International Women’s Day this week is a chance to reflect on how women in the Church have grown in influence — way past the debate over women priests. Illustration by Erik Canaria

Beyond the priesthood debate: What influence do women have in the Church?

  • March 2, 2018
Does the Church belong to women? Can the Church be led by women? From a young woman’s perspective, those questions have already been answered.

“I can honestly say, through my many years of attending church every Sunday, being a student of two Catholic schools, youth groups, etc. I have thoroughly enjoyed my time and felt very included — never once dismissed or treated less because of my gender,” Windsor-Essex Catholic District School Board student trustee Grace Santin told The Catholic Register.

Though she doesn’t graduate from St. Joseph’s Catholic High School until next year, Santin is already a leader in a big and important Catholic institution. She just naturally assumes that’s the way it is, the way it should be and the way it always will be.

“I intend to continue in this path and teach my children the same ways I have learned,” she wrote in an e-mail.

While Santin’s Catholic school experience may be a foretaste of the Kingdom of God and its promise of justice for women, the world is still a hard place as the 109th International Women’s Day dawns on March 8. The #MeToo movement has demonstrated that even for rich and powerful women, dignity, equality and basic decency are never automatic. The Church has not been immune to the struggle, which has to be seen through the lens of faith.

Nearly 20 years ago, in 1999, the very conservative Cardinal Aloysius Ambrozic of Toronto was asked to sum up what feminism is saying to the Church and inside the Church.

“Woman, like man, is a creature of God, made in His image and likeness,” he said during a meeting of bishops and theologians in San Francisco. “The domination of woman by man is not part of the Creator’s design but rather an expression and consequence of sin.”

The archbishop took time to point out to his fellow bishops that, “The first Christian communities included prophetesses and deaconesses, there were women scholars and foundresses in the patristic period and the Middle Ages: in modern times there has been no shortage of women who are religious and social activists and reformers.”

More than a half-century past the Second Vatican Council and more than 100 years after the first International Women’s Day, the progress of the women’s movement within the Church has not been without its bumps.

“If I were to give you a litany of all the crazy I’ve had to deal with in my time in the Church, I mean you would say, ‘Yes, I understand why you’re angry,’ ” said Catholic feminist theologian Doris Kieser of St. Joseph’s College in Edmonton. “There is a place for righteous anger. If we are angry, I think we have good reason for that.”

The primary perception that plagues Catholic feminists is the notion it’s OK to dismiss them as just angry, power-seeking complainers, Kieser said.

“When women speak powerfully and with authority about their faith and their Church, that isn’t a power grab. I don’t know any woman whose ultimate goal is to be the pope — not one,” Kieser said.

“For anyone who says, ‘They just want power,’ maybe we do. Why do you have a problem sharing that power?”

This is something bigger than whether or not the Church will ever ordain a woman. For St. Jerome’s University associate dean of religious studies Cristina Vanin, the women’s ordination question is far too narrow.

“It’s time to shift the question,” she said in a phone interview from Waterloo, Ont. “There are women sitting around the table, working and talking about issues facing the Church and society with bishops, with priests, with people at the level of dioceses, women who have responsibility.”

If you look at the Church’s presence in health care, education, social services and culture you are bound to find women labouring, serving and leading, said Vanin. Over time women’s leadership has and will transform the Church, she said.

There are Canadian women of influence who are consulted by the Vatican. Sr. Gill Goulding was there for the 2012 Synod on the New Evangelization.

Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute director Moira McQueen sits on the 30-member International Theological Commission which advises the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The Vatican has sought Sr. Nuala Kenny’s advice on the sex abuse crisis. But the women who concretely shape the Church in Canada are more likely to be Catholic school board chairs, superintendents of education, union leaders at the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association, Catholic hospital board members.

“The growth of the importance of the laity in the Church is helping,” said St. Jerome’s University president Katherine Bergman. “There’s not just this sole focus on women as priests. If that’s what we come down to as leadership in the Church, we’re really only talking about a very small portion of what Catholicism is and can be.”

The young women who graduate from St. Jerome’s will be leaders in the Church, Bergman said.

“We provide role models for other young women who can see leadership roles within the broader Church,” she said. 

Vanin, Bergman and Kieser all cherish their role forming the young women who will eventually take their places as leaders in the Church.

“To have some sense that I can actually speak to what my experience is rather than have someone tell me what my experience is supposed to be — that’s where the power is,” said Kieser.

Optimism about the future of women in the Church doesn’t preclude realism about the present.

“I don’t think the barriers to women have been completely removed,” said Bergman. “But that’s not just a Church thing. That’s a societal thing.”

Having worked in Rome for the Jesuit Refugee Service, having shaped policy for the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace and now the boss at Canadian Jesuits International, Jenny Cafiso knows she has been privileged.

“I’ve done and seen and had a life full of meaning thanks to the Church. I have been appreciated. I have been allowed to live out that faith,” Cafiso said.

At the same time, she knows it’s still too rare for women in Catholic institutions to be able to hire, fire and approve budgets.

For Cafiso, the search for a deeper Catholic feminism has to take the path through favelas, slums, barrios, drought-stricken villages and refugee camps — even the food bank lines in Toronto.

Early in her career, serving in impoverished villages in Peru, Cafiso saw women organize themselves to protect and feed their families.

“The feminist movement is already there, whether they call themselves that or not. It’s basically women who are fighting to live a life of dignity, having a voice in how their lives develop…. We just need to acknowledge it and join in, rather than oppose it.”

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