Belief in the virgin birth comes from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Their birth stories are different, but both present Mary as a virgin when she became pregnant with Jesus. Mary and Joseph begin their sexual relationship following Jesus’ birth, and so Jesus has brothers and sisters.
Catholic piety goes beyond this, with Mary depicted as a virgin not only before but also during and after Jesus’ birth, her hymen miraculously restored. The brothers and sisters of Jesus are seen as either cousins or children of Joseph by an earlier marriage.
In Catholicism, Mary remains a virgin throughout her married life. This view arises not from the New Testament but from an apocryphal Gospel in the second century, the “Protoevangelium of James”, which affirms Mary’s perpetual virginity.
From the second century onwards, Christians saw virginity as an ideal, an alternative to marriage and children. Mary was seen to exemplify this choice, along with Jesus and the apostle Paul. It accorded with the surrounding culture where Greek philosophers, male and female, tried to live a simple life without attachment to family or possessions.
This extolling of virginity, however unlikely when applied to Mary, did have some advantages. The option of becoming a celibate nun in community with other women gave young women in the early church an attractive alternative to marriage, in a culture where marriages were generally arranged and death in childbirth was common.
Yet belief in the eternal virginity of Mary has also inflicted damage over the centuries, particularly on women. It has distorted the character of Mary, turning her into a submissive, dependent creature, without threat to patriarchal structures.
She is divorced from the lives of real women who can never attain her sexless motherhood or her unsullied “purity”.
A strong minded leader
Yet in the Gospels, Mary is a vibrant figure: strong-minded and courageous, a leader in the community of faith.
Simone de Beauvoir, the influential, early French feminist, observed that the cult of the Virgin Mary represented the “supreme victory of masculinity”, implying that it served the interests of men rather than women.
The ever-Virgin diminishes women’s sexuality and makes the female body and female sexuality seem unwholesome, impure. She is a safe and nonthreatening figure for celibate men who place her on a pedestal, both literally and metaphorically.
It is true that Catholic women across the world have found great solace in the compassionate figure of Mary, especially against images of a very masculine, judgmental God, and the brutality of political and religious hierarchy.
But for this women have paid a price, in their exclusion from leadership. Mary’s voice has been permitted, in filtered tones, to ring out across the church, but real women’s voices are silent.
In today’s context, the cult of the Virgin becomes emblematic of the way the church silences women and marginalises their experience.
Marian piety in its traditional form has a deep contradiction at its heart. In a speech in 2014, Pope Francis said, “The model of maternity for the Church is the Virgin Mary” who “in the fullness of time conceived through the Holy Spirit and gave birth to the Son of God.”
If that were true, women could be ordained, since their connection to Mary would allow them, like her, to represent the church. If the world received the body of Christ from this woman, Mary, then women today should not be excluded from giving the body of Christ, as priests, to the faithful at Mass.
The Virgin cult cuts women off from the full, human reality of Mary, and so from full participation in the life of the church.
It is no coincidence that in the early 20th century, the Vatican forbade Mary to be depicted in priestly vestments. She could only ever be presented as the unattainable virgin-mother: never as leader, and never as a fully embodied woman in her own right.
The irony of this should not be lost. A fully human Gospel symbol of female authority, autonomy, and the capacity to envision a transformed world becomes a tool of patriarchy.
By contrast, the Mary of the Gospels, the God-bearer and priestly figure – a normal wife and mother of children – confirms women in their embodied humanity and supports their efforts to challenge unjust structures, both within and outside the church.
In the wake of the royal commission into child sexual abuse, Christian churches in this country need not only radical reform of their principles and practices, but also ways of recovering their integrity. For the Catholic Church, with its patriarchal structures, ordaining women to the priesthood is one way to achieve this.
In 2016, Pope Francis appointed a commission to report on women in the early church, asking the question of whether women could be ordained as deacons. (Deacons are the first level of ordination in the Catholic Church before priesthood.)
Now the pope has said the commission was divided on the issue. The commission agreed there were women deacons in the early church, but disagreed on whether they had any power. The pope has handed the report to a gathering of the heads of female religious orders, and may call the commissioners back for further input.
