Patricia Wittberg
Fewer young women are practicing their faith: How the church can woo them back
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In Western societies like Europe and the United States, women are more religious than men. That is a sociological truism supported by a wealth of survey data. Women are more likely to join churches and to participate in worship services; they are more orthodox in their beliefs generally and more devout in their daily religious practice. Among people raised in a nonreligious family, women are more likely than men to adopt a religion. And women are less likely (12 percent as compared with 19 percent of men) to profess no religion at all.

The Faith Matters Survey, conducted for Harvard University in 2006, found that in comparison with men, U.S. women were more likely to say that they were “very spiritual” and had experienced the presence of God. They were also more likely to read Scripture and to believe in divine guidelines for good and evil. In their summary of this survey, Robert Putnam and David E. Campbell noted, “no matter the specific yardstick, women exhibit a greater commitment to, involvement with and belief in religion” (American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, Simon and Schuster, 2010).

The greater religiosity of women has a long history within Christianity. More than twice as many women as men, for example, entered their era’s version of religious life: from the fourth-century Middle East (the consecrated virgins as compared with the hermits) to 12th- and 13th-century Europe (the Beguines and cloistered nuns as compared with the friars), to 17th-century France and 19th-century North America. Sometimes, as in 19th-century Ireland and Quebec, the ratio was as high as four to one. Among Protestants, the same gender disparity was observed as early as the 17th century. As the Puritan clergyman Cotton Mather wrote in 1692, “So still there are far more Godly women in the world than there are men, and our Church Communions give us a little demonstration of it.” Among historians, sociologists and psychologists who have studied the matter, the greater religious propensity of women is an axiom. It may no longer be true, however, for the youngest generations of Catholic adults.

Young Women Opt Out

In the mid-1990s, surveys began to indicate that, while older Catholic women in the United States were indeed more religious than Catholic men of their age, the Catholic women of Generation X (born between 1962 and 1980) barely equaled their male counterparts in regular Mass attendance and were significantly more likely than the men to profess heterodox opinions on women’s ordination, on the sinfulness of homosexual acts and premarital sex and on whether one could be a good Catholic without going to Mass.

More recent data (2002-8) from the annual General Social Survey indicate that the reduced religiosity of American Catholic women extends to the millennial generation (born between 1981 and 1995), as well. Millennial Catholic women are even more disaffected than Gen X women are. This is evident when they are compared with Catholic men in the same age ranges. Both genders of millennial and Gen X Catholics are much less devout and much less orthodox than their elders, and many practice their religion infrequently if at all. But the decline is steeper among women. Millennial Catholic women are slightly more likely than Catholic men their age to say that they never attend Mass (the first generation of American Catholic women for whom this is so), and the women are significantly more likely to hold heterodox positions on whether the pope is infallible and whether homosexual activity is always wrong. None of the millennial Catholic women in the survey expressed complete confidence in churches and religious organizations.

Data on those entering religious life and the priesthood reveal the same disturbing trend. Much has changed since the 19th and early 20th centuries, when between three and four times as many American Catholic women entered religious life as did men (even when those ordained to the diocesan priesthood are added to the male totals). Currently, the proportions are nearly equal or in reverse: 1,396 men were in initial formation in religious institutes nationwide in 2009, compared with 1,206 women. A study of Catholics in vocation formation in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in 2010 found 173 men preparing to be priests, brothers and deacons, but only 30 women preparing to be sisters. And while half the men in religious formation are millennials, only a third of the women are. More than a third of the women entering religious life today are over 40, whereas fewer than a quarter of the men are that old. Millennial Catholic women are less likely than their male counterparts to say they have ever even considered a religious vocation.

A similar decline has not occurred among young Protestant women. According to the General Social Surveys, millennial Protestant females remain slightly more likely than their male counterparts to attend religious services weekly and less likely to say that they never attend. These women are significantly more likely than the men of their generation—and even more likely than older Protestant women—to say that they have a great deal of confidence in organized religion.

All this is not to suggest that millennial Catholic women are not interested in spiritual things. Both Protestant and Catholic millennial women are significantly more likely than the men their age to consider themselves “very spiritual” persons. The danger is that Catholic millennial women who remain disproportionately interested in spirituality and religious practice will seek an outlet for this interest outside the church in which they grew up.

This is hardly the first time women have become disaffected from the church. Both the Cathars in the 13th century and the Protestant Huguenots in the 17th century attracted more women than men to their ranks. In both instances, Catholic officials, alarmed by the prospect of losing the mothers of the next generation of Catholics to these groups, provided new opportunities for Catholic women. The creation of “apostolic” teaching and nursing orders in the 17th century and later, for example, was a direct result of the Huguenots’ appeal to French women. In contrast, while today’s Catholic officials have expressed concern about the overall decline of religiosity among “the young,” I have not seen evidence of alarm about the disproportionate decline among young women.

Three Conclusions

1. Some readers may see these trends as further support for the view that the church must allow the ordination of women. The lack of women’s ordination in previous eras did not drive women from the church, however. That is at least partly because new religious orders offered women more opportunities for religious leadership and influence than existed in secular society at the time. Today, by contrast, leadership opportunities in the secular world are much more visible and accessible. Nearly a quarter of senior managers in U.S. firms, for example, are women; women head national government offices and state and city governments; women start thousands of small businesses and lead prestigious universities. As a result, the limited opportunities for women to use their leadership gifts and talents in the church are less attractive.

In one survey of millennials, 70 percent of college students (male and female) said they would not consider the priesthood or religious life because they had a different career in mind. Even in Asia, which has been a growing source of new entrants to religious communities, vocations to religious life are decreasing.

Some 60 percent of young adult Catholics, male and female, think that the church should be more proactive in empowering lay ministers and should pay them more competitive wages. Meanwhile, the number of formation and training programs for lay ministers in the United States is actually decreasing. Since 80 percent of lay ministers in parishes are female, this decrease represents a reduction, not growth, in the number of opportunities for women to exercise religious leadership and service in the Catholic Church.

If the lack of opportunities for spiritual leadership is a major cause of the disaffection of young Catholic women, then one obvious remedy would be to open up more opportunities for them. Some women already hold leadership positions in diocesan charities and personnel offices and on the local and national review boards that consider ethics and morals charges against clergy and lay staff. These women and their work could be profiled in the various media that reach young Catholic women, and other efforts could be made to attract other women to fill similar roles. More women could be appointed to head secretariats in local dioceses and in the Vatican. Women could be ordained as deaconesses and, with the appropriate change to canon law, could even be appointed cardinals—ideas that have been discussed for decades.

