By Brendan Slovacek
In celebration of the May Crowning of Mary, Queen of Heaven, Born Dignified is blessed to share an academic article titled On the Role of Women in the Church in the Modern World written by our Ministry Director, Brendan Slovacek. Brendan serves as the High School Youth and Young Adult Minister in Steubenville, Ohio, where he also serves as the Program Coordinator of the Sycamore Youth Center. He also proudly serves as a Religious Affairs Specialist in the United States Army Reserves. He is a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, where he earned two Bachelor’s Degrees in Catechetics and Theology. He is currently studying for his Masters of Arts in Theology from the same university. This article was written in conjunction with a graduate course titled The Church in the Modern World. For written permission to republish or reproduce, email firstname.lastname@example.org. For citations, please reference Born Dignified as the publisher, listed as May 1, 2022 for original publishing.
On The Role of Women in the Church in the Modern World
By Brendan Slovacek | Franciscan University of Steubenville | Masters of Arts in Theological Studies Candidate
A prevalent question in the Catholic Church deals precisely with the role of women in the Church. The question has been formed by centuries old arguments regarding the prior roles of women in the Church (such as the mention of deaconesses in the Pauline texts of the New Testament) to the inclusion of women in both pastoral and liturgical role in the Byzantine rite, as well as the continually evolving role of women in modern day society. The main historical role of women in the Church has been that of the lay people and consecrated religious sisters. Despite calls for women to be ordained to the priesthood, the Catholic Church has affirmed the role of priesthood as being reserved for men. Despite criticisms of this doctrine, women hold an important role and place of respect in the Catholic Church.
The role of women in the Church has been a contended issue for centuries, as renowned sociologist Dr. Ruth A. Wallace points out in her article Catholic Women and the Creation of a New Social Reality. The author writes, “Before the changes legislated by the Vatican Council between 1962 and 1965, women, like children, were seen but not heard in the Roman Catholic Church. Even during the deliberations of the Second Vatican Council, women were almost invisible.” Dr. Wallace expounds on her belief that there was little influence from women in the Church prior to the implementation and years after the council. Her argument stems from the initial lack of invitation of women to the council, to their lack of a vote or freedom of speech without permission of the bishops present, to the little to no women in lay person leadership roles within the Catholic Church.
However, Dr. Wallace also felt that the societal changes in the secular world led to an increase in an openness to women in leadership roles in the Catholic Church. According to Wallace, “A study of Catholic parishes in America found that 52 person of members of parish councils, 60 percent of eucharistic ministers, and half of the lectors (who read the scripture lessons at Mass) are women (Leege and Trozzolo 1985, pp. 56-57). In addition, when asked who were the ‘most influential parishioners’ exclusive of the pastors, the respondents produced a list that was 58% women.” Dr. Wallace goes on to speculate that the lack of male leadership (outside of priestly roles in parishes, or even the lack of priests assigned to just one parish) resulted in the uptick in the place of women in lay leadership positions within the Catholic Church.
Development of the role of women in the Catholic Church has seen an increase in the past 57 years since the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council. The Church Fathers at this council affirmed the role of women as lay persons, mothers, and religiously consecrated individuals with a place of great respect and dignity within the Church. In the years following this council, the Church has defined specific roles of leadership and ministry within the Church that are open to women, including those of lector, catechist, and heads of dicasteries and other offices within the Church. To best understand the role of women within the Church, we must recognize several distinct (and possibly dual) roles that women may hold: Consecrated Religious, Lay Minister and Leader, and Wife and Mother.
The Role of Women as Consecrated Religious
A woman who pursues the role of a person consecrated to the religious life has chosen to seek a more perfect lifestyle for themselves that more closely aligns to that of Jesus Christ. In this role, they take Jesus Christ as their spouse and live vowed to the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience. This vocation is the complete and total dedication of one’s life to the mission of Jesus Christ and his church. The Second Vatican Council Fathers gave insight into the life and role of these consecrated religious in the text Perfectae Caritatis: “While holding in high esteem therefore this way of life so useful to the pastoral mission of the Church in educating youth, caring for the sick and carrying out its other ministries, the sacred synod confirms these religious in their vocation and urges them to adjust their way of life to modern needs.” While affirming the inherent good of this vocation, the Church encourages women religious to see their work in light of the needs of the modern world.
According to Religious Studies scholar Kenneth Brian Nauert Jr., there was a contrast between the vocation of consecrated religious life before the Second Vatican Council and following its conclusions:
“Before Vatican II, the dynamic of female religious life was based around a life of seclusion and commitment to God. Women often cut ties to earthly and secular life and entered into secluded communities and convents focused on intimate relationship with Christ. Women entering into convents and religious communities gave up all earthly possessions and wore habits that were designed to enhance personal modesty and sacrifice as an outward physical sign of their devotion to God and their profession of poverty.”
