Kate McElwee and Katie Lacz

We know the story – most recently repeated and discussed in ham-handed fashion at the USCCB meeting this month – that the Catholic Church in the U.S. is hemorrhaging people, including young people, and cannot seem to rouse itself to staunch the flow. But that story is an incomplete one – there is also a surge of young people, especially women, who seek to minister in the church in increasing numbers and pursue theological or religious studies to do so in a grounded and effectual way. (If you are reading this, you are likely one of them!) As Jamie Manson wrote in the National Catholic Reporter in May: “The sacrifices [young adults] make to pursue their vocations and their longings and passions for ministry shatter the narrative that progressive young adult Catholics want nothing to do with the church.” Though the pews may be empty, the graduate schools are full. 

Given this, we have embarked on a research project, “Mainstreaming Women’s Ministries,” with this core belief: To create a viable and vibrant future, the Catholic Church must find ways to mainstream instead of marginalize the ministries of women so that the Church throughout North America may be nourished by the leadership and gifts of women. 

Our research is guided by these core questions: What paths are young Roman Catholic lay women pursuing for formation in ministry in the Church, including discerning ordination, so that their gifts and vocations may be fully expressed? How can the Roman Catholic Church best accompany women called to ministry and leadership? 

This project seeks to give voice to the stories of lay women who are called to ministry (ordained or otherwise) and the paths of formation they pursue.  We will explore opportunities available to women; barriers, both perceived and tangible; and support currently available to discerning women. We will situate this in the larger context of the Catholic ministerial landscape within the U.S. and examine whether the “status quo” is institutionally or spiritually sustainable.

The first phase of our project involves a 10-minute survey of women between the ages of 21-40 who have, or are pursuing, an advanced degree in theology. We are seeking the input of the WIT community, who are a vital part of our research demographic. If you would like to take part in the survey, you may do so here. We are seeking responses from women who represent the breadth and complexity of viewpoints in the Catholic Church – whether traditional, progressive, or somewhere along the vast spectrum in between. 

In St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he writes the prophetic words: “In Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. All are one in Christ Jesus” (3:28). In the Catholic Church, those words have yet to be fully realized, as women continue to be denied meaningful leadership or authority. This not only harms the Catholic Church by denying the gifts of more than half of its members; it affects our ability to work together ecumenically with the Christian world at large, when most other mainline denominations model gender equity in their leadership structures.

We must look at and acknowledge the women who are the lifeblood of the Church – the ones who educate our children in Catholic schools; who lead RCIA and religious education and liturgy committees and music ministry; who do groundbreaking research in theology at our universities and seminaries. If we do not understand both the opportunities and the severe challenges they face under the current structure of the Church, we risk losing the treasure of their gifts. 

It is our hope that our research lifts up these faithful women and tells their stories with integrity. Like Mary Magdalene, they have encountered the Risen Christ and been animated with the charge to share the Good News. We seek to honor them, encourage them, and center their voices, which have too long been marginalized.

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Kate McElwee and Katie Lacz are the research team behind “Mainstreaming Women’s Ministries in the Roman Catholic Church,” “Mainstreaming Women’s Ministries in the Roman Catholic Church” is a Pastoral Study Project funded by the Louisville Institute. Through its Pastoral Study Project program (PSP), the Louisville Institute enables pastoral leaders to bracket daily work routines in order to pursue a pressing and significant question for the life of faith. Grants of up to $15,000 support independent or collaborative study projects ± projects that privilege pastoral perspectives and rhythms and honor grassroots research conducted by skilled clergy. PSP grantees use a variety of platforms to share what they learn with a wider audience, extending their leadership in ways that benefit the broader church and culture in North America. Louisville Institute is funded by the Religion Division of Lilly Endowment and based at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary (Louisville, Kentucky). The Institute’s fundamental mission is to enrich the religious life of North American Christians and to encourage the revitalization of their institutions, by bringing together those who lead religious institutions with those who study them, so that the work of each might inform and strengthen the other.

One thought

  1. I really don’t think you should limit your outreach to the 21-40 crowd. I am 55 and currently pursuing my Maters in Theology at Drew Univ. I am doing this as I have a sting interest in early Christianity and am researching the important roles women held in those early centuries. My goal is to use this research to reform the Catholic Church, starting with the local parishes in my area. Let me know if you ha e any events in the NY tri-state area, thanks!

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