2. Other readers may see in these statistics evidence that the church needs to proclaim more strongly a “true feminism” to counteract the corrosive effects of secular feminism on the young. “True feminism” was described in Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. This strategy, however, has not shown much success so far at influencing mainstream Catholic culture. Affecting—let alone changing—a widely held cultural value is difficult and requires considerable time, personnel and financial resources. If the church hopes seriously to promote this idea, it must take more concrete action. Focus groups, surveys and other research would need to be conducted to explore what “feminism” actually means to today’s young people. While some effort has been made to depict alternate, church-centered interpretations of the term, this would have to be greatly expanded. New professional journals, blogs, speakers’ bureaus and institutions would have to be set up with a focus on feminism, and an expanded electronic presence would have to be maintained, for example, on Facebook, Twitter and other venues.

More theologians and scholars would also have to think deeply and write persuasively about the role of women in the church under this alternative vision of feminism. To be effective, their writings would need to be promulgated beyond the narrow circle of conservative Catholics who currently read them. And more researchers, media directors, authors, Web gurus and theologians ought to be women. The church would have to establish and fund teaching positions for experts in Catholic feminism. In turn, these experts would offer courses at universities and seminaries and train an entire cohort of engaged and creative academics, film producers/directors, Web designers and popular authors committed to developing and disseminating “true feminism,” the Catholic version.

3. Of course, the church could also do nothing. The consequences of this last alternative, however, would be fewer young women, and likely fewer of their children, remaining in the Catholic Church. If that were to happen, practicing Catholics in North America and Europe would run the danger of dwindling to a small and eccentric fringe group, stereotyped in the popular imagination as quaint, irrelevant, self-limited and oppressive. Without attracting more women from Generation X, the millennials and subsequent generations, the church could cease to be an influential voice in Western societies.

Patricia Wittberg, S.C., is professor of sociology at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, Ind.

Comments

Robert Helfman | 3/31/2014 - 11:45am

I think it is important to recognize the limitations of certain paradigms-such as a feminism that is Catholic over against one that is secular. It sounds like propaganda-not to say I don't agree with the author's point of view or the relevancy of her position.
The issue of women in the church is also ecumenical in scope. Women have been serving as pastors and preachers for some time in Protestant environments. The existence of Protestants and their clerical innovations is the elephant in the room-a reality that is most often overlooked when discussing this issue, either because it is too obvious or a source of cognitive dissonance, as any Psychology 100 student will have learned in a discussion of Feistinger.
If there are to be any fresh approaches to the subject one must first lift the veil of secrecy and the implied repression of opposing points of view. Mind and thought control are subtle forces holding sway in today's church in ways that are reminiscent of religious cults that use such tactics to compel obedience to authority. Obviously few are intimidated by these influences in today's society but should a professed religious suggest an alternative point of view than the prevailing orthodoxy in regards to John Paul II's THEOLOGY OF THE BODY, for example, he will face dismissal from his teaching position and removal from ministry if not already retired. (Story in current NCR.)
These structures of deceit, as GARRY WILLS has called them, must be reformed. What is needed is a spiritual renewal that includes canonical reform, not new programs of illusory significance that fail to come to terms with the social and cultural and spiritual implications of reality-past or present.
What is needed is a willingness to listen to the voice of women and learn from them. That is simple enough. what is more difficult is overcoming the tendency to have to model everything on a patriarchal system in an attempt to provide what is purported to be a feminist alternative. I don't believe many women (I speak as a man) are going to fall for it. It smacks to much of that thought control used by cult leaders to maintain membership and foster loyalty to their dominant paradigm-in this case, the Papacy and John Paul II's attempt to reconcile what can only be described as clerical oppression with feminism.
My suggestion would be to try less to control everything, to manage issues with new programs and instead let the voices of those who have spiritual gifts, male and female, be heard. Anyone will a calling from God (and that includes everyone in the church) has something to bring to the table. With faith and prayer and discernment it is possible to grow in maturity in Christ.
Unfortunately, this kind of spiritual paradigm is seen as too liberal and threatening as it promises to unseat the powers that be and allow a possible reformation to take place. I suggest that this reformation is already taking place, not along the lines of Martin Luther but in the individual believer within the context of his or her church experience.. How this is expressed in concrete change over time has yet to be seen-but it may take a "withering away" of the present state of affairs, or more people speaking their minds in spite of the limitations that demand their silence, or a breaking-in of the Spirit that clerical power cannot control.
What is important is that people responsibility for this state of affairs and give a name to the reality instead of skirting it with attempts to reconcile what cannot be reconciled. Any scholarly study of religious cults and their methods of operation will find similarities in the way the hierarchy functions in enforcing the prevailing orthodoxy. It is a thorn in the side of the clerical elite, a source of consternation and anxiety; canon law is used as the means and justification to enforce what is in religious cults, as it is in the church, a standard of orthodoxy that has no rational basis save the preserve the power and authority of those in control.
This is a paradigm that, were Christ not present and working in and through the church in spite of us, or because of us, or both-would have condemned the church to irrelevancy and the dust bin of history long ago. It is just because the Spirit has been promised to the church and has not abandoned us there is hope. The real sin, in my view, is to refuse to discern the working of the Holy Spirit in the People of God (I hope that idea has not been lost). This includes man and women, old and young-all the baptized.
Historically repression has been used in ways unimaginable were one not acquainted with the Inquisition. As long as remnants of these structures remain, the church will be in thrall to the errors of the past and never learn from them. What I am attempting to do is make the case for new paradigms, new ways of thinking before new ways of doing things can be implemented. My suggestion is to first liberate the mind and the rest will follow. Until one is free from within he (or she) may still be an unwitting conspirator in his own oppression.
This is why I find the idea of a "catholic feminism" limiting. It is not ecumenical, it does not recognize the importance of gender equality bit instead creates a caste with special privileges, and flies in the face of a spiritual renewal that would take at face value St. Paul's words, "we are neither male or female, but one in Christ Jesus". One must be open to the ways the Spirit is working in and through the faithful. That would include having the patience to recognize the limitations of the present system and a willingness to work in and through these if one wishes to remain affiliated. It all begins with a recognition of the need to treat everyone with that deference and respect that is due one in whom Christ dwells.
And having said that I hope I can remain silent and anonymous on the subject henceforth. I have faith in the inherent rationality and good will of people, in the main. What is needed is a recognition that the church cannot function like a cult and expect to survive. This is the simplest of diagnoses, while making no attempt except in a very general sense to provide a remedy. But to have identified the problem makes possible a solution, even should I wish to leave that to others.