Note that, in all this, the Catholic Church has not even begun to debate the question of whether women can be priests (the second and more powerful level of ordination in the church). Yet if we look closely at the Bible and the history of the church, there are very good reasons why women should hold these positions of high authority.
As the mother and grandmother of Catholic children, it pains me that women cannot be ordained in the Catholic Church. I can tell my grandson that he might think about becoming a Catholic priest when he grows up, but I cannot say the same to my granddaughters.
As an Anglican priest, I have seen ordained women of extraordinary capacity working in the Anglican Church and exercising authority. I know women deacons, women priests and women bishops, and can testify to the marvellous work of ministry they are doing.
I also know scores of Catholic women who would make truly remarkable priests. They are loving, self-giving, intelligent and responsible, with spiritual depth and wisdom. They would do much to restore the church’s integrity.
Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther of Wittenberg circulated his 95 theses, critiquing the Catholic Church and launching the Protestant Reformation. Liz McCloskey of Falls Church has five.
Fed up with the way Catholic bishops have handled clergy sexual abuse of children, the 54-year-old academic’s group from Holy Trinity parish in the District has joined recently with groups from parishes in places such as Seattle and New York City on a project. They are affixing fliers with five demands to the doors of cathedrals and parish churches — meant to conjure a famous (if unconfirmed) tale about Luther nailing his demands to a German church door, an image that has come to embody grass-roots folks rising up for religious reform.
Among the details on the list of five: Stop qualifying their actions or lack thereof and just cooperate fully with civil prosecutors who are investigating abuse in the church. Stop wearing fancy royalty-like garb and dress and live simply. Give space in every edition of every church newspaper to abuse survivors.
The groups pushing for changes are among a small but growing number of U.S. Catholics who are organizing for internal reform — action that not long ago would have been an unheard-of challenge to church authority. In some cases, lay Catholics are making demands in cooperation with priests.
“We’re in disruptive times, right? So many institutions have failed, in a way that people inside feel: ‘Hey, we’ve given institutional power to leaders for too long and they’ve failed us,’ ” said Keith Norman, a 52-year-old media executive who is part of a group at his Vienna, Va., parish that wrote its own petition of demands to the U.S. bishops.
This has been a year of bitter discontent among American Catholics, with several high-level clerics leaving office because of alleged abuse or mishandling of abuse. While polls show thousands of Catholics have left the church in part because of anger over the handling of abuse allelgations, millions remain active in parish life. They tend to be those who — until 2018 — believed any abuse-related failings were sufficiently public and that reparations had been made.
But in a CBS poll earlier this fall, a quarter of U.S. Catholics said that as a result of recent reports of priest sexual abuse, they have personally questioned whether to stay in the church. The recent revelations have led some across the ideological spectrum to say they are not satisfied leaving reform in the hands of the bishops and diocesan lawyers.
“Catholics are newly awakened to power relationships. . . . The laity are for the first time feeling their own powerlessness,” said Kathleen Sprows Cummings, a historian at the University of Notre Dame who runs the school’s center for the study of American Catholicism.
While a wave of Catholics began organizing for internal reform in the early 2000s, Cummings said, even then the push only went so far. The call then was more for laypeople to be involved than for them to be in charge in any way, which is what’s happening now.
“Now for the first time in American Catholic Church history, members of the laity are more educated than ever before, more accomplished than ever, more elite,” she said. “For most of U.S. history, the most accomplished people in the Catholic Church were the hierarchy. Now you have laity who are saying: ‘I wouldn’t run the church like this.’ ”
Among the parishes where groups are organizing are two very large ones in the Arlington Diocese, known as one of the country’s most conservative. There are about 70 churches in the diocese, but the organized demand for internal reform is new. As are priests serving as neutral facilitators or supporters.
Norman, who has taught Sunday school and served as a Eucharistic minister, is part of the group organizing at the 12,000-member Our Lady of Good Counsel Catholic Church in Vienna. Following several meetings about what could be done to demand repair from clergy, about 250 members of the affluent and diverse parish signed on to a parish-crafted petition made public a few weeks ago. The document includes a list of action items sent to all U.S. bishops with a letter. The signers, it noted “are here to help save our Church.”
