When it comes to the Catholic church there are numerous topics which, when raised in conversation, cause controversy and heated discussion. Not least, the topic of women in the Church. When asked what my PhD research is in and I say ‘women in the Catholic church’, I am often met with quips such as ‘are there any left?’, or ‘I didn’t think they allowed them’. Recently I was asked by a friend why women would want anything to do with a ‘church full of perverts’…. When public opinion of an institution is so low and mired in the worst kind of controversy, what drives us women who still identify as Catholic to dig our heels in and keep the faith? Is it that we know the value of our contributions and are just waiting for the Church to catch up and that changing our faith would be as impossible as changing the colour of our skin? Recently, some seeds of change have been planted by Pope Francis which many of us will be keeping a close eye on as we pray that with his leadership the church may begin to recognise women’s contributions and in turn begin to build a more equal and just church which we can be proud to call ours.

At the beginning of January 2021 Pope Francis made a change in Canon Law to make explicit it that laywomen can be readers and altar servers. This means that Priests and Bishops can no longer restrict these ministries to men, and they can no longer refuse women the altar. Unsurprisingly, there have been a variety of responses to the change in the law and it has certainly stirred up some strong emotions. Women being present on the altar is not a new phenomenon as many parishes across the world have had women readers, altar servers and Eucharistic ministers for a long time. However, there are parishes where Priests and Bishops have refused to allow women access to the altar. The reasons often given are that women were not present at the Last Supper and that women are still seen by some as ‘unclean’ because we menstruate. This attitude is met with disbelief and disgust by the large majority of educated and ‘modern’ society but there are those in the clerical fraternity whose position means that they have never had to give reasons to refuse women from the altar either to read or carry out altar serving duties. Following the change in the Law, happily, this can no longer happen. Whether clerics who continue to refuse women from the altar will be challenged is another story, but under this amendment to Canon Law, they are no longer legally allowed to restrict these duties to men.

In discussions with Catholic women, I have heard some who feel that this is simply ‘tokenism’ and an example of Pope Francis simply placating Catholic women. It is also met with different levels of enthusiasm depending on where you are globally. There are many parishes who have been open to women reading and serving, and this law has surprised those who had not realised that it wasn’t allowed in the first place. Conversely, there are some, for example in the Polish Catholic church and the Catholic church in the global south, to whom this law change is a big deal as it opens new opportunities for congregations to hear readings read by women and see women on the altar next to the ordained priest.

The law restricting access to reading and serving was instituted by Pope Paul VI in 1972 because the duties of reading, serving and administering communion were considered to be preparatory to eventually taking holy orders. Basically, if you were on the altar with the Priest it was because you were heading for ordination and that these duties fell under the umbrella of ‘things which priests do.’ So why the change? At the last Synod of Bishops there was discussion and discernment on the role of lay men and women, and it was felt that reading, serving and administering communion should fall under the umbrella of ‘things which all of the Baptised can do’, Therefore, because according to a Theological understanding, in Catholic Baptism men and women are equal participants, all these acts of service and ministry can equally be done by both men and women. Pope Francis has expressed the importance of the lay church a great deal throughout his Pontificate and this step appears to highlight and reinforce the important role which women play in the laity. Whether this is an attempt to dismiss and shut down the issue of women becoming ordained in the Catholic church is yet to be seen but is certainly already being widely discussed.

So, why does it matter? Discussions on this subject have made me think long and hard about why who we see and hear on the altar next to the priest matters. It is important in terms of seeing women as equals in humanity and in the role which the laity play in the life of the Church. It is important to hear women’s voices as these voices have been silenced in the Church for too long. Women already have to contend with a long history of misogyny coming straight out of Scripture such as this from this from 1 Timothy:

A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. (1 Timothy 2:11-14 NIV)

Generations of girls have grown up going to church seeing and hearing only men. The women in the life of the Parish have played limited submissive roles in a history which has been shaped by men. In her beautiful book “Dance of the Dissident Daughter”, Sue Monk Kidd makes honest and painful observations about the still too common view from the many in the Church that woman is the embodiment of evil as a descendent of the disobedient Eve in the garden of Eden:

“The so-called God-ordained image of female as under male, incapable, disobedient, unworthy – all of which added up to inferior – was a devastating notion to me as a girl. It snuffed out something vital, some hope for my female life.” [1]

There will continue to be future generations of women walking away from the Church because that ‘something’ is snuffed out too. So, this small step may be a step which will allow these future generations to at least have the chance to see and hear women at the front of the church, that they have right to be there, and maybe this is a step towards true equality in the wider church. I remain optimistic, maybe blindly, as women have always been central to Parish life and played vital, even fundamental roles in the transmission of the faith. It is time that wider opportunities are made available to those who want them, and can do them as well as, or even better than, the men who currently have access to them. Thank God there are women who carry out the roles that they can in the church and continue to do so faithfully and without complaint. During the lockdowns of the last year, these roles have become more vital than ever as so many Parishes have been dispersed and women are taking on more of the pastoral and spiritual leadership responsibilities in order to keep Parishes going. As churches return to “normal” will things go back to the way they were? Now is the time to work together and to look at what the post Covid Church will look like as well as praying and hoping for further changes from the top….

So, for me, this change in the Law matters because it matters who we see on the altar and that we should now flood the altars of the world with women. Local parishes, and the Catholic church as a global family, are dynamic and diverse and this is not represented by those at the top of the hierarchy. If there is going to be a future for the church, then our children regularly need to see both women and men on the altar and hear their voices and receive the Eucharist from them in order to show that there is space for everyone in our church. A church which was given by God, not just to men, but to us all. This amendment in law is a step in the right direction not a panacea to the problems in the church. I don’t feel it is too dramatic or extreme to say that even greater reforms are needed in the Catholic church to ensure its future. So, maybe another ‘watch this space’ moment as the church takes painfully slow but none the less important steps forward and as the church ‘discerns’, groups of women, and men, across the globe will continue to pray and work for equality.

(photo credit NBC Survey Offers Insight on Social Issues Facing Catholic Church – NBC4 Washington (nbcwashington.com))

[1] The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, A women’s Journey from Christian Tradition to the Sacred Feminine, Susan Monk Kidd, New York, 1996, Harper Collins.

2 thoughts

  1. Many, many years ago I was very involved in the church – from Eucharistic minster, Lector to Bereavement ministries and several church committees. I was blessed to be given an opportunity to study and complete the Diploma in Ministry offered through St. Francis Xavier University. It was a wondrous time of personal spiritual growth and I looked forward to a deeper involvement in parish life. The priest at the time was encouraging of my efforts and of my work. Then he was moved and the new man was not as encouraging, let’s just say. Eventually I became disheartened and discouraged and in the end walked away from a faith I practiced all my life.

    Over the past year or more I feel called to return. But what will I be returning to? Pope Francis has given me hope again, but the pope only has limited powers, really. The Curia in the Vatican still wields a great deal of power, which is why any progress women make in the church is so slow and so frustrating. I did take a hesitant step last year and then within a few weeks Covid hit and confined us all to lock downs. I am still struggling with whether or not to return. It is so unfortunate that the Spirit is being squelched by views that see women as “less than”.

    Thank you for this post. I wish you well in all your endeavors.

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