Women in Church Leadership
Women and the Word
Vatican Shows New Openness to Women

by Christine Schenk csj

Published in National Catholic Reporter 11/3/2006

Last March, a young Roman priest asked Pope Benedict why the Church couldn’t allow more visibility for women in ministry and in governance. After ruling out the possibility of women priests, the Pope agreed that it is proper to ask if it could be possible “to offer more space, more positions of responsibility to women,” signaling for the first time in many months, the contentious “women’s issue” in the Church was again open for discussion.

Then on August 14, the Pope made some very interesting comments that could signal new openness to advancing women in church ministry and decision making. For the first time, the papal office seemed to acknowledge, albeit obliquely,  the systemic inequalities of linking governance to  priesthood, particularly as this affects women. Pope Benedict was responding to a question from the German media commentator Gerhard Fuchs:

Fuchs:  “Women are very active in many different areas of the Catholic Church. Shouldn't their contribution become more clearly visible, even in positions of higher responsibility in the Church?”

Pope Benedict:  “We reflect a lot about this subject, of course. As you know, we believe that our faith and the constitution of the college of the Apostles, obliges us and doesn't allow us to confer priestly ordination on women. But we shouldn't think either that the only role one can have in the Church is that of being a priest. There are lots of tasks and functions in the history of the Church -- starting with the sisters of the Fathers of the Church, up to the middle ages when great women played fundamental roles, up until modern times. Think about Hildegard of Bingen who protested strongly before the bishops and the pope, of Catherine of Siena and Brigit of Sweden. In our own time too women, and we with them, must look for their right place, so to speak. Today they are very present in the departments of the Holy See. But there's a juridical problem: according to Canon Law the power to take legally binding decisions is limited to Sacred Orders. So there are limitations from this point of view but I believe that women themselves, with their energy and strength, with their superiority, with what I'd call their "spiritual power," will know how to make their own space. And we will have to try and listen to God so as not to stand in their way but, on the contrary, to rejoice when the female element achieves the fully effective place in the Church best suited to her, starting with the Mother of God and with Mary Magdalene."

Robert Mickens, writing for the British journal, The Tablet, immediately responded by pointing out that according to the Annuario Pontificio 2006,  women hold only about 15 per cent of staff positions in major departments of the Holy See, none of them in major decision-making roles.  Three major tribunals (the Apostolic Penitentiary, the Apostolic Signature, and the Roman Rota) have no women at all, and the Congregation for Catholic Education has only one woman on its staff of 23, a particularly egregious disparity since the preponderance of educators in the Church are women.

Women Deacons?

Some theologians opined privately that the Pope’s remarks could indicate he  favors restoring the tradition of women deacons in the Church. “Sacred orders” includes diaconal ordination after all, not just ordination to the priesthood.  Since the Catholic Church has not rejected the possibility, they believe the Pope was inferring that a way around the governance conundrum could be to ordain women deacons. Women would then be included in church decision-making.

Others believe that if the Vatican does allow women deacons, it will be a completely separate category from the male-only permanent deacon or the transitional diaconate leading to priesthood.  A more likely scenario, they say, would be a strange hybrid: women “deaconesses” without the conferral of orders. (This despite the now irrefutable history of female diaconal ordination rites.) But without “orders” women could not participate in governance, accentuating the Vatican’s sad sophistry that women are equal in the Church. (For a complete discussion, see http://www.womenpriests.org/deacons/debate.asp)

Another option could be to change canon law so that jurisdiction in some church decisions rests with baptism, not ordination.  Before the current  Code of Canon Law, lay people did have some juridical powers. Lay juridical authority taken away by church rule-makers can be restored by church rule-makers.

While the Pope seems to sincerely believe women’s “spiritual power” will help them find their space in the Church, is it not also true that men’s “spiritual power” obligates them to make room for women’s gifts? 

That the Pope has now twice acknowledged publicly the need to improve women’s roles in the Church, seems to indicate he may be more open and perhaps more sympathetic to the issue than his predecessor.

A small but significant clue is that Benedict named Mary Magdalene with Mary the Mother of Jesus as examples of women's roles in the Church.  Traditionally only Mary the mother of Jesus has been held up as a model for women.  By citing Mary Magdalene , the Apostle to the Apostles, Benedict  seems to be making the point that women in ministerial roles are to be acknowledged and reverenced as well as women in mothering roles. 

I would wager that this is the first time in historical memory that Mary Magdalene was invoked as a model of ministry, and not as a reformed sinner.

Can it be that women as coworkers, such as Mary Magdalene and John, Prisca and Paul, are finally being recognized and celebrated as part of our tradition, rather than rejected in the name of it?

Sr. Christine Schenk, CSJ,  is  the Executive Director Emerita of FutureChurch. For the past ten years, FutureChurch sponsored thousands of educational celebrations of Mary of Magdala, the Apostle to the Apostles.