The three-page list calls for more transparency and authority for the laity, including a call for nonclergy to have a greater role in the selection of bishops, priests and seminarians. It called for an end to an all-male hierarchy. It called for all financial records and decisions to be open, including any payouts of abuse claims.
The meetings and compilation of the document were well-publicized within Our Lady, and the Rev. Matt Hillyard encouraged those who agreed as well as those who did not to participate. This is a tightrope for Catholic priests, who seldom publicly criticize or challenge bishops, and the mere existence of the public document is controversial at Our Lady.
Some felt allegations and criticisms being made this year against American bishops and cardinals — including two District leaders, Donald Wuerl and Theodore McCarrick — hadn’t been fully proved. Others felt giving laypeople authority over clergy would make the Catholic Church un-Catholic — or even Protestant.
Hillyard asked the group not to refer to itself as the “parish” group but to take another name, which it did: the D.C. Area Catholic Action Group.
The priest said he worked hard to encourage people with different views to write their own letters to the bishops. The priest said what feels new about this era is the scope of the abuse and mismanagement that is alleged in different scandals, including in Pennsylvania, where a grand jury this summer released a devastating report about abuse and a coverup.
“This was different because it was bigger,” he said. “The problem has raised the issue of transparency. I don’t think it’s unhealthy. It’s just where that dialogue goes.”
Our Lady is pairing in its organizing with St. John Neumann, a 4,000-household parish in nearby Reston. A group there worked for months this fall on various mission statements and drafts and careful rules for even speaking in their sessions. They began meetings with a prayer: “My God . . . help us to conduct ourselves during this time, in a manner pleasing to you. Amen.”
More than 600 people at St. John signed a letter to the bishops with action items including a call for the church to stop lobbying against the repeal of statutes of limitations, to incorporate women into “every level” of decision-making, to stop excusing “criminal or abusive behavior” by referencing norms and protocols “acceptable in previous eras.”
The St. John letter also calls on bishops to stop “scapegoating . . . the problem of sexual abuse is not related to homosexuality.”
Hillyard isn’t the only one who approaches the new organizing with caution. Even the Catholics who are most passionate about reform can be wary.
“I’m not sure I’d use the word challenge,” said Betty McFarlane, one of the leaders of the St. John group.
Her husband, Tom, doesn’t hesitate.
“It’s more a function of the degree of frustration among all Catholics. With the way the bishops have failed to address the issue over time.”
It’s not clear how the bishops will react.
Angela Pellerano, the spokeswoman for the Arlington Diocese, did not respond to several requests for comment for this article. A diocesan official who was scheduled to attend one of the opening meetings at Our Lady canceled the night before, and Bishop Michael Burbidge has held no open forums on the abuse issue this year — only ones that have been invitation-only, parish members said. The diocese has not posted a list of priests accused of abuse in the diocese but said earlier this fall that it will.
Burbidge did respond to a copy of the document created by the Our Lady parishioners, writing Hillyard a two-paragraph letter that some congregants found disrespectful.
“It is my hope that you have been faithfully sharing with your parishioners the many ways I have personally addressed the issues raised in the petition,” he wrote.
Many of the most involved Catholics say they are still working out what they mean when they say they want more accountability.
The Five Theses calls for “dismantling clericalism,” but McCloskey cedes that Catholics disagree on what that means. Give the laity authority over bishops? Have bishops and cardinals dress more humbly?
“Some feel it’s overstepping boundaries or not respecting the good work of priests and bishops or their authority,” she said. “I don’t know if we all mean the same thing by ‘clericalism.’ . . . But what most people agree upon is that the distance between bishops in particular and the people of God has been too great.”
In recent weeks her parish at Holy Trinity in the District has held a woman-led retreat, in which the priest was a participant — not the leader. They have created postcards with their demands to which some are affixing two pennies and putting them in the Sunday offering basket, a plainly defiant donation. They have created a Web site with their reform priorities and begun hosting female Bible scholars who can talk about women’s role in scripture.
Despite such moves, Cummings and others who study American Catholicism agree that the recent burst of organizing, while historic, involves a small minority of U.S. Catholics.
