For many months the editors of America, with the contributions of a talented cadre of writers, worked to prepare this special issue dedicated to women in the life of the church. To our delight, recent statements by Pope Francis have only increased attention to urgent questions concerning this topic. In his interview with Jesuit journals (Am. 9/30), Pope Francis expressed his conviction that it is “necessary to broaden the opportunities” for women in the church, and to “think about the specific place of women also in those places where the authority of the church is exercised.”
Francis is challenging all of us to ask deep questions and develop new ways of thinking and acting. We need to examine our conscience. In what ways has the church received and been enriched by the gifts of women? In what ways has the church neglected, ignored or even outright denied the voices and gifts of women? And, perhaps most significant, how is the Spirit inviting the church to move forward? What are new opportunities for women to serve in places of authority in the church? The gifts of women have always been needed in these places.
When this journal was founded in 1909, seminary faculties and theology departments—like all clerical positions in the church—were the exclusive dominion of men. The same was true of America’s editorial board, comprised solely of Jesuits. This undoubtedly influenced our editorial position on a number of issues, including the 19th Amendment. After it was ratified in 1920, the Jesuit editors expressed “deep concern” about the “moral and social effects” of extending suffrage to women.
Dorothy Day wrote several articles for America in the 1930s, and Moira Walsh and Mary McGrory became regular contributors in the 1960s and ’70s. In those years there were two male lay editors on the staff, but it was not until quite recently that a lay person took a seat at the editorial table. Patricia A. Kossmann, the first female editor of America, joined the editorial board in 1999 and served as literary editor for 13 years. After her arrival, additional lay editors, male and female, joined her in leadership. This journal has benefited greatly from the professional acumen of these dedicated lay women and men.
Our examination of conscience continues: While America identifies itself as a journal of opinion for all Catholics, even today Catholic women are underrepresented in our pages. It is not surprising, and perhaps unavoidable, that as a Jesuit journal, most of our editors are men. But it is also the case that most of our non-Jesuit contributors are men and that achieving a greater balance in our pages is both a worthy and challenging endeavor.
The challenge is not unique to this journal; it is present in the culture at large and in the field of journalism. According to a study released in June by Media Matters for America, women comprise only 38 percent of newsroom staff in the United States, a figure that has not changed in 14 years. This is a structural injustice, the result of many individual decisions with a cumulative effect.
We all participate in it and must take responsibility for it. And America cannot be satisfied with simply approaching parity with the larger culture. We are called to be a prophetic witness for the full participation of women in the church and society.
Eighteen years ago, the Society of Jesus called for a conversion of all its members “to listen carefully and courageously to the experience of women” and to address the systemic injustices that women experience in all areas of life (34th General Congregation, 1995).
America needs the voices and gifts of women to fulfill our mission of “interpreting the church for the world and the world for the church.” As increasing numbers of women lead Catholic institutions and serve in parish leadership and theology departments, for example, we invite these women to share with us their thoughts and ideas on all topics, and we pledge to seek out their perspectives. It is important for America to add more women to its roster of contributors and to increase our coverage of issues that affect women in the church. America also takes up the challenge of Pope Francis to help develop a more profound theology of women, which includes drawing attention to the significant theological work already completed in this area.
This special issue of America does not represent a seismic shift in our thinking and acting, but we hope it is a further small step in the right direction, a meaningful investment in the long haul. We are reminded of what Dorothy Day said to those who wondered about the “small effort” of Catholic Workers. “They cannot see that we must lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time,” she wrote. “No one has a right to sit down and feel hopeless. There is too much work to do.” The entire church, including America, must get busy.