Women's leadership in the Church

In speaking with young Catholic women especially, it’s rare that the issue of women’s leadership does not emerge strongly for many of them as a problem in their life of faith, says Fr Richard Leonard SJ. They see that in nearly every other sphere of life women are, at least theoretically and now enshrined by law in most countries, able to hold any office of principal authority in any institution other than religious ones.

You may never have heard of The Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network, or you may have heard of it by its former name: The Apostleship of Prayer. Founded in 1844 in France as a movement within Ignatian spirituality, each month the Pope identifies a challenge facing humanity and the mission of the Church and asks this network to pray about it, reflect upon it and act where possible.

At North Sydney Parish, we’re hoping that The Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network (PWPN) will become an integral part of our Jesuit parish life. Recently, Sydneysiders John and Anne Gray became the first lay couple to become National Coordinators of PWPN. Fr David Braithwaite, who is a member of our local Jesuit Community and assists with various parish liturgies, is the PWPN Coordinator for Asia and the Spiritual Advisor for Australia. In 2021 Anne & John and Fr David will be offering our parish, and beyond, a new retreat programme called ‘The Way of the Heart.’

For October, Pope Francis asks everyone to pray that women be given greater leadership roles in the Church. The Pope focuses our prayer, reflection and action this month like this: ‘No one has been baptised a priest or a bishop. We have all been baptised as lay people. Lay people are protagonists of the Church. Today, it is especially necessary to create broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the Church. And we must emphasise the feminine lay presence because women tend to be left aside. We must promote the integration of women, especially where important decisions are made. We pray that by the virtue of baptism, the laity, especially women, may participate more in areas of responsibility in the Church, without falling into forms of clericalism that diminish the lay charism.’

So let’s respond to the Pope’s challenge, given that this vital issue also emerged as one of the top topics in the deliberations of the Plenary Council.

In speaking with young Catholic women especially, it’s rare that the issue of women’s leadership does not emerge strongly for many of them as a problem in their life of faith. They see that in nearly every other sphere of life women are, at least theoretically and now by law in most countries, able to hold any office of principal authority in any institution other than religious ones. Certainly, some women and men have walked away from a faith in a so-called male God, and some from the Catholic Church, in particular, because they see it as inherently discriminatory.

Though the status of women is vastly different throughout the world, and sometimes very tragic in some cultures, even within these differing social expectations, St Pope John Paul II said that women’s rights to dignity and human flourishing are given by God and should always be defended by the church. This is even more true in nations where women’s basic human rights are criminally and tragically abused. Given the differing social expectations and even though the issues are larger than ordination, current debates, both inside and outside the church, often centre on the Church stating that it cannot, has no authority to, ordain women to the priesthood.

The following is a brief summary, which hardly conveys all the arguments presented in the libraries of books written on both sides of this debate.

There are six main reasons the Church says it has no power to ordain women: firstly, Jesus did not ordain any women—that the first apostles were all male; secondly, the all-male priesthood has been an unbroken tradition in the church’s history; thirdly, because in sacramental liturgies the priest acts in the name and person of Jesus — having a male priest establishes a clearer iconography or identification between Jesus and the priest; fourthly, while women and men are created equal by God, they have differing gender-specific roles, and to confuse these is to harm the balance of our human condition; fifthly, the priesthood should not be seen as an office of power to be obtained and used, but as an order of self-sacrificing service; finally, the Church has been a place where women are not oppressed but where their many and manifest gifts have flourished and been celebrated from Mary, the Mother of God, who is first among (all) the saints, to St Mary Magdalene, who was the ‘apostle to the Apostles’, to an array of mystics, saints, founders, martyrs, and scholars.

The critics of these arguments claim: firstly, that Jesus may have had twelve male apostles, but he had and commissioned many female disciples, some of whom were his most faithful followers. They also challenge that he ‘ordained’ anyone in the way the Church now uses that term and understands that office. Set against the customs of his day, his attitudes and practices towards women and their leadership were radical; secondly, the argument of an unbroken tradition of an ‘all-male’ liturgical leadership is not as watertight as some claim. There seems to be some evidence of women presiding over house churches, Mary Magdalene and Junia are called apostles, and women were deacons in the first centuries of Christianity; thirdly, at sacramental liturgies, the priest acts in the name and person of the Risen Christ in whom ‘there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’ (Gal 3:28). While the Church has let go of Jesus’ culture and religion as prerequisites for Christian ordination, gender, apparently, remains the only non-negotiable; fourthly, given that we no longer read the Book of Genesis literally, the gender roles that emerge there should not be absolutised, but should rather be interpreted as a theological construction around social determinations; fifthly, there is nothing wrong in talking about access to governance when it combines the right and just use of power as well as modelling self-sacrificing service. Finally, for all the Church’s rhetoric about the great gifts of women, and especially about motherhood, there has not been a corresponding and meaningful harnessing of their gifts for leadership at every level of the Church’s life.

While the judgment of a male cleric might be seen to be overly defensive of the Church’s position, I want to revisit the earlier distinction between ordination and leadership. When I think of some of the greatest women in the Christian story who inspire me: Joan of Arc, Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena, Mary Ward, Madeline Sophie Barat, Catherine McAuley, Mary MacKillop, Nano Nagle and Mary Aitkenhead just to name a few. None of them was ordained and they all had to put up with appalling discrimination from male Church officials of their day. The only historical comfort we can draw from what they suffered is that their detractors are now largely forgotten to history, but each of them is now or is in the process of being declared a Saint, and rightly so.

