The Role of Women in the Catholic Church

By: Beth Hanson

The last century has been instrumental in redefining the role of women in society. In 1920, women gained the right to vote; during World War II, they joined the work force in mass numbers. Since the early 1900’s, new medical procedures of birth control and abortion dramatically altered women’s choices-but in what direction? The radical feminism of the ’60s and ’70s further demanded that women have economic and social equality with men. Through legislation, such as the 1972 Equal Rights Amendment and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, women obtained legal protection against discrimination.

From a secular perspective, it’s easy to take a casual glance at this ‘progress’ and seriously question the current status of women in the Catholic Church, especially in relation to the exclusion of women from the priesthood. Is the Church behind the times? Should women be priests?

When recalling the origins, progress and current status of feminism, it is important to explore women’s desires. What do women want? Looking to history reveals various feminine desires. In gaining the right to vote, we see that women wanted to have a voice representing a unique feminine perspective, one that addressed our needs and views, embraced women’s inherent value, yet respected our differences.

A key point, then, is that women are equal to men, but are also wonderfully different. While some feminine desires can reveal much about who we are, others can lead us astray. Armed with a formed conscience, women can distinguish which desires fulfill a greater purpose and which yearnings distort purpose.

What do we see, then, when we look at points in the feminist movement such as the development and legalization of birth control and abortion, and where does the issue of women being priests fit in the big scheme of women’s rights? What are the roots of these desires? Birth control and abortion are said to have empowered women-supposedly they have given women power to “choose.” This type of desire, based in power, seeks to challenge basic human rights, dignity and inherencies, and is not only contrary to what it is to be a woman, it goes against what it is to be human, to be Christian, to be a servant. If this aspiration for perceived power is the motivation behind women priests, it would be safe to say, that such desires rooted in power are not genuine and do not lead us to our greater purpose. As Pope John Paul II said in his Letter to Priests, the ministerial priesthood, according to Christ’s plan, “is an expression not of domination but of service” (No. 7).

So, what is our purpose as women? In Genesis we read, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” (Gen 2:18). We also read that we are, as male and female, created in the image and likeness of God. From her beginning, woman is a gift that is created, as John Paul II said in his Letter to Women, on “the principle of help: a help which is not one-sided but mutual.” We as women help to complete and fulfill the expression of humanity that reflects God Himself. We bring unique gifts, which John Paul II calls the “feminine genius,” that are apparent physically through our ability to be mothers, emotionally in our call to “prior[itize] love” and spiritually in our capacity to focus on each person as a child of God.

God created all of reality; thus all reality reveals something about Him. God did not make a mistake when He, through the very physical nature of female and male, created family and gave women the position of motherhood. Christ also had a specific intention when he chose 12 men to be his apostles and continue his priesthood. It wasn’t just a cultural consequence; practically all pagan religions of Christ’s time had priestesses.

Women’s purpose and vocation in the Church is further revealed in the structure of family, the Trinity and in the Blessed Mother. In the same way that a family functions in different roles, father and mother, man and wife, so the Church also functions. In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he compares the submission and absolute love between man and wife to the dying of Christ to achieve the holiness of the Church. Everyone in the Church then mirrors the image of woman. Yes, the Church possesses a hierarchical structure, but this structure is ordered entirely for the holiness of all its members. Similarly, the Trinity reveals to us how the different and distinct roles of Father, Son and Holy Spirit perpetuate selfless love. Finally, Mary, the mother of God and the first disciple, gives us a further understanding of what it is to be woman; through her submissive and humble “yes” came the incarnation of Christ, the Church and thus spiritual salvation.

In not ordaining women priests, the Church isn’t limiting women; it’s fulfilling them through honoring and encouraging the unique gifts that God has given them. Every Christian person shares a common vocation to be a “priest, profit and king” through his/her baptism. Women are called to share in the common priesthood of Christ by making themselves gifts to God and others. Unfortunately, those who limit their spiritual activity to Sunday church attendance often overlook this mission ground of women. In the Letter to Women, John Paul II speaks out against the “obstacles which in so many parts of the world still keep women from being fully integrated into social, political and economic life.” The church is not behind the times; she is ahead of it-fighting for more influence and freedom for women to practice their unique vocations and encourage holiness in all spectrums of life, not just the Church. In his letter, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, John Paul II writes:

“The presence and the role of women in the life and mission of the Church, although not linked to the ministerial priesthood, remain absolutely necessary and irreplaceable. As the Declaration Inter Insigniores points out, ‘The Church desires that Christian women should become fully aware of the greatness of their mission: today their role is of capital importance both for the renewal and humanization of society and for the rediscovery by believers of the true face of the Church’ ” ( No. 10).

When anyone doubts the influence of women in the Church, they need only look at great holy women who have continually steered the 2000-year-old Church toward love and toward Christ. Among these women are Mother Teresa, whose work of serving the poorest of the poor prompted many initiatives and drastically influenced social thought; St. Teresa of Avila, a doctor of the Church, whose simple understanding of love was so powerful it renewed the ecclesiastical community; philosopher St. Edith Stein, a convert who died for her faith in the Holocaust; and St. Gianna Beretta Molla, a physician who, when faced with a uterine tumor, chose to give her life for her unborn child. We as women need only to utilize the gifts God has built into our nature to do great things in the world.

Originally published 1/1/07

Source: The Gonzaga Witness is a publication of the Gonzaga Witness Club. It seeks to uphold and enlarge the intellectual, cultural, and Catholic traditions and identity at Gonzaga University.