Angela Marczewski | 3/18/2012 - 11:24am
I work as a hospital chaplain and must tell you that I find a huge number of middle-aged, elderly, and what are referred to as "old-old," those over 85, who are also very disillusioned with the Church, have left, and express no desire to return, even in the face of death. We tend to focus on the young in these discussions, but the older people who have left the church over many of the same concerns as those expressed by the youth have managed to stay under the radar-but they are out there. Let us not, as a church, mimic the apathy about our elderly that our greater society seems to hold.
RICK SHERMAN | 2/27/2012 - 11:28am

on

RICK SHERMAN | 2/27/2012 - 11:26am
The Church is full of young women.  We call them Hispanics.  Do they count?
Eileen Sadasiv | 2/25/2012 - 5:20pm
Thank you, Patricia and America!  (It does not appear that the institutional Church has the slightest interest is wooing our young women back.)  God help us!
Jim Lein | 2/25/2012 - 10:39am

Probably the church's most negative message is unintended and unrecognized by the senders. It's the way the church focuses on abortion.  We have trapped and limited ourselves by our language - and we have alienated women in the process.  The illogical trap is what family therapists call the pathological illusion of alternatives.  We are stuck in a too-narrow framework, with two alternatives that we claim are the only two possible. In fact, admitting only these two blinds us to the solution.

The two pseudochoices, of course, are "pro-life" v. "pro-choice."  We are told that these are the only choices, that we can't be both pro-life and pro-choice.  Of course we can.  And we must, if we are to get out of this trap and this major way of alienating women. We need to change our conceptual framework, to reframe our thinking, to shed this illusion.  As Paul Watzlawick defines reframing: "It breaks the illusionary frame inherent in any world image, and thereby reveals that what appeared unchangeable can indeed be changed and that there exist superordinate alternatives. 

The cost of our narrowness is that we overlook women or see them as subordinate to their wombs.  We want to take away their choice, their personhood.  We don't trust them.  The best way to reduce abortion is to be pro-life in the widest sense, not just with the fetus.  If women feel alienated, undervalued, virtually ignored as persons in their own right, why wouldn't they leave the organization most loudly proclaiming this mesage.  The church is missing its meta-mesage: women can't be trusted with the most important decision in their life.  Instead of giving a Christ-like message of follow me, choose my way, the church has gone political and legalistic in trying to change a law.  

How about reducing abortion by adopting a pro-life AND a pro-choice outlook?  Or better, a life and choice outlook? Or best, a Christ-like outlook? Drop the narrow use of the term pro-life; it's become too political.  In fact it was a clever term coined by one party for political purposes. Render to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's.  And allow the power of choice into the church, the choice to follow Christ, as presented in the February 23 meditation in the Lent 2012 isue of "The Word Among Us."   








 

Jim Lein | 2/24/2012 - 9:56pm

Probably many know of a woman, as I do, who as a child wanted to be a priest when she grew up.  And she did.  Of course not in the Catholic church she was raised in.  But in the Episcopal church.  She heard and heeded the "follow me" call, but there was no room in the inn, so to speak.  So she kept listening and searching until she found a welcoming church.       

GORDON SHUTE | 2/24/2012 - 9:50am
The following sentence from this article sums up the Catholic Church's view of women: "In both instances, Catholic officials, alarmed by the prospect of losing the mothers of the next generation of Catholics to these groups, provided new opportunities for Catholic women." The church doesn't care at all about women except as the vehicle to produce more "little Catholics" for their flock. You will notice it doesn't say that they are alarmed because they are losing women period...NO, it's because they are losing the mothers of the next generation. Is it any wonder that women are leaving the church....the church has given them no reason to want to stay.
Anne Chapman | 2/15/2012 - 11:47am
The author refers to "Catholic feminism" and "true" feminism, and "alternative" feminism. She is referring to the "feminism" promulgated by John Paul II in Theology of the Body and other documents. Readers of this article should also read a post (#33) by Amy Ho-Ohn in the "In All Things" blog under the title "Facebook Conversation on Young Women and the Church", by Tim Reidy, published on Monday, February 13.

Ms. H0-Ohn gives a brief, but excellent critique of a few of the many defects of John Paul II's definition of "true feminism."  Several of his documents seem more designed to drive women out of the church than keep them in. It seems more like the 'old patriarchy" than "true" feminism of any kind. Younger women can easily see the differences between how they are treated outside the church and how they are treated within it. Older women may not see it as much because they experienced similar treatment in the general society as in the church when they were young - denied many roles simply because they were female and were raised to accept this as the status quo.

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Christopher Mulcahy | 2/15/2012 - 11:46am

Whiners are never happy.  I am a caucasian man over 6-feet tall and not too fat.  So I can’t whine as a fat man, a short man, a black man—or a woman.  I played football in my youth and got my lip split often.  My dad said too bad.  I have joined several clubs; my standard experience is that they diss you until you prove yourself.  What else is new?


The Catholic Church in America is not very attractive right now, for either men or women.  It is fixated on the rhetoric of early 20th century progressivism and the globaloney of social justice.  Sermons rarely make reference to saints, doctrine, sacraments, scriptural exegesis, Church history, papal documents, sacramentals, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, sin, doctors of the Church, modern theological arguments, comparison to Protestantism, the gifts of the Holy Spirit,  or (I’ll wait forever) Pius V in the first white papal robes having Europe pray the rosary to win the battle of Lepanto in October  (1571), now the rosary month. (Can you recite the mysteries?  Including the new ones? Meditating the rosary will blow your mind.)


If you love the holy Roman Catholic Church founded by Christ and guided by the Spirit lo these 2000 years,  you can take a split lip and get up to play football.  So you aren’t “appreciated”.  Get real.  Love the Church.  Learn the Church.  Love the Church.  Read, pray, write, love.   That’s the deal.

