The women who have a deep love for the Church while feeling alienated, hurt and frustrated
Women, the Church and reform. The women who have a deep love for the Church while feeling alienated, hurt and frustrated Tina Beattie dialogue with a far more diverse range of voices is needed if those who speak for women in the Vatican truly represent what it means to be a Catholic woman in the modern world.
A survey of female voices from across the Catholic world reveals both a deep love for the Church and a deep yearning for change. In late 2021, I suggested to the Catholic Women Speak (CWS) network – an online forum for dialogue – that we might circulate a questionnaire among our members to prepare a report for submission to the synod: 17,200 Catholic women from 104 countries responded.
The findings give a fascinating insight into the hopes and struggles of thousands of women in the worldwide Church. They challenge the homogenised view of Catholic women presented by both those dismissive of reformers and those who want radical change in the Church. In church teachings, women are romanticised for their maternal qualities and “feminine genius”, while our sex bars us from ordination.
By contrast, Catholic women are often represented as united in wanting radical reform across all institutional and doctrinal frontiers. The survey shows that neither perspective truly respects the many ways in which women identify as Catholic. Most come from somewhere along the spectrum of Catholic faith and practice, with at one end a minority resisting any reform, and at the other a minority impatient for revolutionary change. For me, one of the most moving and thought-provoking discoveries was the extent to which so many women expressed a deep love for the Church, and at the same time feelings of alienation, hurt and frustration.
Nearly 90 per cent affirmed that their Catholic identity was important to them, even as they longed for change. An Indian woman remarked: “The Catholic Church is my mother. She nurtured me from my childhood. Now she is sick, and I can’t afford to leave her alone.” A young Austrian woman observed that “at some points, Church and I don’t seem to fit at all (I’m a lesbian); at others, we fit. I’m here.
I’m Church too!” That kind of ambivalence emerged again and again. Many women spoke of the strength they derive from the Eucharist, and of their sorrow that some are denied access to the sacrament. “I cling to the Church by my fingernails,” one woman wrote from the UK, “because of the Eucharist and in spite of many of its clergy.”
A Nigerian woman expressed concern that “those who are physically and mentally challenged” are sometimes excluded from receiving the Eucharist. Similar concerns were expressed with regard to divorced Catholics in committed partnerships or marriages who, as a Spanish woman said, “participate in Sunday Eucharist without Communion.
They are believers who have suffered and suffer.” Among those who have left the Church, there was anger but also deep sadness. A Canadian woman wrote: “I love the Catholic Church deeply. You must understand that I didn’t want to leave.” A woman from the UK said: “If radical change comes, corruption is addressed, and women have a driving seat – I may return.
Until then I will continue to find my spiritual fulfilment elsewhere. And this makes me sad.” While issues about women were identified as major areas needing reform, for most respondents their Catholic identity was bound up with wider questions of social justice, inclusivity and collaborative leadership. Two-thirds identified as “ecumenical Christians”, suggesting there was no conflict between their Catholic identity and ecumenism. An Irish woman spoke of wanting “to shed my colourless Catholic coat and replace it with a colourful Christian coat”.
A religious sister from the Philippines hoped the survey would “contribute to our struggle for genuine Christian unity and inclusiveness, mirroring God’s own compassion, mercy, forgiveness and joyful love”. There was lamentation and anger over corruption and abuse: not only sexual abuse, but clericalism and the abuse of power, and the marginalisation of groups on the basis of sexuality, gender, disability or race.
A Canadian woman who described herself as “a committed lifelong Catholic who has never left the Church” wrote: “I feel as betrayed by the institutional betrayal as I do by my abuser …” A former nun wrote from Poland of “bullying and psychological abuse” by her superior; some referred to women Religious facilitating networks of abuse. More commonly, women expressed concern about the abuse of women Religious by priests and bishops. A substantial majority of the women believe clericalism has a negative impact on church life.
A woman from Malta, a reader and minister of the Eucharist, wrote: “The clergy, in particular, need radical reforms and quickly before it is too late.” A Kenyan woman said that “power abuse in the Church in Africa” had to be addressed, while a Brazilian woman said she was discouraged by “the ever more conservative and autocratic tendencies, especially of younger clerics.” There was a high level of support for a less hierarchical and authoritarian model of Church, with greater collaboration and sharing of responsibility and authority between clergy and laity.
A woman from Grenada wrote: “Leadership must be horizontal, from the community.” More than three-quarters agreed that women should be allowed to preach the homily in Mass, and nearly 70 per cent agreed that women should be ordained to the priesthood and/or diaconate. A woman from the Netherlands wrote: “My life sometimes feels wasted because I felt a calling to be a priest and could not become one as a woman.” Others were concerned that the ordination of women might increase clericalism and divide the Church.
Many women wanted more transparency and accountability in church affairs, and economic justice for church employees, lay and Religious. Three-quarters called for greater respect for freedom of conscience around decisions relating to sexual and reproductive health. One Polish woman observed that “the Church’s attitude towards contraception is completely unclear in the context of real-life situations.” More than 80 per cent supported the full inclusion of LGBTIQ persons, and more than half supported same-sex marriage.
A minority rejected any call for reform. A woman from Bosnia and Herzegovina said: “In this modern world, is it not enough that we have to work full-time, be a wife and mother?” A woman from the Philippines disapproved of “Communion on the hand, singing of Protestant songs during the liturgy, females wearing pants inside churches”. This is a taster of the many different responses in the report. It suggests there is an abyss between the way women are represented in church teaching documents and how they are treated in many parishes and institutions, and the experiences, aspirations and struggles of women in their everyday lives and in the practice of their faith.
Women are spoken about but never quoted in official church documents. While a growing number of women occupy leadership positions in the Vatican, they tend to be carefully chosen from a small field which includes a disproportionate number of women Religious and consecrated women. Dialogue is a central theme of Pope Francis’ theology and of the synodal path, yet this survey makes clear that we need dialogue with a far more diverse range of voices if those who speak for women in the Vatican truly represent what it means to be a Catholic woman in the modern world.
Tina Beattie is professor emerita of Catholic studies, University of Roehampton.