Seemingly, Mr. Nauert is arguing that many religious sisters were cloistered, or near cloistered, prior to the Second Vatican Council. It is worth noting, however, that many religious orders such as those led by St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and St. Mary MacKillop performed missionary works that led to the education and religious formation of many youth. Nonetheless, the Second Vatican Council further defined the role of consecrated religious women. In the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church ,Lumen Gentium, the Council Fathers declared “Therefore, this Sacred Synod encourages and praises the men and women, Brothers and Sisters, who in monasteries, or in schools and hospitals, or in the missions, adorn the Bride of Christ by their unswerving and humble faithfulness in their chosen consecration and render generous services of all kinds to mankind.” The role of consecrated religious women in serving the Church through the fulfillment of the evangelical counsels and expression of the theological virtues have served as pillars of Catholic mission and models of the faith for all generations.
Of particular note, it is important to recognize the great influence that religious sisters have within the Catholic Church. Beyond their example of solemn faith and virtue, it is within the doctrinal beliefs of the Catholic Church that orders of consecrated religious women should be consulted on matters of evangelization. In the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Missionary Activity, Ad Gentes, the Council Fathers wrote that in regards to the Office of the Propagation of the Faith, that “Institutes of religious women, regional undertakings for the mission cause, and organizations of laymen (especially international ones) should be suitably represented.” Thus, one can see the indispensable role women religious play in the mission of the universal Church.
The Role of Women as Lay Ministers and Leaders
The Church has more clearly defined the opportunities for women to serve the Church in both pastoral and liturgical roles in recent years. Previously, biblical and historical texts have referred to female “deaconesses” who served the church in her early years. Origen of Alexandria, in his Commentary on the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans 10:17, expounded on this historical matter, writing the following, “And thus this text teaches at the same time two things: that there are, as we have already said, women deacons in the Church, and that women, who have given assistance to so many people and who by their good works deserve to be praised by the Apostle, ought to be accepted in the diaconate.” The use of the terminology of deacon (diákonos in Greek) has been contested as meaning “servant,” however, Origen also used the word “instituted,” and (in some translations to English) “ordained” as a description of the ministry of Phoebe. However, the practice of including women as “deaconesses” and servants in the Church was seemingly lost at some point until recent times.
Under Pope Francis, canon 230 § 1 of the Code of Canon Law was changed to say that “Lay persons who possess the age and qualifications established by decree of the conference of bishops can be admitted on a stable basis through the prescribed liturgical rite to the ministries of lector and acolyte. Nevertheless, the conferral of these ministries does not grant them the right to obtain support or remuneration from the Church.” This change was made as a direct result of a months of discernment by a commission instituted by Pope Francis to explore the possibility and legality of ordaining women as deacons. This change in the Code of Canon Law allowed for women to assume the non-ordained role of “lector and acolyte,” which was previously officially reserved for men, and in particular deacons. However, this role was unofficially carried out by women for decades within the Church.
Furthermore, Pope Francis recently released a new Apostolic Constitution, Praedicte Evangelium, in which he opens the doors to the possibility of lay person leading offices of the Church: “It cannot be ignored in the updating of the Curia, whose reform, therefore, must provide for the involvement of lay people, including in roles of government and responsibility.” Even preceding his own decree, Pope Francis appointed various women as administrators in multiple Vatican offices, although no major office as of yet has seen the appointment of a woman as its executive officer.
Finally, besides the various volunteer roles that a lay woman may take on in the mission of the Church, Pope Francis has officially instituted the Ministry of Catechist as a formal role within the Catholic Church. This role is available to both men and women and serves under the authority of the Magisterium, particular church Bishop, and ordained clergy. Through this ministry, the doctrines of the faith may be explained by lay persons to those awaiting initiation into the Church. This development signifies a formal opportunity for both lay men and women to be recognized as having a sub-role as teacher of the faith in the Church in the Modern World. While the ultimate teaching authority of the Church rests within the Magisterium, the formalization of this role allows for the expanding definition of the role of a lay woman within the Catholic Church.
Altogether, the role of a lay woman in the Church is no small task. Much like consecrated religious women are called to a particular task of upholding their vows to the evangelical counsels and the fulfillment of the theological virtues, lay women are called to practice these same virtues and minister through the allowed governance of the Church and teaching of the faith. The formalized role of women as lectors and acolytes in the participation of the liturgy further expands the life of the Church to include the special gifts, talents, and faith life of God’s children. Ultimately, each baptized person (whether a man or woman) inherits and is called to live out the three-fold office of Jesus Christ as priest, prophet, and king. While women may not be ordained in the Catholic Church, the Church has continually discerned the development of doctrine to better define the roles that are allowed for women to participate in.
The Role of Women as Wives and Mothers
From the primordial existence of the woman, her most basic role is synonymous with her most dignified and exceptional role: that of a wife and mother. Sadly, the modern-day synthesis of the vocation of marriage and motherhood has often been corrupted. There are people who posit that being a wife and mother are subject to a patriarchal system and are lesser vocations, thus placing things such as careers and personal ambitions above the second highest vocation (second only to the vocation to holiness). However, the role of a wife and mother are solemnly proclaimed by the Catholic Church, so much so that even the act of marriage is sacramental. These roles are ancient, yet also have been defined further through the Second Vatican Council and the teachings of the Catholic Church following this council. This development of doctrine has allowed for the faithful to have an expanded understanding of these roles.