Margot VanEtten | 2/14/2012 - 11:36am

Of course young women are not attracted to the Church.  Why would anyone be drawn to an institution that seems to have such little respect for them? Here's the evidence:
-before you even begin to discuss the priesthood, the Church has not made the steps it would if women were truly valued, such as opening the diaconate to them.
-Women are not being listened to adequately.  Women's experience too often appears to be ignored or disdained.  Like most women, I am not interested in a form of "feminism" which has been developed by men and imposed on me as "authentic". The Church has repeatedly failed to seek out, value or listen to the experience of women. Rather, leaders still continue to write of us as the "Other".
-Most of the activities which in an earlier day required women to be members of a religious order if they wished to undertake them can now be engaged with in the secular world.  You don't have to be a sister to teach, to be a nurse, to be a missionary-or even to get and advanced education. Moreover, the opportunities women have in the secular world are far more determined by their skills rather than their gender. Why should it be surprising that women focus there?

If the Church truly values women, it will address their experience of these issues rather than ignore, stifle sor spin them.
I say this as a minister who is loyal and loves the faith despite these grave deficiencies, and I continue to encourage young women to see the Church as a spiritual home. Unfortunately, all too often the voice that discourages them comes from the Church's leaders-not from the secular world.

Mel B | 2/14/2012 - 11:29am
It would be interesting to hear the thoughts of young female college graduates who had been involved in their Catholic campus faith communities.  I often went to daily mass, loved my theology courses, and was active in campus ministry.  After college, I lived in community while I participated in a Franciscan service program.  

But when I was done with the service program, I found little welcome in the Catholic church.  I had time and energy to contribute (not the case anymore with two small children at home and working as a pediatrician), yet most of the opportunities were focused on stay-at-home moms and seniors.  My church experience in college was welcoming, loving, creative, yet orthodox at the same time - it felt like a true community of believers.  My subsequent experience in small town parishes hasn't been the same.  The focus is often on abortion and NFP, but little else.  Not that its wrong to focus on these, but young women are often looking for involvement that goes beyond praying the rosary in front of Planned Parenthood.  My college experience seemed so much bigger and relavent than parish life at the local level.  

On a side note,  I was told by a family friend that the church needs to purify, and that may mean losing a good number of its members.  People like him seem fairly happy about the loss of these young women.  
J Cosgrove | 2/13/2012 - 7:11pm
I am going to take a completely different view than nearly all the commenters.  First, I do not think one should point to the male hierarchy as the cause.  The fact is that this hierarchy has existed for two thousand years so why the problem in the last 30 years.  It has not gotten more onerous in any way that I have seen.  One can complain of inane homilies but my experience is that they have improved immensely in the last 30 years


Second, we are not talking about women entering a relgious life or seeking spirituality or are looking to the Church to fulfill their talents, we are talking about whether they show up at Mass on Sunday and express a desire to raise a family in the Catholic tradition.  Again something that was more readily seen in a even more male dominant world just prior to the last 30 years.  All sorts of woman had wonderful lives in such an environment.  Many didn't but we have all witnessed lots of women and men who lived great lives and went to Mass every Sunday, obeyed the rules and didn't feel oppressed to do so.  In fact many found happiness in being a good Catholic.


So why the change.  I believe the problem lies elsewhere and nowhere does the OP address the real cause.  The problem is "belief" and it applies equally to males as well as femaies.  What do young people believe and why are their beliefs much different from those who were born 50-70 years before them.  And given what they believe, are they making the reasonable decisions.  I think they are making decisions that are consistent with their beliefs and this is from a lifelong Catholic who attends Mass every Sunday.


I would look to economics and human nature and many of the false gods that society has offered up as an alternative to explain their actions.  They see no return in going to Mass or expressing allegiance to the Church and when people see no gain from an activity they do not do it.  They may actually see a negative, from having to rearrange one's weekend to negative comments about adhering to a superstitious activity. 


After reading this website for over 2 years now I see very little on it to justify why they should express adherence to the Catholic faith.  In fact I see just the opposite.  I see people who constantly criticize Catholicism and its tenets, who say that there is little difference between one religion and another, who say that all will be saved no matter what they do.  When such an assessment is repeated in the outside world or even in their Catholic education, what glue is there to remaining a practicing Catholic or even just one that will check off a box that they are a Catholic on a survey.  There is no special reason to be a Catholic.  One cannot even point to the social good the Church is doing because that is available in many other options.


What will bring some of them back is marriage and the raising of kids.  Many will see religion as a way to help inculcate a moral sense into their children and will acknowledge that they were affected by their Catholic education.  But as we know many of the parents are doing this only for practical reasons and not because they are believers and many will not see any value in attending Mass except for the kids.  Now if they believed that the "real presence" was actually real, how could they stay away.  I would look at how the Catholic faith is taught today and what their teachers believe and how they act.  Biologically and psychologically they are not different from the women of 60 years ago.
Nancy Nugent | 2/13/2012 - 7:05pm

In those moments when I begin to worry that my own helplessness or lowliness as a woman in the Church means that all I want for my life is impossible, I think of our Mother Mary, who did not simply ask God to bless her with a child – for that is not all that she sings about in the Magnificat.  Instead, we hear her hymn of praise for God’s actions on her behalf to lay low the rich and bring up the poor.  Although she may not have understood the full implications about how her pregnancy would lead to the salvation of the world, we can believe that she understood that it would indeed do so, for she saw God with the eyes of faith.


In choosing to start a blog on women’s vocations in the Catholic Church (www.womenbeneaththecross.com), I was thrilled with the idea that I would be able to help women understand that their roles are not limited to nun or housewife; that God has great plans for their futures, if they would only turn to Him in prayer and faithful trust.  Instead of focusing on a future Church that is reduced to politics, I reflect in my blog on the Church’s mission to evangelize the world - and how women can contribute to that mission with God's help. 

Although I had grown up in a very conservative household and used to hold very orthodox views of my Catholic faith, I eventually found it difficult to maintain that view of the broader Church, especially when it came to the status and treatment of women. I relied on my prayer, because many of the ideas proposed by the older generations (I am a Gen-Xer) could not match up to that one very special encounter I had with God when I first placed my trust in him. In prayer, I began to question God about the ideas I encountered in the graduate school for theology – ideas that focused on Christian feminism, the concept of Church, and the all-male hierarchy. When I first asked about this matter, I literally approached God in fear and trembling because my conservative upbringing had told me that even thinking about these issues was akin to heresy.


