Church needs women in authority
Research by The Tablet has found that many professional women working in the Church enjoy high levels of job satisfaction. They say they have good working relationships with their line managers – usually priests. Several add that priests are particularly understanding of their family responsibilities and allow them to work flexibly to take account of these. In a few dioceses, women are making advances in pastoral ministry and catechesis. These are roles traditionally dominated by women as volunteers in their parishes. But with the decline in the number of priests, theologically literate women are stepping in to lead and co-ordinate the work of volunteers. For example, in Hexham and Newcastle women are leading an innovative ministry that accompanies families from the diagnosis of a loved one’s terminal illness through to death, planning the funeral and providing bereavement counselling.
However, there are difficulties. The first of these is pay. Women in paid pastoral roles often earn so little that they can only afford to do it if they are without dependants, have a supportive partner or other sources of income. Many take degrees and go on to postgraduate studies at their own expense to equip themselves better to serve the Church. There is an increasing number of women in senior academic positions. These women tend to be mentally tough and determined. They need to be, because in many parts of the Church there is a reluctance to accept women in positions of authority. Nowhere is this more potent than in the area of spirituality, still widely perceived as the exclusive domain of priests.
Bishops have the power to change this perception and to encourage women to lead in every sphere. They can begin by appointing more women to diocesan boards. Where there is a healthy number of women trustees, more women are likely to be appointed to senior positions. The Church needs to nurture lay women for leadership. It must pay them proper salaries. This is a challenge given the falling income of most dioceses due to declining Mass attendance, but many have shown themselves capable of finding creative fundraising solutions to meet the costs of seminary formation and of the care of retired priests.
Even more crucial is the devolution of church governance so that lay Catholics and priests participate in decision-making with the bishops and the Pope. This vision of synodality, identified by the Second Vatican Council and taken up by Pope Francis, is highlighted in the first report of the current round of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (Arcic III).
The time has come for lay women to participate fully in the ministry of the Church, including sharing the burden of decision-making.