Is the Church Asking the Right Questions About Women?

The recent Pan-Amazon synod sparked interest about the role of women in the Church. It is a familiar topic, especially since the 1995 Beijing World Conference on Women. This was not the first such conference, but did have a special global relevance, due perhaps to the presence of very contrasting figures of womanhood. Both First Lady Hillary Clinton and Mother Teresa of Calcutta spoke at the conference, proposing very different visions of women.

The agenda for the 1995 Beijing Conference prompted a direct response from the Vatican, worried as it was about the stance taken on abortion. Pope John Paul II outlined his thoughts about the Conference to the Secretary General of the Conference in a letter dated 26 May 1995.

Not satisfied with a response to one of the most important meetings of modern times regarding the rights of women, which Pope John Paul II vociferously defended, he wrote his famous Letter to Women, outlining his own thoughts on the subjects being proposed at the Beijing Conference. Here, he was able to reference his own Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem, from 1988, on the dignity and vocation of women.

In recent years, much has been spoken about the role of women in the Church. Much debate has been about giving women a sacramental or a hierarchical role. In 2016, Pope Francis commissioned a group of six men and six women to study the history of women deacons within the Church. It seems like the term in the early Church was quite a bit different than what somebody in modern times might imagine. Thus, while the document clarified the historical meaning of the term, it gave little reason to expect a change in Church teaching on the subject of women ordination.

The working document of the Synod suggests looking at official roles of women within the Church, citing the important role many women play in evangelization especially in remote areas, as is the case of the territory discussed by the synod. This is certainly an important topic. But somehow, the discussion on women often veers off into a discussion on celibacy or gender ideology. In the latest synod, there was even some noise about wanting to have some of the women participate in voting. This all seems rather curious. What is really going on?

It all seems rather limited in scope. One thing that is important to consider the role of women in the Church is that the institution is supposed to respond to a divine mandate, not a popularity contest. The Church does not necessarily have to respond to a market study, as the idea is not to customize a product to potential buyers, but to bring people into a personal, sacramental relationship with Christ. Ordained priesthood cannot be the only way to recognize the value of an individual in the Church, because then all laity would be excluded, not only women.

A much more important question has gone missing. What could and should the feminine genius contribute to the Church today?

It seems undeniable that in general, women have a special spiritual sensitivity. We see this in the public and private devotion and the fact that so much catechetical instruction is given through women. Nevertheless, this work is often somewhat ignored, and these people are often not cared for in a way that fosters further personal growth. The very persons who are helping to build up a Christian society do so in a poorly informed society, without depth from tradition but without a formal foundation. It almost seems to be a crime to abandon such an important field of evangelization. We wonder why the spiritual sensitivity of the masses has decreased, but we have not asked ourselves what we have done to care for he motors of the spiritual sensitivity of the masses, who have largely been our mothers and grandmothers, that is, women.

Religion becomes marginalized in modern society and young people look elsewhere for the answers to life’s questions. But these other places where they look for answers never respond to the soul-body union which is essential to the human condition.

If much of the primary education in the faith was taken on by mothers, grandmothers and aunts, where does that leave us if many women have had to modify their own roles within the household due to new responsibilities at a professional level? It is something crucial to today’s Church to see how to continue religious education in a drastically changed environment.

A reflection on the role of women in the Church must begin with the foundational reality that they are daughters of God. Any other approach runs the risk of alienating women and reducing them to means used to achieve other ends. It is this identity as daughters of God that establishes their fundamental worth and dignity.

The very radical changes in women’s role in society in the last decades have led to much confusion about women’s identity. Much more than pushing for a sacramental ordination or forced entry into hierarchical structures, the Church should be offering women the chance to shed Gospel light on the reality of women in the 21st century. A vote in a synod seems to be too small. Women should be encouraged to teach all of us what it means to be Christian.

Down through the ages, women have helped to preserve the relation of society to God. They have never needed an ordained role to achieve this. A deeper reflection must be made in order to see how to involve women correctly in the Church in modern times. One organization that does precisely this is the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum with its Institute for Women Studies. (Istituto di Studi Superiori Sulla Donna) Hopefully this initiative can be reproduced and increased throughout the world so that women’s place in the Church is solidified and faith not be lost. “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Lk. 18:8) Women are an important part of the answer.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

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Fr. Nicholas Sheehy has worked with adolescents and young people both in the United States and abroad, especially in El Salvador and Germany. He is currently serving on the formation team of the Legion of Christ seminary in Cheshire, Connecticut. He blogs, vlogs and podcasts at

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