First and foremost, it would be neglectful to not mention the reflection of God’s beauty on earth found in women. Both men and women have been created in God’s own image and likeness, and have both been instilled with their own respective qualities found in the likeness of God. While men and women may both possess similar qualities, God has often made certain qualities more dominant in one gender over the other. Thus, women embody what is commonly known as the feminine qualities of God. These qualities allow for a woman to provide a motherly instinct to nurture children in ways that are typically uncommon to men.
In Eve, the human race found its primordial mother. While Eve’s sin led to the fallen nature of mankind, she was created in perfection for the sole purpose of love and fruitfulness. Because of the Original Sin committed by her and Adam, God foretold from that moment of another mother who would participate in the redemption in the world: Mary, Mother of God. It was by the sin of a woman that the fruit of the world was tainted, and it was by the fruit of the womb of a woman that the world was redeemed. These two significant events bear many striking resemblances and determination for the course of mankind. Through Eve, the primordial sacrament of marriage to Adam was made evident, while through Mary, the fruitfulness of Motherhood was fully realized. St. Pope John Paul II brings together an understanding of the special significance of being a wife and mother in his Apostolic Exhortation Mulieris Dignitatem:
“The ‘woman’, as mother and first teacher of the human being (education being the spiritual dimension of parenthood), has a specific precedence over the man. Although motherhood, especially in the bio-physical sense, depends upon the man, it places an essential ‘mark’ on the whole personal growth process of new children. Motherhood in the bio-physical sense appears to be passive: the formation process of a new life ‘takes place’ in her, in her body, which is nevertheless profoundly involved in that process. At the same time, motherhood in its personal-ethical sense expresses a very important creativity on the part of the woman, upon whom the very humanity of the new human being mainly depends. In this sense too the woman’s motherhood presents a special call and a special challenge to the man and to his fatherhood.”
This role of motherhood does not stand in opposition to the role of a husband and father, but rather enriches it. It is in keeping with Biblical tradition that “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.” The role of a man and a woman in a family are meant to be harmonious and cannot stand without one another. Through the physical requirements of fruitfulness to the spiritual symbolism of a union that reflects the Trinity, both man and woman have special and equal roles and dignity in a family. Furthermore, the education of the children produced is the responsibility of both parents, as well as different elements of nurturing and providing for the family. In the Sacrament of Marriage, man and woman serve as ministers to one another. Rather than one person dominating the other, they serve as co-equal actors of the sacrament and are both infused with sacramental grace, which binds them together.
Since the Second Vatican Council, this role has been affirmed numerous times, especially in the works of St. Pope John Paul II. In his Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio, he further defines the role of a woman as a wife and mother in relation to other vocations. “The true advancement of women requires that clear recognition be given to the value of their maternal and family role, by comparison with all other public roles and all other professions. Furthermore, these roles and professions should be harmoniously combined, if we wish the evolution of society and culture to be truly and fully human.” Some in the modern day society struggle to recognize that a woman may be called to both vocations of a secular career and a (higher) vocation of marriage and motherhood. However, these vocations do not lay in opposition to one another, but rather one is at the service of the other. Secular careers may provide financial stability, service to a community, and using one’s gifts and talents for the sake of furthering God’s Kingdom on Earth, while the vocation of marriage and family life ultimately leads one to greater fulfillment of a holy vocation. These primordial roles of a woman remain at the core of the Church, from their beginnings in Eve to their perfection in Mary, Mother of God, to their continual realization found in each modern day wife and mother. These are vocations of the highest dignity and fruitfulness.
The multiple roles of the woman in the Catholic Church have always held a special significance and dignity. Throughout the history of the Catholic Church, these roles have seen a development that has led women to a greater fulfillment of their purpose as daughters of God and heirs of Jesus’ priestly, prophet, and kingly offices. The Second Vatican Council shed new light to the purpose and role of the woman in the Church of the Modern World and the continual apostolic works that have been largely based on the works of the council fathers have furthered this understanding. By no means did the Church necessarily neglect the role of women prior to this council, however, the Second Vatican Council and subsequent works enriched the Church’s doctrine on womanhood.
The highest perfection of womanhood found in Mary, Mother of God, highlights the special role the female plays in society. At times in Scripture, Jesus intentionally refers to his mother as “Woman,” which is born out of a deep respect and veneration of his understanding of the protoevangelium: that God “will put enmity between you [the serpent] and the woman, and between your seed and her seed.” His use of the term “woman” refers to his understanding of the role of his mother as a woman, in particular the woman who would serve as Co-Redemptrix of the Church. The title of “woman” is one that holds a special place of honor. The Catholic Church’s doctrines have maintained and further developed especially since the Second Vatican Council that the person of a woman is unique, cherished, and above all a reflection of God’s own image and likeness. Women are valuable members of the Catholic Church and the fruitfulness of their works and vocations allow God’s kingdom to abound even more so on this Earth.
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