Overcoming Visible and Not So Visible Barriers to Women's Leadership in the Roman Catholic Church in the United States

Article excerpt


In the 21st century, Catholic women and the Roman Catholic Church are finding themselves meeting at a crossroad that is fraught with ambiguity. It is a challenging crossroad full of both potential and frustration. The women gathering at this crossroad are questioning the Church structures into which they were baptized. These questions focus on the fundamental issues of leadership, ordination, decision-making, gender and language. Women view these issues as visible, and not so visible, barriers to their full participation as leaders in the life of their Church. Currently, Catholic women are speaking out, talking back and answering questions that they have not yet been asked because they believe that their voices are missing from the discourse on these and other significant issues which affect them.

This paper will discuss two of the major barriers, both visible and invisible, which are preventing Catholic women from assuming leadership roles within today's Catholic Church. The final section of the paper will focus on new models of ecclesial leadership currently being implemented through the efforts of Catholic women. A quiet revolution is underway within the Church. The revolution is flourishing despite current barriers.


As they move through the first decade of the 21st century, numerous Catholic women in the United States are questioning the Church structures into which they were baptized. Their questions focus on the fundamental issues of leadership, ordination, decision-making and gender relationships. These women perceive such issues as a piece of the visible and invisible barriers to their full participation in the life of the Catholic Church. This paper will discuss one major invisible barrier and one visible barrier preventing Catholic women from assuming significant leadership roles within the Church. These two barriers are the traditional anthropological view of women and the understanding of power and authority which flows from that anthropology. In addition, I will cite examples of women who, collaborating with other women and men, are chipping away at these two barriers. In this paper, leadership is defined as the ability to articulate a vision and create an environment in which others may identify themselves with the vision in order to achieve common goals.

Barriers to Women's Leadership in the Church: Traditional Anthropological Understandings

The conflict that surrounds women's status in the Church is based on the invisible barrier of an obsolete anthropology that regards women as deficient beings lacking the fullness of human nature. Classical Greek philosophy divided all reality into spirit, the realm of light, and matter, the realm of darkness. (1) Spirit was prized over matter. Greek thought identified men with spirit, women with matter. Thus, for over a thousand years, society advocated the idea that men were to be leaders in the public domain, while women were to nurture and care for children.

This traditional anthropological vision influenced Church theology as far back as Augustine, who while agreeing that women were equal to men in their soul, denied women were created in the image of God. (2) Thomas Aquinas defined women as "defective male". (3) This denial of women's dignity and full equality with men remained a part of the Church tradition from the 4th century until the Second Vatican Council. (4) A major Council statement calling for a recognition of the equality of all persons appeared in the Council document entitled Pastoral Constitution in the Modern World. The document states "Since all persons possess a rational soul and are created in God's likeness, since they have the same nature and origin.... the basic equality of all must receive increasingly greater recognition". (5) Following the Council, many women were hopeful that their status and role within the church would change. However, almost immediately after the close of the Council, Catholic women began to experience the ambivalence of Church officials in regard to changes promoted during the Council. …


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