Most people who want change, Cummings said, are either quietly leaving organized Catholic life, or scaling back to just the spiritual — coming to Mass but going out the side door before coffee hour.
Studying Christian theology has given me both hope and disappointment concerning the treatment of women in the Catholic Church.
I have been inspired and moved by the mystical writing of medieval women, yet at times frustrated when my class on early Christianity relied entirely on the writings of men. Many Bible passages describe women as objects or tertiary characters in the stories of men, yet others feature women prominently, like the story of salvation in the Gospel of Luke.
Overall, I have struggled to find a place for women in the church and in the Bible. I believe this place exists, although it has long been ignored. I have embraced the Catholic creed, and I believe strongly in my church. However, the future of Catholicism demands a feminist hermeneutic, led by women who study theology.
A hermeneutic is a lens through which theologians interpret scripture and religious tradition in the context of their present situation. A feminist hermeneutic does so from a woman’s perspective. Catholic theology is shaped almost exclusively by men and steeped in androcentrism. A feminist hermeneutic must look at this tradition and equalize the playing field so that women’s religious experience is just as credited as that of men. It does not discard scripture and tradition but rather questions its inconsistencies and seeks a place in it for women.
Past feminist theologians have examined both scripture and tradition in order to establish a tradition that values women. For example, Elizabeth Johnson, a feminist theologian at Fordham University, has studied both the Old and New Testaments and found many ancient female images for God, such as the Spirit of Wisdom, that have long been suppressed and subordinated. The church needs more women to study theology with an eye toward female equality, as Johnson does.
A feminist framework is important not only to women but also to the whole church, as it can reveal a more truthful interpretation of scripture. The creation story is a perfect example: The first chapter of Genesis specifies that both man and woman are created simultaneously in the image of God. Nevertheless, Michelangelo’s famous fresco in the Sistine Chapel of the creation story depicts God breathing life into only Adam.
The second chapter of Genesis does indeed describe woman being created after and from man, but only after man is created from dirt. To argue that women are inferior to men based off the order of creation but not to assert than men are inferior to dirt is theologically unsound, yet in the past Christians have claimed to make this interpretation. A closer examination of the creation story debunks any narrative of women’s inferiority.
In the Catholic Church, women cannot be ordained priests. Additionally, only four of the 36 doctors of the church — a title given to saints who have made significant contributions to Catholic theology — are women. We are grossly underrepresented in the Bible, where we are mentioned and speak less; passages that do emphasize us — like the creation story — are either distorted or ignored by the lectionary — the passages of the Bible used in Mass. Johnson and the creation story prove there is a place for women in the Catholic Church to examine problematic passages in the Bible.
An examination of Genesis 1 may not require a graduate degree in theology, but many theological questions require another examination because they have been developed by men in power. Studying theology with a feminist hermeneutic is an important way for women of faith to reassert our voices in the church. To do so is not to break from the faith but rather to enhance it.
Theologians are always using hermeneutics to apply scripture and tradition in a way that is relevant to contemporary society. While the texts of the Bible cannot be changed, hermeneutics re-examine the scriptures in a modern context. Catholic women have had to rely on men for far too long to tell them what the Bible says or should mean to them. We should have equal opportunity to assert its implications and those of Catholic tradition for ourselves by studying theology with a feminist hermeneutic.
Some Catholic women are calling to remove the barriers that prevent them from reaching the highest positions in their church’s leadership.
They say women should be able to vote in major policy meetings. They want Pope Francis to act on his promise to put more women in leadership positions within his administration, known as the Holy See. And some women want to become priests.
“Knock, knock! Who’s there? More than half the Church!” a group of Catholic women shouted outside the Vatican on October 3. That was the first day of this year’s meeting, or synod, of bishops from around the world.
The meeting brings together some 300 bishops, priests, nuns and other members of the church. Only about 35 are women. Not surprisingly, the position of women in the Catholic Church has been a major issue at the month-long meeting. The subject has come up in speeches on the floor, in small group discussions and at news conferences.
Only “synod fathers” are permitted to vote on the meeting’s final policy suggestions. The suggestions are then sent to the pope, who will take them into consideration when he writes his own document. Others involved are non-voting observers or experts.
Some of the attendees have pointed to what they say is a problem with these rules.
