What do Roman Catholic women want from their church? It’s fair to say that no one in the hierarchy has publicly asked such a question of women, who make up more than half of the church’s baptized members. The past year has proven once again that the church’s leadership must take deliberate steps to heal and repair the church and to make changes that will put the institution back in touch with the lived reality of its faithful. Conscience magazine asked five Catholic women what they want from a changed church and what kind of transformation would need to take place for that church to become a reality.
Regina Bannan is a writer for The Table – the blog of the Women’s Ordination Conference (WOC) – and a member of the Core Committee of Southeastern Pennsylvania’s Women’s Ordination Conference (SEPAWOC). She anticipates a future church that is no longer blind to the talents of 54 percent of its members.
“The church I want is one in touch with the reality of its women’s lives. We know that Catholic women use birth control and decide on abortions at the same rates as other American women. Because our church officials proclaim that this is sinful, these women have to live a dual reality if they wish to stay in the church. Divorced and remarried women go to another parish. Lesbian women volunteers or employees don’t tell. Those who are called to ordination go to another denomination. Women are the church’s most valuable human resource, and I would like a church that does not drive them out or underground. Fortunately, these things are changing now because women are no longer silent. I want the progress on the ground to be reflected in the teachings of the church, because no one in touch with reality wants to live an inauthentic faith.”
For Valerie Stroud, a leader in the international We Are Church movement, renewal can be found by reaching back into Christianity’s scriptures and deepest traditions.
“My hope is that the institutional church will become a community, or ecclesia, in accordance with New Testament teaching, where all baptized people are able to play a full and constructive part, utilizing their skills, talents and gifts to the benefit of all. Furthermore, that the ecclesia will actively encourage all its members to develop and nurture the cardinal virtues and gifts of the Holy Spirit in themselves and in those for whom they have responsibility. This, I believe, will make us a community who truly manifest the fruits of the Holy Spirit, contributing to the good of the whole world.”
Gloria Romero Roses, a businesswoman and lay leader at her parish in Florida, believes that the church will only change when the laity have an awakening and demand a revolution in leadership.
“I want a church that wakes up from this very deep sleep that we are in as Catholics and becomes a church that seeks greater social justice in our communities and in our world through our actively living out our faith. If you go to any of our churches today, you rarely see any ministries that go beyond the walls of the church and reach out to the larger community or neighborhood. You don’t see inclusivity for LGBTQ people or gender equality in terms of the roles women play in our church today. I’ve never taken a hard stance on whether women should be ordained, but I do think there needs to be a concerted restructuring of church leadership that allows the voices of lay leadership to be truly heard and empowered to be stewards of our faith. You don’t have to be able minister the sacraments in order to fill that gap in the church’s leadership crisis and to inspire people to seek hope and justice in the world. I want a church in which lay people and clergy are truly equal in the leadership and decision-making authority in their church. Change can only come through a convergence of forces, and there need to be forces for change inside the church and outside as well.”
For Kate McElwee, executive director of WOC, all forms of leadership in the church must be marked by equality for true reform to happen. While she mourns the church’s harmful past and exclusionary present, she finds hope in its possible future—a future she is helping to create by being a prophetic voice for women in the church.
“The Roman Catholic church has centuries of documents sacralizing subordination, colonialism and misogyny. My church has lost so much by closing its doors, turning its back and perpetuating systems of oppression. Instead of attempting to reconcile or defend practices that fail to communicate the Gospel, I dream of a church that refuses—with all of its strength—to compromise equality. Metaphors of sexism will not be passed down to another generation, but rather, an invitation to integrity, a place at the table. The church I am working to build has no place for sacramental inequality, and its doors are wide enough for the gifts and rights of all of its people to shine in their wholeness.”
So what might this renewed church look like? Linda Pinto, a longtime laborer in the fields of church justice, shares her vision of a reformed church, an image that was born in her imagination at the age of 13 when her father died suddenly.
“While I did not realize it at the time, I became an advocate for a reformed and renewed Catholic church at the age of 13. A month before my father’s sudden death, my mom informed me that she had been divorced before meeting my dad. I was in shock because I was taught there was no way out of hell for her. How could the God I so loved be so cruel to this loving woman who sacrificed to send us to Catholic school? She explained that her husband went off to war and returned an abusive man. She went to confession to seek help and the priest’s response was, “You made your bed. Now lie in it.” The day of my father’s funeral, the priest came over to the hearse and informed my mom that she could now go to communion! Thus, a reformer in the Catholic church was born.
So, what does a renewed and reformed Catholic church look like? It resembles the communities who gathered in the first centuries around the witness of Jesus. It is men, women, children and strangers who hunger for his message of unconditional love and redemptive justice. It’s a home where the sacred is present and celebrated, not only in scripture, but in each and every participant in the community. The Eucharistic Liturgy is the space where all are welcomed and nourished. It is filled with scripture, music, personal sharing and, above all, the celebration of the sacred among and within us. A reformed and renewed church is where sacraments are rich opportunities for grace, not a litmus test for adherence to current church policy. Church becomes a safe and secure refuge from the chaos that surrounds us, but acts only to strengthen us to fully embrace the world. It is a place of full equality and inclusion no matter your gender, sexual orientation, status in society or abilities. It is a Gospel home in the true sense. Impossible? Nothing is impossible with God! (Luke 1:37)