I honestly think I would have ignored the issue if it hadn’t been for my dad’s ordination to the diaconate that took place the summer after I completed my first year of graduate school.  I was proud of him and happy for him, but I found myself wrestling with his ordination. I didn’t yet know what was moving in my heart, but I kept thinking of how many fewer classes he had to take compared to those required for my basic master’s degree.  I had questions about the diocese’s spiritual formation that seemed to leave my dad confused between his Baltimore Catechism upbringing and the teachings arising out of the Second Vatican Council. This man who had encouraged me that I could do anything he could do was no longer able to say that when it came to the Church.  It hurt both of us, but when I ask him about his views today, he understands that the Church needs to transform to meet God's will for the future.  And I saw on that day that my dad would help me with my vocation!


Still, I continue to cry out to God about what the Church has said to young adults:  that God only allows men to the priesthood, that Jesus only selected men as apostles in his ministry, and that only men are capable of being “ontologically changed” in the sacrament of holy orders.  Taking my concerns and fears about the Church directly to God, I knew I could trust Him to help us.  I knew from my experience of God’s love that he wanted more for (both men and) women in the Church, in society, and in the world. After my prayer ended in tears, I remembered Jeremiah 29:11:


“For I know well the plans I have in mind for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare, not for woe! plans to give you a future full of hope.” 


My heart had found peace and rest in God’s promises to me and to all His people.  The next morning after my conversation with my dad, I woke up early enough to attend daily mass.  It was July 4th, Independence Day and the birthday of the United States of America.  The priest at was on vacation that day, so instead of a mass the parish held a Communion Service.  The presider of the service was a woman; the lector was a woman; and the Eucharistic minister was a woman.  In this eye-opening moment, I wept in relief that God had heard my prayer.  I had seen the future of my Church on a quiet morning service in the celebration of the Eucharist.


The bread that comes down from heaven – the Eucharist – is what sustains us while we are in the desert and will sustain us for the duration until we reach that promised future.  In these last few years since I first understood my call to help women in the Church, I have come to see that this experience of God’s love and freedom was only the beginning – my personal version of the Annunciation.


Remembering that God has a good plan for all of us, we can turn to God for all things, whether big or small, and rely upon his Word in the Eucharist, which he promises for all generations.  Now is the time when we can recognize how our Mother Mary once sang God’s praises for all that He had done and for all that he had promised to do for women, for her people, and for the world, because we know that God’s Word is trustworthy.

Melody Evans | 2/13/2012 - 4:34pm

*Laughing*


I love it, Mike. "By the way, the word Cup is used in all three Gospels... not Chalice." I wish we had the ability to give little thumbs up under certain statements. :)

Bonnie Weissman | 2/13/2012 - 3:58pm
Super article. I am the 59-year old Cradle Catholic mom of two daughters who were raised in the faith and no longer attend Mass or consider themselves Catholic, largely due to the way the church treats its female laypeople. I have remained in the church and attend Mass only because I realize the church is run by human beings, who even if they are very holy or very smart, are nonetheless human beings. And human beings make mistakes. So I consider myself a Christian who follows Jesus in the Roman Catholic tradition. My motto is "WWJD?" to guide my life. The argument against female ordination was always that none of the 12 apostles were women, which is ridiculous. If that was a good premise, then we should probably then say that women should not be educated either, because so few were schooled back then. Oh, and let's keep Catholic parishes in the South segregated, because it was what used to be acceptable. So funny that the male hierarchy often sees women as more spiritual vessels, yet will not allow us into the priesthood! And they forget that Jesus treated his female followers as equals! If Jesus could treat men and women as respected equals, why can't our church?
Marie Rehbein | 2/13/2012 - 3:03pm
I very much doubt that most young women really care about the Catholic Church perpetuating itself.  The quaint medieval power structure of the Church has limited appeal.  Girls, in particular, are always about cooperation, and not about imposing their will on others.  I doubt that they really care to be in charge in the Church or to take an equal place along with men, so long as this organization is all about loyalty to one's superiors.
Michael Schlacter | 2/13/2012 - 2:11pm
The book "Future Church" would be a good place to start looking for success and failure with women and men in the Cathoice Church.  Mostly failure paths.  

How many bishops in USA do not wash the feet of women on Holy Thursday?  
Just asking! 
How many bishops refuse weddings out of doors in God's Creation? 
How many bishops minimize girls as Mass severs?
How many bishops minimize the presence of women in Mass when they preside?

Those are easy to fix.

Jesus broke "tradition" and spoke to women...at the well.  Where does it say in any of the Gospels that priesthood is only male?
By the way, the word Cup is used in all three Gospels...not Chalice.

 
Sergio Leiseca | 2/13/2012 - 1:02pm
good morning, I am a 65 y/o male, so I defer entirely to women's views responding to your question. Let me also note several observations, most of which are gender neutral and help explain in my view the ever decreasing number of Catholics in America. I attend daily Mass, and of the few persons typically in attendance, only 4 or 5 of us, including our Priest, are males. 4 out of my 4 children (2 boys and 2 girls, born between 1971 and 1983) are no longer practicing Catholics, though my dear wife and I remain practicing Catholics, and they attended Mass and CDC regularly, and I pray daily for them. It deeply saddens me but I have come to accept the "reality of the situation", to borrow the expression from Walter Ciszek S.J. I attend yearly silent retreats at Jesuit Retreat Houses. The number of attendants is small and the average age is high. I live within the Diocese of Austin, TX. Its guidelines governing Pastoral Councils and Finance Committees are clear: the Parish Pastor is the absolute authority, answering only to the Bishop. They are probably illustrative. The layity plays an advisory role theoretically and at best, and no role in fact more often than not. I have listened to countless homilies but very few which are spiritual and made relevant to my life in the 20th and 21st centuries. I now have to travel over 20 miles each way to a neighboring Parish to listen to spiritual and relevant homilies. I have yet to notice many Priests "walking the walk" during weekdays, that is regularly engaging in daily acts of charity. And, I marvel reading for example the Acts of the Apostles at how vastly different the early Catholic Church was from the current day Catholic Church, with its pomp and circumstance, and of course, its "man made rules", and wonder how different and happy we might be had the Councils since 100 AD not taken place. Thus, I close with a prayer: "Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of Your faithful and kindle in them the fire of Your love. Send forth Your Spirit and they shall be created". take care
Darrin McCloskey | 2/13/2012 - 11:15am