For example, this year two men who are not officially priests are being permitted to vote as leaders of their religious orders. But Sister Sally Marie Hodgdon is the leader of her religious order, and she cannot vote.
“I am a superior general,” Hodgdon told reporters. “I am a sister. So in theory … you would think I would have the right to vote.”
The membership of female religious orders is about three times larger than that of male orders.
An internet-based petition demanding that women have the right to vote at synods has collected 9,000 signatures since the start of this meeting. It is supported by 10 Catholic organizations seeking change in the Church. These changes include greater rights for women and homosexuals and greater responsibilities for non-priests.
“If male religious superiors who are not ordained can vote, then women religious superiors who are also not ordained should vote. With no … doctrinal barrier, the only barrier is the biological sex of the religious superior,” the petition reads.
The effort has won some powerful supporters.
At a news conference on October 15, leaders of three major male religious orders expressed support for changes in synod rules. Leaders of the Jesuits, the Dominicans and one branch of the Franciscans asked that women be permitted to vote in the future.
Support also came from Cardinal Reinhard Marx. He is the archbishop of Munich, president of the German Bishops Conference and one of the most influential Catholic leaders in Europe. In a speech to the synod, Marx said the church’s leaders must answer the questions young people have about equal rights for women.
“The impression that the Church, when it comes to power, is ultimately a male Church must be overcome in the universal Church and also here in the Vatican,” he said. “It is high time.”
Women in the Vatican
Five years ago, Pope Francis promised to put more women in leadership in his administration and Vatican City. Women are eligible for top positions in 50 departments, but only six hold such roles. None leads a department.
In June, Francis told the Reuters news service he had to “fight” resistance within the church to appoint 42-year-old Spanish reporter Paloma Garcia-Ovejero. He made her deputy head of the Vatican’s press office.
But the pope’s critics say he is moving too slowly. Sister Maria Luisa Berzosa Gonzalez is taking part in the current synod. She thinks it is time for change — in the synod, and in the wider Church. The 75-year old Spanish nun has spent her life educating the poor in Spain, Argentina and Italy.
“With this structure in the synod, with few women, few young people, nothing will change. It should no longer be this way,” she told Reuters.
The Catholic Church teaches that women cannot become priests because Jesus chose only men to help form the religion.
But supporters of a female priesthood say Jesus was just following the rules of society at the time. Kate McElwee is the Rome-based executive director of the Women’s Ordination Conference, a U.S. group. She organized the protest on the synod’s opening day.
“Some women feel called by God to be priests … just as men do,” said McElwee.
As a Jesuit, a Roman Catholic priest — as somebody who lives and breathes the church — I should have understood already how broken the institution of the church can be. After all, the scandal of child sex abuse and its cover-up by the church hierarchy broke in Boston in 2002. Then it happened again in Minnesota in 2012. That list could go on. I read about those scandals years ago with both anger and sadness. But in reading the recent Pennsylvania reports detailing yet another cover-up of clergy sexual abuse, I found shock giving way to shame.
I am ashamed at the crimes recorded in the Pennsylvania grand jury report and ashamed by the apparently well-known abuses of power by former Cardinal McCarrick. I am ashamed not because there is anything new in these reports, but because it means that in yet another place, the hierarchy of the church has chosen to protect the institution over the vulnerable. And I am ashamed because, though I have not committed these acts myself, I am by my own choice a part of this system. It is because others who have this ministry have caused such pain that I feel compelled to say how sorry I am.
But even saying that feels uncomfortably like a power grab, a use of the very authority of the priesthood — the expectation that people will listen as I narrate the experience of faith — to make an inadequate apology for the way that same authority has been so grievously misused. But it will take a few more words to explain why I became a Catholic, why I am a priest, and why all of this matters.
Why I became a priest
I became a Catholic in April 2001 during my junior year of college. I was 20 years old, and deeply convinced in the way only a 20-year-old can be that I was becoming part of something much bigger, much holier, much truer than I could be alone.
Extremist that I am, 18 months later I became a Jesuit, and 11 years after that a priest. What I wanted — and what I have found — was a way to give my whole life away in service. I wanted to think toward such a God, help women and men experience such a God, and serve such a God among the poor. I wanted to speak about what such a life was like and, in speaking about it, make it a little more imaginable for others. Being a priest has been the greatest gift of my life.