It is important to keep the distinction between ordination and leadership in perspective. While ordination gives a priest sacramental and structural power, it does not necessarily bestow upon him the gift of leadership, which is endorsed by a leader’s followers. There are some priests who may be ordained, but they lead no one anywhere. There are women who have never and will never be ordained, but their leadership is inspiring.

If we look beyond sacramental leadership—and I concede that is a central reality of the Catholic Church’s life—and examine education, healthcare, welfare, pastoral care, spirituality, and indeed parish life, ours included, we find that in almost every western country in the world, women’s leadership is indispensable. In fact, if women stopped leading and working in all these ministries, the entire mission and daily ministry of the church would come to a halt. It might be a good thing if all the women in the church went on strike one week in order to remind the men who it is who actually run this ‘show’ in and through their sometimes heroic, self-sacrificing service.

Similarly, it is important that we recognise the equal dignity of women and men created in the image and likeness of God and their complementarity and mutuality, so that it translates into the active participation of women throughout all levels of decision-making in the Church, a re-examination of the nature of non-priestly ministry with the exploration of more inclusive roles for men and women, and a reform of practices that do not promote the equality of men and women.

This is not the first time Pope Francis has initiated a discussion on the role of women in the life of the Church. ‘Women must have a greater presence in the decision-making areas of the church… [they] cannot be limited to the fact of being an altar server or the president of Caritas, the catechist … No! … We need to create still broader opportunities for a more inclusive female presence in the Church …. Demands that the legitimate rights of women be respected, based on the firm conviction that men and women are equal in dignity, present the Church with profound and challenging questions which cannot be lightly evaded.’ (Evangelii Gaudium, 103-104).

In fact Francis has gone further than any of his other predecessors in Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) of March 2016 when the Pope said, ‘I certainly value feminism, but one that does not demand uniformity or negate motherhood. For the grandeur of women includes all the rights derived from their inalienable human dignity but also from their feminine genius, which is essential to society…’ (#173) and ‘… I would like to stress the fact that, even though significant advances have been made in the recognition of women’s rights and their participation in public life, in some countries much remains to be done to promote these rights….There are those who believe that many of today’s problems have arisen because of feminine emancipation. This argument, however, is not valid, it is false, untrue, a form of male chauvinism.’ ‘The equal dignity of men and women makes us rejoice to see old forms of discrimination disappear, and within families there is a growing reciprocity. If certain forms of feminism have arisen which we must consider inadequate, we must nonetheless see in the women’s movement the working of the Spirit for a clearer recognition of the dignity and rights of women.’(#54)

Hopefully we will soon head in the direction outlined by Cardinal Martini and Bishop Wcela in calling for women to be ordained deacons. ‘Ordaining women as deacons who have the necessary personal, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral qualities would give their indispensable role in the life of the church a new degree of official recognition, both in their ministry and in their direct connection to their diocesan bishop for assignments and faculties. In addition to providing such women with the grace of the sacrament, ordination would enable them to exercise diaconal service in the teaching, sanctifying, and governing functions of the church; it would also make it possible for them to hold ecclesiastical offices now limited to those in sacred orders….

Future discussion about women becoming cardinals is both theologically and theoretically possible. Most Catholics don’t know that the College of Cardinals, emerging as we know it around 1220, had, for most of its 800-year history, lay men (married and single) and clerics together doing the voting for the Bishop of Rome. If a layman got elected, he immediately had to be ordained a deacon, priest and bishop. There were always electors there who could never be elected. Lay cardinals include Francesco Maria de’ Medici (father of four), Ferdinand of Austria (made a cardinal aged 10) and Luis Antonio De Bourbon (created a cardinal aged 8 and father of three). The last lay cardinal was Teodolofo Mertel, a lay man and lawyer who was Secretary of State to Pius IX in 1858. He was later ordained a deacon, but was never ordained a priest and was the last non-priest cardinal when he died in 1899.

The 1917 Code of Canon Law decreed that only priests or bishops could be chosen as cardinals, thus officially closing the historical period where lay men were also Cardinals. In 1962 John XXIII legislated that all cardinals are required to be consecrated as bishops, unless an explicit exception is granted by the Pope. Several cardinals have been admitted to the College without being ordained a bishop.

All this is background to the simple fact that Pope Francis could go back to the more ancient and longer tradition in the College and welcome back lay men and, this time, welcome lay women as well. Married men and women could not be elected, but could do the electing. I say if we are serious about women’s leadership, then, ‘bring it on now!’

Regardless of this discussion, it is incontestable that women should participate more and more at every level of decision-making: locally, nationally, and internationally. Rather than walk away from the church, young women especially, but not exclusively, will hopefully stay, name, and shame any discrimination they experience in God’s name, enabling all of us to create a more inclusive and empowering church for them and their daughters and sons.

Rev Dr Richard Leonard SJ is the author of What are we doing on earth for Christ’s sake? (Paulist Press, 2015) available at St Paul’s bookstore, (02) 9264 8630,

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