Thank you for such a well-written and well-researched article. I read it with great interest and especially with anticipation for the comments to follow. However, none of your readers seem to have detracted from the idea of the ordination of women, nor do I plan to myself. But the sense I am getting from the comments section is that the priesthood is a position of ‘power’ and not a spiritual ‘calling’. To the person who attended the Call to Faith seminar who reported that over 150 women stood up who felt they had a ‘call’ to priesthood, I am just wondering if ‘call’ is not being confused with ‘the right to become’. I have found that the article has created a foggy area between politics and the Holy Spirit. This is not a bad thing. It is worthy of serious contemplation. But which is the driving force? Which is the influence? Cultural norms or the Holy Spirit? Should women be ordained as priests because it is relative to today’s society? And this, well this seems to take us to what Pope Benedict has been talking about all along - the Dictatorship of Relativism.




Note: I have tread lightly and did not state a 'for' or 'against'. (I am still thinking...)



Cynthia Peabody | 2/12/2012 - 1:53pm
Last July America Magazine  kindly ran an article I wrote calling on Catholic women to "listen each other into being" ( as the great theologian Nelle Morton would say). I asked women to help each other understand why they stay.  I was inundated with heartfelt  emails from women, and men, explaining why they stayed, or why they simply couldn't remain in the Church.
The reason most women gave for staying was a love of the Eucharist. Many have learned to transcend the very human, hurtful prejudices the Church maintains while still finding strength and joy in the Eucharist.  But that transcendence is hard won, and costs both the believer and the Church dearly.
The Church's "real liberation" is neither real nor liberating if it continues to insist that the men of the Church can mandate who the Spirit calls to celebrate the Good News of Jesus the Christ.
Sadly, the Catholic Church speaks exclusively to "the many" even though Jesus and our personal experiences teach us that the Holy Spirit comes to "all".   My daughters, their friends , and many of the women who responded to my article wil return to the Church if and when it becomes truly catholic and truly Christian. 

 
MARY ZIEGLER | 2/11/2012 - 6:18pm

Many U.S. bishops and Vatican officials lack real experience with women and with women in leadership positions. Because they lack such experience and because many travel in narrow social, intellectual, and theological circles, they are incapable of even imagining, much less trusting in, what a church full of educated lay people empowered by the documents of Vatican II might look like or accomplish. These bishops are blind to the movement of the Spirit and deaf to the sensus fidelum, even as they beatify John Cardinal Newman. These bishops continue to look outside the church at the culture or the media as the source of their problems. They are fearful, and their fear has led to a public authoritarianism so vehement and absolute that it is astonishing.



Many U.S. bishops and Vatican officials lack real adult experience and understanding of the roles women play in the church, the family, the community, and the world. They spend their days with men, sit in meetings with men, and make decisions in all-male groups. Social data as superbly distilled and analyzed as that in the article above have demonstrated over and over again that this model of decision-making by a narrow, relatively homogenous, single-gender body for a large, heterogeneous organization is ineffective at best and disastrous at worst.



Women of all ages are full of both frustration and grief over the words and actions of many of our church leaders. Women see increasingly less hope for opportunities not only for leadership, but for full participation in the life of the church promised at baptism. There are few pathways to meaningful leadership within the structure enforced by today’s hierarchy. Women have less hope today than they did 50 years ago. The fact that priests and bishops who even suggest a discussion of the possibility of women’s ordination are swiftly silenced and punished is astounding. The fact that bishops and clergy from the parish to the diocesan to the curial level have so frequently and so grievously failed to nurture and protect our children is shocking to any parent.



I agree with above commenters that vocal bishops should focus on the wonder of God’s creation, the good news of the scripture, and the liberating power of a life of faith. They should engage in real conversations with real women, who know that they should embrace God’s world and serve God’s people. They should also reread the scriptures and notice Jesus’s love for and trust in women. New Testament women had many more extended conversations with Christ than did men. Like the women of the modern church, they are always present, always doing what needs to be done.



I attended a semester-long afternoon class at a nearby parish last fall. About 20 female practicing Catholics, aged 55-85, gathered weekly. The class was on the scriptures, not on feminism. All the women had been active and faithful members of their parish, devoting countless hours of service to the church and the parish school. All had raised their children in the church. At the end of the semester, a discussion revealed that all these faithful women had doubts about their own ability to stay in the church. All had considered leaving for another denomination because of the church’s treatment of women and the arrogance of the hierarchy. While all remain in love with their faith, their parish, and their church, all voiced the feeling that the spiritual, intellectual, psychological, and emotional energy expended in letting go of their sorrow and anger over the statements of many bishops was wearing. Most of their children and grandchildren had embraced other churches. None of these women felt that they should impose their life-long faith on their families, whose reasons for abandoning Catholicism seemed reasonable and valid. A similar discussion took place in the evening class, a somewhat younger and more diverse group. While a small sample, the words of the women in these groups, combined with the data above, are sobering. The women who spoke are the very women who have remained faithful to the Catholic vision through thick and thin, served as their children’s first catechists, and taken on the day-to-day labor needed to support parish work. If the children of these women are leaving the church, who will stay?