Which explains something of why it is so heart-wrenching, in light of these continuing scandals, to feel this greatest of gifts become a source of pain.
Still, for many years, even as vocations to the priesthood and religious life have declined and laypeople have taken on more and more leadership positions, there has been an expectation that it is the role of the clergy to speak and that of the laity to listen
Which is why I feel that in the midst of such a scandal, more words from yet another priest verge on the scandalous. Instead, what we priests need to do is to renounce the expectation to be listened to in favor of listening to those we serve
Trying to do that led me to ask a handful of lay leaders across the country not just what they thought of these scandals but how it was affecting their ministry and what they hoped for the church in its midst. Each of them labor full time in the church, ministering as teachers, retreat leaders, and spiritual directors. I preserved their anonymity so they would feel free to speak.
“I actually don’t feel that the bishops betrayed my trust, because they’ve never had it.”
“I am angry,” said one campus minister at an all-girls high school in the Midwest. “I’m now at the point where I’m going to lean into the church one more time, and this is either going to get better or I’m leaving. I want this to get better,” he told me, “but it’s not going to unless we demand a change in the way the church functions. I think we have to use the anger we feel for good because anger without action is selfish. We, the laity of the church, are also responsible for maintaining the status quo — now that we know about these abuses, we must act.”
“I actually don’t feel that the bishops betrayed my trust,” said a theologian at a Catholic university in the West, “because they’ve never had it. But the church is not the bishops. Most of my students don’t feel betrayed for the same reason. They never trusted the institution in the first place.”
A director of formation for a large, suburban parish told me that it’s “only after working within the church for more than a decade” that she’s actually felt like she has some influence on the governance of her parish. “What this scandal has really shown,” she said, is “how deep the chasm between the clergy and the laity really is. It cannot be that the only time we have intimate conversations with priests is behind the wall of the confessional.”
For her, this means involving women, who have for so long done so much of the church’s ministry. As she put it, “women are the ones leading the relational ministries of the church. We have to be included in the leadership of our dioceses, but right now it feels like we are expected to stand on the sidelines and be cheerleaders. Women need a seat at the table.”
Another minister, a liturgist and chaplain at a large Catholic university, told me: “I want us to talk more openly about sexuality in ministry. We have to actually talk about it because the reality is that the sexual identities of the church ministers have been stifled.” When I asked him what was preventing such conversations from happening, he replied, “I believe that the hierarchy is afraid. I’m afraid of having these substantive conversations, too, but fear undermines even the possibility of intimacy. And all of us who minister in the church need mutuality — it is too lonely otherwise.”
Structural reforms alone won’t fix the church
It is practices that sustain communities: throwing a baseball, sitting down for dinner, bowing before the Eucharist. But it is people that sustain practices. Without people who freely give their lives to sustain the practices that make up the Catholic community, there is no church. This is part of what I heard in my conversations with these lay ministers.
In order for the clergy to continue our work, in order for them to be credible to a world that has been so well-trained in reasons not to believe anything said by anyone in ministry, both ministry itself and the culture of the church need to change. For too long, clergy have claimed, and the church has granted, authority simply for being ordained. We must sever the connection — the clericalism — that mistakes a ministry of service for a grant of privilege.
Structural reforms are necessary but not sufficient to begin making this change. At a minimum, as Cardinal DiNardo, the current president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, recently said, the church must welcome lay oversight at the parish, diocese, and national levels. We must implement transparent protocols for the supervision not only of priests but of bishops and cardinals. Lay leaders, especially women, must be included in the formation of Catholic clergy. But for any of this to be more than empty procedures, the church will have to unlearn one culture and relearn another. This will mean changing our identities. And it will cost.
For the clergy, the cost will be learning not to expect automatic, exclusive authority. This might mean that becoming a priest no longer carries with it the expectation of leadership of a parish or a high school or a university. For bishops, this must mean real partnership with laypeople in the governance of their dioceses.
