The Role of Women in the Church


  ilaria    Ilaria Morali, Lecturer at the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome |

Women’s participation in the Church is still far from being fully effective. It’s still an open question. It may seem that progress in civil society, where women are taking more and more responsible roles, could dictate the need for change in the Church. In reality, that is only an added reason, or, if you like, a spur. The basic reason for demanding a change in the Church is in fact much deeper and of a completely different kind.

It’s not a question of greater or less democracy, because the Church is not a democracy. The Church is both a visible community and a spiritual community, and as such, as the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium reminds us, she is “one complex reality which coalesces from a divine and a human element” (no. 8). This being the case – the Church being both divine and human –, the reasons for demanding fuller participation by women in the Church are theological ones, i.e. they are to be sought within the Faith, not outside it.

Baptism, vocation and mission are the three basic principles underlying these theological reasons. A man or woman who receives baptism becomes a part of the Church, a member of the Church with rights and duties, sharing the one vocation to holiness and the Church’s own mission. The Second Vatican Council reminded us that all Christians share “a common dignity as members from their regeneration in Christ, having the same filial grace and the same vocation to perfection; possessing in common one salvation, one hope and one undivided charity. There is, therefore, in Christ and in the Church no inequality on the basis of race or nationality, social condition or sex, because ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek: there is neither bond nor free: there is neither male nor female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus’” (Lumen Gentium, no. 32).

For women, as for men, the inalienable right to share fully in the life of the Church derives from baptism, hence the term “baptismal equality”. The Council did not consider it necessary to set out any theological considerations specifically about women, because the theology of Baptism covers everything. The Pope talked about this right on May 12, 2016 in his speech to the International Union of Superiors General. “Woman’s role in the Church is not one of feminism; it is a right! It is a right as a baptized person, with the charisms and the gifts that the Spirit has given. We must not fall into feminism, because this would reduce a woman’s importance.” The Pope pointed to a common error in discussions of this matter: that of reducing the role of women in the Church to questions of feminism.

Another mistaken approach would be to try and prove the need for greater participation by women based on their role as wife and mother. That approach is the result of a one-sided interpretation of Mulieris Dignitatem (St John Paul II, 1988). A reductive reading of this document has led some people to try and retain the status quo in the Church, and has worked in favor of the marginalization of women, as though women’s participation consisted of the archaic, angelical images of submission and silence. The women in the Gospel, and characters such as Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, Hildegard von Bingen, Edith Stein and many others, are more than sufficient evidence that women are capable of providing healthy leadership in many areas within the Church, and of their decisive influence on the Church’s life, in accordance with the modes of action of their respective eras.


Pope Francis decreed that the liturgical commemoration of St Mary Magdalene, which had been a “memorial”, should be raised to the rank of “feast”, underlining her traditional title “Apostle of the Apostles”. He did this to make the Church more aware of the model of a woman who is anything but submissive and secondary, but instead, decisive and active, sent by Christ on a mission to the Apostles themselves. The Pope was pointing not only to a model for action but a method and style of discernment.

This discernment must be undertaken in the light of Scripture, the witness of Tradition and the Church’s experience. Its purpose is to discover or rediscover forgotten elements of dogma that can serve as the starting-point for a deep study of the role of women in the Church of today. The answer is not to be found in juridical, sociological or anthropological theories or ideologies outside the Faith. It has to be sought within the living faith of the Church. What is needed is a rediscovery of what is already part of the inheritance of the Faith, discerning how to read that inheritance in relation to the Church of today.

Starting off from the shared dignity of all the baptized does not mean denying the fact that we all have different ways of sharing in the Church’s mission and following our calling to holiness. The Council said, “In the building up of Christ’s Body various members and functions have their part to play. There is only one Spirit who, according to His own richness and the needs of the ministries, gives His different gifts for the welfare of the Church” (Lumen Gentium, no. 7). This “wonderful diversity” (Lumen Gentium, no. 32) belongs to the life of the Church, and any theory that denied it would contradict the Church’s very nature.


Pope Francis, in the Apostolic Letter Evangelii Gaudium (nos. 103-104) expressly speaks of the need “to create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the Church,” stressing the fact that “this presents a great challenge for pastors and theologians, who are in a position to recognize more fully what this entails with regard to the possible role of women in decision-making in different areas of the Church’s life.” As the Pope says, there are no easy answers. Many different factors need to be taken into account, and not only the question of functions specifically reserved to ordained ministers. Theologians and canon lawyers have the difficult task of achieving deeper insights into a whole range of principles and aspects, informed, among other things, by the biblical, patristic, and historical studies of positive theology.

However, Pope Francis is both confident and determined, as is shown by some recent decisions in the process of reforming the Roman Curia. The Statutes of the new Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life came into effect from September 1, 2016, and have gone practically unnoticed in the media. Article 2 of these Statutes lays down the possibility of a layperson – including, therefore, a woman – being Secretary to the Prefect of this Dicastery; and of laypeople – also including women – being the three Under-Secretaries of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, Family and Life. What the media have been focusing on, quite unduly, is the setting up of a commission to study nature of the diaconate, and they have voiced the impression that the full participation of women in the Church depends on women being admitted to the diaconate. Contrary to popular opinion, the question of women deacons is a totally secondary and marginal subject. And it should continue to be so, for the good of women themselves, if the Church really wants to “to create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence”.


Progress is urgently needed. However, hasty decisions will not do women any favor. The task of this pontificate is made still harder by the fact that, in Pope Francis’ words, “time is greater than space”. His work in favor of women will become effective only through a delicate process of discernment, sorting out what can and should be done immediately from what requires a longer gestation period.

Some will object that women have already waited long enough, that further delays are unacceptable, that in many situations in the Church women’s patience has been stretched to its utmost limit, and that women expect Pope Francis to take things forward, in view of the high regard he is known to have for them. There are substantial changes that could be made right now in the Church, both in the Roman Curia and in Pontifical Universities and ecclesiastical tribunals, seminaries, parishes and many other church organisms. In other words, there are plenty of places where women could be present, in full Baptismal equality, as an integral part of normal Church life.

On the other hand, the history of the Church shows that all radical change has needed to be made over a long time if it was to be really effective. Rushed decisions have not worked; carefully meditated steps are what have lasted. In order to arrive at the right solution, the question of women’s role in the Church needs to remain open for longer, providing the Church with an opportunity for reflecting on her teaching, supported by healthy theological reasoning, to explain what the faith can offer in all its richness. Therefore we should not think that everything can be resolved by creating “spaces”. As Pope Francis reminds us constantly, “Space hardens processes, whereas time propels towards the future and encourages us to go forward in hope” (Lumen Fidei, no. 57).

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