Eileen Gould | 2/11/2012 - 9:31am
What is so surprising about huge numbers of women, as well as men, dropping out of the Church.   It is a malaise brought about by a politically-motivated group of old men in Rome who control the reigning college of cardinals and bishops throughout the world, especially in the United States.   Would that Jesus could clean out the pharisees.   Women, generally speaking, are truly spiritual and education has strengthened their resolve not to take it any more.   What woman, on bearing a son, does not pray that that son will slip inbetween wars and not be called up?   Which brings up the "seamless garment", appropriate, I believe, in this discussion.   The powers that be focus on birth control matters and the control of true-love sex, while promulgating that old saw, the Just War.   Not to speak of the hypocrisy of staying in the church while ignoring its inhumane laws.   I am proud to be a member of a forward-thinking Catholic Church which attracts many from outside what used to be legal boundaries because warm, loving, hospital congregations such as mine are few and far between.   I am a "remnant", holding on and staying because I have abundant hope in the thinking of Teilhard de Chardin re spiritual evolution and in the Holy Spirit.   Clean thy house, Rome, so that we can get on with evolution.   And, hang on, remnant.  Offer the gift of Catholicism to your children.   They can decide for themselves later on in their path but at least you have sown the seed.
Craig McKee | 2/11/2012 - 12:03am
The DATA speaks for itself. But one other question came to mind: Since when do the MEN who run the Church know anything about WOOing WOMEN? Sorry, Sister, LOL!
Virginia Edman | 2/10/2012 - 11:42pm
I was just going to mention the recent fight over birth control when two others mentioned it.  Arguments like these only make it clear to women that they are being dictated to.  They cannot be trusted to make their own decision about contraception or other health issue, using their own consciences.  President Obama has been accused of being a bully about gay rights because he supports gay rights in countries that persecute the gay comminity.  He has been accused of interfering with Catholic freedom of religion by providing contraceptives to women.  President Obama is not a Catholic, yet the Church thinks it can dictate to him when the women in the Catholic Church clearly don't believe the church's position either.  The principle of the thing matters so much more that the reality.  Some Catholic teaching needs to evolve and move into the present. Girls are smarter, women are educated now, not in church doctrine, but in who they are, and how long it has taken them to evolve into educated adults.
Melody Evans | 2/10/2012 - 7:13pm

Great article. We only need to look as far as the recent fight concerning birth control to see the extent of problem. The Catholic Bishops condemn the use of birth control while 98% of the sexually active women of the church use it. There is definitely a big problem here.

Patrick Veale | 2/10/2012 - 3:53pm
The dictatorial attitude of some bishops, clearly visible in photographs published in the  media, in this recent war on President Obama's efforts to win full health coverage for all women will backfire.  
Lucie Johnson | 2/10/2012 - 2:49pm
Well, it's not surprising that women do not feel connected. The church at this point is an old boys' society, not responsive to women, who (in the West at least) expect more integral participation. That's unfortunate. I agree that the "complementary" theology is not helpful (that is the same reasoning that was used at one point in racial matters: separate but equal). Such a theology may fit some people but certainly not all, and it reinforces stereotype. Hopefully we, as a church will work things through... 
Anne Chapman | 2/10/2012 - 2:22pm
Julett, I'm afraid I don't do facebook - a deliberate choice. I sometimes post on the America blog also, and the blog provide links to email.

I am sure the facebook discussion will be interesting. I won't participate, partly because of no facebook presence, but also because at this point in my life I would not encourage young women to "go back" to a church that is hostile to them and does not treat them as full human beings - a church that has tried to pretend that a ban on women priests is God's will and also pretends that it is an "infallible' teaching.

The only suggestion I would support would be to encourage women to take action as a group - a sort of "strike". They could close their checkbooks, and they could refuse to work for free or for under-market salaries for the church.  The church at the parish level would basically stop functioning for anything except mass.  This would impact the chanceries as well - especially by reducing revenue dramatically.  Unfortunately, it seems the men in charge will never be willing to talk with women, listen to women, ask for their insights, nor will they learn to have any real respect for women until women stop enabling the patriarchy. Many women stay in abusive marriages when it makes no sense. At this point, it seems to make no sense to encourage young women to  support a church that does not respect them as full human beings.

I don't know where Mary' tea-towels will end up once the C of E begins ordaining women priests as bishops - perhaps in a museum somewhere, where future generations will be amazed to learn how women were treated as second-class members of the christian church for more than two thousand years. The US branch of the Anglican communion has had women bishops for many years. The current Presiding Bishop is a woman, as are more and more diocesan bishops.  A woman was recently elected to lead the Washington DC diocese - a very important diocese. Those who find liturgy and a sacramental outlook to be important but also seek a church where all have a voice in selecting their priests and bishops  - including the laity - and where respect for women is not just lip-service, should consider the Episcopal church.
Lisa Weber | 2/10/2012 - 2:07pm
The essential problem for women in the Catholic church is that women are not allowed to be adults.  The requirement that women remain children is enforced by the women in the Church more than it is enforced by the clergy.  The clergy is entirely capable of forming leaders who are adults themselves and lead others in an adult-adult manner, but none of that teaching is available to women.  The clergy could do the Church and women a favor by developing formation programs for female leaders that foster adulthood for women, and the ability to lead as one adult to another.

Women have yet to develop a culture of adulthood in a community setting.  One might say the feminist movement of the 1960's and 70's was the adolescence of women in the community.  Women are still trying to develop a culture of adulthood, and are making progress in the secular part of society, but women in the Church are still under the rule of mother figures.  Those who are ruled by a mother figure are children, and most women of a chronological age to be adults are not interested in being treated as children.
Julett Broadnax | 2/10/2012 - 1:17pm
Thanks Tim - will let my young Catholic women friends know so they can perhaps participate in the conversation.  And Mary - would love to have one of those tea towels.  How can I order one?
Mary Wood | 2/10/2012 - 12:40pm
The Church of England is steadily progressing towards the ordination of women clergy as Bishops.  As the CHURCH TIMES suggests, the tea-towels produced by the group "Women and the Church"  (W.A.T.C.H) which proclaim

                         A woman's place
                                 is in
                             the House

                             of Bishops 

will no longer be needed.  Perhaps W.A.T.C.H will donate their surplus stocks to their Catholic sisters!
 
Julett Broadnax | 2/10/2012 - 11:37am
Anne, we were posting at the same time.  Please feel free to friend me on facebook - feel we could have a good conversation.  It made me feel very sad to hear you say you no longer attend mass.  I can empathise with you in that decision.  I hope you are finding spiritual nourishment in other ways.
Let us pray for one another. 
Julett Broadnax | 2/10/2012 - 11:25am
Thank you so very much for this indepth article on the reseach and analysis of women in the church.  Like Fr. Rick, I hope the church makes use of this data in meaningful ways, and does not continue to bury their head in the sand about the realities expressed in this article.