For the whole church, this means unlearning the instinct to try to repay people for the gift of their lives by giving them titles, powers, offices — even by automatically calling them holy. It means constantly remembering that it is service that grounds authority and teaches us how to use power.
In such a church, there would be less need to have a priest write an article in which the voices of the laity — in their anger, their attention to the poor, their tears, and their courage to confront what causes fear — are raised up, because ministers would be listened to because of their authentic service rather than their titles.
Ministry in such a church — one much bigger, much holier, much truer than any of us can ever be alone — can still be a gift, not just for priests but for all.
Pope Francis recently appointed three women for the first time to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, an important advisory body to the Pope on matters of Catholic orthodoxy. He has also recently established a commission for studying the role of women deacons in the early Christian church. While encouraging for supporters of women’s ordination in the Catholic Church, Pope Francis has also made it clear that he is keeping the door firmly shut in terms of the possibility of women priests.
Elsewhere, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints excommunicated feminist activist Kate Kelly in 2014 for advocating for women’s ordination. At the same time, LDS leaders have also expanded roles for women in the faith’s semiannual conferences and global governing committees.
This ambiguity toward the role of women in American religious organizations is emblematic of wider conversations about gender equality and women’s roles in American society. Thus, understanding the dynamics of women’s ordination in religious congregations can reveal important insights into wider trends and the intersection of gender and leadership in America today.
Dozens of one-on-one interviews, as well as a nationally representative public opinion survey, have provided us with a contemporary snapshot of women’s ordination in American congregations, investigating two primary questions: 1) who supports female clergy in their congregations and why?, and 2) what effects do female clergy have on those in their congregations, especially young women and girls?
Here are ten things you should know about women’s ordination in the US:
A little over half (55%) of Americans who attend religious services at least occasionally say that their congregations allow women to serve as their principal leader, although only 9% currently attend a congregation where a woman is serving in that capacity. Thus, women’s ordination in America is more common in principle than in practice.
Religious traditions and denominations in the United States that generally permit female clergy in their congregations include American Baptists, United Methodists, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian (USA), the Episcopal Church, Buddhism, Reform/Conservative Judaism, and Unitarian Universalists. Those that generally prohibit female clergy include the Roman Catholic Church, Southern Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Orthodox Judaism, Mormons, and Muslims.
Two of every five American worshipers say that they “strongly prefer” that their congregation allow women to serve as their principal religious leader. When added to the 32% who say they “somewhat prefer,” it makes for nearly two-thirds (72%) of American worshipers who say that they support women’s ordination. This includes 68% of Evangelicals, 85% of Mainline Protestants, and 70% of Catholics.
70% of female worshipers say that they support women’s ordination in their congregations. This is, however, nearly identical to the 69% of male worshipers who say the same. In other words, women are no more or less likely than men to support or oppose female clergy in their congregations. Contrary to what might be expected, gender does not structure attitudes toward women’s ordination in American society today.
Instead, those most supportive of female clergy in their congregations are theological modernists who believe that their traditions should adapt to modern sensibilities, those who identify politically as liberals and Democrats, those that currently attend congregations that allow for female clergy, and those who attend religious services less frequently.
When asked about their support or opposition to female clergy in their congregations, the most common reasons included scriptural authority, personal experiences, and gender stereotypes. These three issues were cited by both those in favor and those against female ordination, selectively applying arguments and experience to support their positions.
While support for female clergy is high, only 9% of worshipers report that they would personally prefer that their own congregation’s leader were female. This might help partially explain the persistent gender gap in the leadership of American congregations, even among those that have gender-inclusive leadership policies in place.
While many people are quick to say that it “doesn’t matter” whether their congregation’s principal leader is male or female, they are quick to point a variety of ways in which they have personally seen that it does matter in their own lives. Specifically, they tend to focus on ways that gender affects what type of counseling clergy are able to provide (in talking about issues such as rape or abortion, for instance), as well as the ways that female clergy can often successfully attract young people and families to their congregations.
In our survey, women who had influential female clergy growing up have higher levels of self-esteem as adults, as well as higher levels of education and full-time employment, compared to those who had only male leaders. They are also more likely think about God in more graceful/loving terms instead of a more authoritarian/judgmental way. This is important because self-esteem, education, and one’s view of God have all been linked to psychological and emotional health and well-being. Thus, female clergy can indirectly improve future levels of health, well-being, and economic empowerment of young women and girls in their congregations.
