Growing feminization of church a ‘source of hope’

  • November 27, 2007

{mosimage}OTTAWA - When Reginald Bibby researched his book Fragmented Gods back in the 1980s, he recalls the hostility he encountered among some Catholic women who wanted more gender equality in the church.

Two decades later, he sees a big change.

“In more recent years, Catholic women are seizing the opportunity to be involved,” he said, noting the church was tapping into “an amazing human resource tool.”

While Bibby sees the involvement of lay women in the church as a “major source of hope for the Catholic Church in Canada,” others are raising concern about a growing feminization of the church — at least on the parish and diocesan level.

Bibby agreed research and anecdotal evidence show women predominate among churchgoers in most North American Christian denominations, though his studies show men and women are equally likely to be open to church attendance if they think it is worthwhile.

{sa 0773754229}Yet as Catholic author Leon J. Podles wrote in The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity: “Women go to church, men go to football games.”

Has the increasing involvement of women led to more men tuning out? Fr. Bob Bedard recognizes there’s a problem. But it is not women. The Ottawa-based founder of the Companions of the Cross, a 22-year-old order of priests that continues to attract new vocations, blames “the abdication of men from their God-given posts and positions as fathers.”

Whatever the cause, the evidence for increased feminization is growing.

In August, Vatican reporter John Allen Jr. wrote a report on the rise of women in lay ecclesial ministry (LEM) in the United States entitled “Lay ecclesial ministry and the feminization of the church.”

“Though no one planned it this way, the plain truth is that lay ecclesial ministry is rapidly ‘feminizing’ pastoral leadership in the Catholic Church,” he wrote in the National Catholic Reporter.

Allen cited figures from the National Pastoral Life Centre, showing 80 per cent of the 31,000 LEMs in the United States are women. Another 18,000 people are studying to become LEMs, “roughly six times the number of seminarians preparing to become priests.”

Allen mused about the comfort level of men if women are over-represented in parish ministry and noted the worry in some quarters that a female-dominated lay ecclesial ministry is a “stalking horse for the ordination of women to the priesthood.”

When St. Francis Xavier University adult education professor Leona English did a survey in 2002 of those running continuing education programs for lay formation in Canada, she wrote her results showed “a distinct trend towards a more liberal attitude to church issues and church teachings in a number of issues.” Her respondents were 61 per cent women and 39 per cent men.

“This ratio also reflected the general male/female ratio of participation in church and church-sponsored events,” she wrote. On whether the church should allow women to be priests, only nine per cent strongly disagreed, while 73 per cent strongly agreed or agreed.

Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB, CEO of Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation, has worked since 1989 in the formation of priests for ministry. He recognizes for some the male priesthood is a stumbling block.

“The liturgy should never become a battleground for the sexes or a stage to illustrate inequalities or exaggerations,” he said “The liturgy is meant to lead people to God.”

While the feminist movement has produced good changes, Rosica said some exaggerations of feminism and feminization in general have led to “a crisis of fatherhood and paternity and the crisis of sexual identity” in North America. This is having an impact on candidates for the priesthood and religious life, he said.

“When the equality of men and women is misread to mean that men and women are essentially the same or interchangeable, we violate common sense,” he said. “We negate the mystery of sexual difference.”

Halifax Archbishop-elect Anthony Mancini is deeply concerned about the denigration of fatherhood and of the male priesthood in North American society.

“How can you be a sign of something if you’ve been turned into a joke?” he asked. “God created men and women in His image. I think it’s together that we portray best who God is.

“Part of the challenge there is to figure out how we can make the male part of the operation a more evident one,” he said, pointing out that aim is “not to take away anything from women.

Bedard first noticed the huge problem of fatherlessness back in the 1960s when he was teaching high school. He too, sees a tendency for men to be “patronized and looked down upon.”

But women aren’t forcing men out of their spiritual roles, men are abdicating them.

“Every man is called by God to be a father, whether he is married or not,” he said. “Men need to father people. That’s what we do as priests, we father people, try to provide an imitation God the Father,” he said. That includes being strong, being firm, declaring your position, but being kind, gentle and understanding, too.

“You have to be right in there,” he said.

Men respond differently to women who have a militant style, Bedard said.

“Some say you got to hold the line. Others say ‘what’s the use of fighting with that crowd?’ Which is the worst thing to do.”

Carol Kuzmochka, the Ottawa archdiocese’s co-ordinator of adult faith development and leadership formation, said she knows the complementarity of the sexes is a goal of clerical leaders, and she shares it, but “we’re still trying to discover what that is.”

“There’s a lot to be done to bring women into their full place in leadership,” she said. “But that does not mean men don’t also need help and support in finding their place in leadership.

“If there were a rite that involved Mary, would we say that men shouldn’t have leadership roles?” she asked.

Bedard is less concerned about the sex of those in ministry than he is about their orthodoxy. Many women he encounters doing work in liturgy, catechetics and other areas are “into a different agenda.” They want “new church affairs, more democratic, less governed by rules and regulations and more open to what’s happening in the world,” he said. Many seem to believe “the things happening in the world are the things of the Holy Spirit” such as same-sex relations.

“There’s a big, big job to do, to purify the ranks, not only of the hired lay people, but also the clergy as well,” he said. “The reason that so many of the lay people have the new agenda is that they get a certain amount of support from some of the clergy.”

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