For years, I felt there was something lacking in my life and tried to find a spliritual director to help me puzzle out this longing within me that remained unsatisfied.  Failing to find one over many years, upon the death of my husband, I enrolled in a program of spiritual direction - I thought to noursih my own soul, but in the three year program, felt it was a real calling to help others also to connect with that holy longing for a deeper relationshship with God.  As a female, this calling has energized and enriched my life.  When I try to bring my gifts to my parish and my diocese, I find little encouragement; therefore, most of my directees are protestant - ministers, for the most part or those deeply engaged in their various denominational preferences.  I still attend mass for love of the Eucharist, but am finding more and more that my spiritual life is being fed through various small faith group programs, especially through a lay program in our diocese and Ignatian foundation programs and attendance at retreaats and days of prayer - throughout two diocese and even beyond.  RCIA prgrams bring many converts to the church, but how are they nourished beyond the year of indoctrination into the truths of our faith?  I think an important role that could be dded to the staffs of churches would be to have a spiritual director on staff - not to do administrative work, but to be available to individuals who want that spiritual nourishment, or to lead group spiritual direction programs within the parish.  I hve had a few young Catholic women as directees over the years - and it has been a joy to see them grow in their faith and longing to be servants for Christ - in whatever field of service they have elected. I think the Notre Dame Masters program in Theology is a very encouraging program for young men and women, but where are the jobs after they complete their programs?  And how many young people even know about this opportunity to obtain a Masters in Theology that is free and a stipend internship while they are obtaining the degree?

Slpiritual direction itself is misunderstood.  There are really three persons in a direction session - the speaker (directee), the listener (the director) and the container (God).  The directee shares what is happening in their everyday life; the director's role is to listen with the heart to where they see God in the liife of the directee and to mirror and help the directee discertn how God is acting within their lives.  God's role is to be with both of them and hold them in love as they ruminate and express how God is directing them in their lives.  Hopefully, there are graced aha moments in both lives, although the director processes hers after the session is over, remaining open to helping the directee go deeper with these moments.
 
Anne Chapman | 2/10/2012 - 11:25am
The church relegates women to support roles only, even when nominally leadership roles. For example, although woman can be the DRE (and probably 95% are women), she and the religious ed teachers (mostly unpaid women) must teach ONLY what men have told them they may teach.  They may teach ONLY doctrines developed exclusively by men.  This is true at all levels - even for those who teach at universities and seminaries.

Women have no voice in developing the teachings of the church - including those teachings that impact on their lives, in areas in which they have a lived understanding that no celibate male in Rome ever has. Although the highest ranks of theology now includes many brilliant women, Rome and the bishops not only do not invite their thoughts and insights, they do their best to silence women theologians. This is a church that has equated the "evil" of ordaining women to the evil of pedophilia. 

Until women have an equal role in the "teaching magisterium" of the church, their insights and understandings will be brushed aside. This could be done in the absence of women's ordination, but it won't happen with the mindset that  currently prevails in the upper ranks of the clergy, who clearly want to keep women in what they have decided is their "proper place."  Their definition of "complementary" translates into "women's "proper" roles are what men decide they are". Only a tiny handful of women hold any jobs with decision-making authority in Rome, and none with what might be called "doctrine developing" authority.

For centuries, religious life attracted young women who chose not to be chattel - first the property of their fathers, then that of their husbands, "traded" with a dowery to a man for whom she would bear children.  There were few options for women in those days so religious life often seemed more attractive than the available alternatives. It is not surprising that far more young women joined religious orders throughout most of history than did men.  Today's young women have options that earlier generations of women did not have.  Some of my own college professors became religious sisters for the educational and professional opportunities - they could earn PhDs and then pursue their desire for college teaching. It was easier for them to do this as a member of a Catholic religious order at that time than as a secular woman seeking to teach in a non-Catholic college or university.

I have no daughters. I am with Claire - the church is depressing for older women also. I no longer attend mass. If I had daughters, and they asked my opinion, I would advise them to either live a spiritual life seeking the companionship of small groups or to start investigating other denominations in which to raise their children. My adult sons can't imagine raising daughters in this church either, should they someday have daughters (not yet married).  They think that the subliminal message of female inferiority is shameful.  And now there is an increasing trend by some priests and bishops to marginalize women starting with the girls, by banning girls from altar service. 

If young women are leaving the Catholic church in droves, who can blame them?
sheila dierks | 2/10/2012 - 11:00am
At Call to Action this autumn, I was part of the happy white haired audience of several hundred that listened to a panel speak about women's ordination.  All three ordained, two women and one man.  The women, who had found a path to priesthood, spoke of call and response, and delight and service.  Pretty impressive.  Were these the only ones invited to such service in the Catholic Church?  When the talk was over, I       
 (who after six decades of waiting for the Roman Church to open its doors to women, finally sought ordination in the Ecumenical Catholic Communion) asked those women who had a call to ordination to stand.  100? 150? More? Women all over the hall rose to acknowledge their call.  There was no shortage of vocations through the decades, women have always been called by the spirit in equal numbers to men.  I would suspect that there is no shortage now.  Women have in sadness and desperation taken their talents elsewhere and we are all the losers.  Want to bring the women back?  Want to unleash the power of Spirit present in the Church? Ordain women.
Mike Evans | 2/10/2012 - 10:44am
The issue of feminine involvement is intrinsically joined with the issues of visible feminine leadership roles in the church. Today's young, both men and women, are not likely to subscribe to the old model of pray, pay and obey. The current issues over health care, birth control, addressing poverty and war issues and fairness in employment all consist of strong arguments being made for a more free and less restrictive rule making environment. The proclamation of good news as opposed to railing against sinful practices has also got to be addressed. When will we see an ad for the U.S. church like the recent Chrysler superbowl ad? For most younger women, the church is seen to be more restrictive than liberating. And if they cannot help lead or influence its practices, they will certainly find other outlets for their 'spiritual' search.
CLAIRE BANGASSER MS | 2/10/2012 - 10:33am
John Paul II's "true feminism" is not feminism at all...
Womanhood is not really validated in the Roman Catholic Church, which seems to try to control women's lives.
Unless a young woman wants to become the 'total woman' - totally devoted to husband and children - few roles are offered to her otherwise.
Frankly, the Roman Catholic Church is very depressing for older women as well.
The RCC really seems to be made for men...  
Rick Malloy | 2/10/2012 - 9:12am
This is a superb article, providing excellent distilation of a great deal of sociological research and cogent analysis of the data.  Church leaders need to learn how to integrate such social science based information with strategies to build and sustain institutional structures in the church.  Of course, to ignore such data, and mindlessly mouth some party line that "vocations are turning around" inidicates one's inability to deal with the truth of social reality and spells disaster for the future of the Catholic church in the USA.