Politics structures attitudes toward and responses to women’s ordination more than gender. Political liberals, both men and women, are most supportive of female clergy and are also the most likely to disengage from their religious communities if their congregations maintain male-only leadership policies. This is yet another example of how politics is driving religious identity and affiliation much more often than the reverse in contemporary American society.
On March 13, Pope Francis will complete his first five years as head of the Roman Catholic Church. Since his election, Pope Francis has engaged the estimated 1.2 billion Catholics and innumerable non-Catholics worldwide with his frank, inclusive talk on issues as diverse as poverty and homosexuality. In fact, many observers seem confused by the church’s apparent willingness to reconsider traditions regarding some contentious issues, such as divorce.
Based on the Gospels of Mark and Luke, it is apostolic succession that specifies how the Catholic Church acquired its authority and its ability to save souls. God gave the power of salvation – to “bind and loose” souls – to Christ who shared it with 12 male apostles. When the apostles chose their successors, the first bishops, they passed the power of salvation to those bishops through the sacrament of ordination. Through ordination, bishops have endowed priests with God’s authority up to the present day.
The origins of apostolic succession can be traced to the first centuries A.D. – a time when Christianity was illegal. Jesus had left his followers with no obvious blueprint for any type of formal church or priesthood. Christians were, thus, free to worship in their own ways, trying not to get caught.
This troubled Christian leaders such as Clement, a first-century bishop of Rome, and Irenaeus, a second-century bishop of Lyon. They believed it unlikely that such a diversity of practices could lead to heaven. Jesus, they wrote, must have left one true path to salvation. In the absence of clear direction, they traced this one path through the apostles and their recognized successors, the bishops.
This became a pivotal development in early attempts to organize a uniform Christian “church,” creating a formal clergy. Only ordained priests were authorized to celebrate the sacraments, a key source of God’s grace.
Anyone, for example, could pronounce ritualistic words over bread and wine, but unless that individual had been given the authority of the apostles through ordination, that bread and wine would remain mere bread and wine. There was no true sacrament, no saving grace. Such unauthorized persons, Irenaeus charged, were thieves, stealing the chance of salvation from the Christians they duped.
Although the church no longer supports such reasoning, it does still exclude women from the priesthood by virtue of their sex. In its 1976 declaration, “Inter Insigniores,” the church proclaimed its loyalty to the model left by Christ to his followers – in other words, apostolic succession.
Since Christ was incarnated as male and all 12 original apostles were male, the church declared that God meant for males alone to exercise the priesthood. The church, in other words, does not consider the extension of ordination to women to be an issue of human rights but one of fulfilling the divine will, with which there can be no compromise nor accommodation.
“The Church that preaches the equality of women but does nothing to demonstrate it within its own structures … is … dangerously close to repeating the theological errors that underlay centuries of Church-sanctioned slavery.”
These Catholics allege the refusal to ordain women is not God’s intent, and neither scripturally justified nor the original practice of the church.
Yet the field on which such battles are fought is far from level, and those on the side of apostolic succession have the upper hand.
Although Francis is unlikely to allow women into the priesthood, it is within reason that he could lead in ordaining women to become deacons, as this would not necessarily violate apostolic succession. Deacons – along with bishops and priests – are one of the three ordained “orders” of ministers in the Catholic Church. Deacons are not priests, but they may preach, teach and lead in prayer and works of mercy.
The diaconate is often a stage on the road to ordination to the priesthood for men. During the Vatican’s Synod on the Family in 2015, Canadian Archbishop Paul-Andre Durocher of Quebec encouraged his colleagues to expand women’s opportunities for leadership, including ordination to the diaconate, “to clearly show the world the equal dignity of women and men in the Church.”
Pope Benedict XVI suggested this almost a decade ago. Durocher, like Benedict, was careful to clarify that deacons are directed “non ad sacerdotium, sed ad ministerium,” meaning “not to priesthood, but to ministry.” While Francis has been firm in protecting doctrines such as apostolic succession, this is a move he could legitimately make.