Église
[18] Voxpop: Religiøse kvinder om kvinderettigheder
[19] Vatican magazine praises “spiritual resistance and moral strength” of modern female “martyrs”