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"Sexism is not only unjust to women;

it destroys the very soul of the sexist."


Sister Maria Riley, OP

"Transforming Feminism"


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U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops



Women in the Church and Society:

Reflections at the Beginning of the 21st Century

50th Convention
National Council of Catholic Women
September 27, 2001

Sister Sharon Euart, RSM, JCD

Servant Leadership

The tragic events of two weeks ago have made us all aware of the fragility of our human existence. They have also quite simply frightened us with their demonstration of the depths to which hatred can reduce people when they harbor it in their hearts. Yet our national crucifixion has also been accompanied by signs of the resurrection. We have seen these signs in the heroism of firefighters, police, health care workers, and rescuers -- people who have made it their duty to walk into danger when the rest of us in good conscience can walk away from it. We have also seen signs of the resurrection in the generosity of millions of people all over our nation giving blood, donating money and other resources to those in need.

These people have shown themselves to be servant leaders. Whatever their faith, their spirit has been that of Christ who told us that the Son of Man did not come to be served but to give his life as ransom for the many.

Christ's self-definition of his mission is also the definition of ours, not only in times of crisis but in our everyday lives when life is more ordinary. Every Christian is called not to be served but to serve, whatever their position within the Church. For while the Church is a hierarchical communion in which some have offices of authority, over the years, decades and centuries, truly those who are remembered are not necessarily those who held these offices but those who demonstrated servant leadership. Among these women have been among the most dedicated. When all but one of the men who were the members of the first apostolic college of which our hierarchy are the successors deserted Christ in the hour of his death, his mother and the other holy women remained faithful. In the Gospel of John, it was Mary Magdalene mournfully keeping watch in the Garden of Gethsemane who saw the stone rolled from the entrance to the tomb and who told Peter and John what she had seen. It was to her that Christ first appears and announced his ascension to his father.

We know from the letters of St.Paul the extent to which devout women, empowered by the Holy Spirit, were essential to his missionary work. The First Eucharistic Prayer -- the Roman Canon -- contains the names of women who were among the martyrs -- the witnesses -- whose blood watered the seeds of faith: Perpetua, Felicity, Agatha, Anastasia, Agnes, Lucy, and Cecilia. After the end of persecutions, the zeal for the faith embodied in the martyrs became centered in the monks and nuns. Beside the tremendous figure of St. Benedict, the father of western monasticism, we see St. Scholastica, his sister, who also consecrated her life to God. Throughout the Middle Ages, hardly a time we associate with women's rights, women -- religious and lay -- made so great an impression on church and society that we honor their names today, St Catherine of Sienna, St . Bridget of Sweden, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, to name a few. In our own times we find other examples of women whose lives in pursuit of love of God and love of neighbor made a difference in the Church - women like Mother Katharine Drexel, Edith Stein and Mother Teresa. Many more names through many centuries demonstrate that holiness is the goal of the Christian. It is what raises up the lowly, while its absence will cause the mighty to be deposed from their thrones.

Our saints -- the Christians we choose to remember from age to age -- are not confined to the great ones of their times. In fact sometimes the great ones of an era are all but forgotten, while some who were the least in the eyes of the world are now venerated as saints.

So while it is right and good for the Church, as I will discuss shortly, to recognize the baptismal dignity of all, of women and men, of lay people, and of those in orders and consecrated life, and to open church ministries as widely as possible, history proves the truth of Christ's words that those who would be first must be the servants of all.


The role of women in the church at the beginning of the 21st century is a story of servant leadership, a story of many women who make a difference in our church and in our society every day. It is also a topic that evokes a variety of responses: hope, optimistic expectations from some persons; disappointment, conflict, anger and even alienation from others. Regardless of one's response, few would deny that the role of women in the Church is one of the most important and pressing issues in the Church at the beginning of this 21st century. In our time together this morning, I would like to share with you my reflections on some of the changes regarding the role of women in the Church that we have witnessed during the past 35 years and some of the issues, challenges, and opportunities that face us at the beginning of the 21st century.

There is no doubt that women have made and continue to make a positive contribution to the mission and ministry of the Church. To appreciate the scope of this contribution, it is important first to reflect briefly on the Church's teaching on mission and ministry.

Second Vatican Council

The context for change is the Second Vatican Council. While some people have exaggerated the break with the past represented by the Council, especially in terms of doctrine, which remained intact, it would be hard to exaggerate the break which the Council made with the past attitude toward the world which existed, if not since the 16th century Council of Trent, certainly since Vatican I in 1870.

It was an attitude which viewed the Church as being under siege by forces of the modern world which were trying to bring it down and which had even infiltrated within its walls. Modern historical studies, the scientific method, and freedom of thought and expression seemed all to be attacks on the Church's foundations -- whether on the Bible itself or on tradition. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, there was probably good evidence for at least some of this hostility on the part of the modern world. But if the Church had preserved itself from real threats, it had also closed itself off to much of what was good in the world and from fully understanding the needs of the world to which it might hold the key. The Council recognized, in a more balanced way, however, the deficiencies, the benefits, and the needs of our times.

The Council also decided to look at the Church itself, first of all, in its totality. Many expected the Council Fathers to treat the Church primarily according to its hierarchical structure, beginning with the Pope and Bishops and working its way to the laity. Instead, before discussing the Church's hierarchical structure, the council spoke of the people of God and the fundamental equality of the faithful, all of whom -- women and men -- receive in baptism the commission for service to the Gospel.

The Council Fathers affirmed the "priesthood of all believers," which had not been emphasized since the Reformation due to the reformers' rejection of the Church's teaching on Holy Orders. The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, affirms that while the ordained priesthood and the common priesthood differ "essentially and not only in degree," they exist for one another (LG #10). Pope John Paul II wrote in 1990 that the ordained priesthood "is not an institution that exists ‘alongside' the laity or ‘above' it. The priesthood of bishops and priests, as well as the ministry of deacons is ‘for' the laity, and precisely for this reason it possesses a ministerial character, that is to say, one ‘of service.'" (Holy Thursday Letter to Priests, 1990, #3). The ordained priesthood and the common priesthood are to work together for the sake of the Gospel.

Thus from the Council comes the affirmation that the mission of the Church belongs to the whole people of God on pilgrimage to the Kingdom. Each of us is called to accept the responsibility of giving witness and service to the world in the name of Christ. Each of us is incorporated into the body of Christ by baptism. And as a result of this incorporation, every Christian shares in each aspect of Christ's threefold mission: to teach, to sanctify, and to govern.

At the same time, related to this changed understanding of responsibility for mission, there also developed within the Church a different and broader insight into the notion of ministry. In the vision of the Second Vatican Council the sacraments of initiation (baptism, confirmation and Eucharist) are the starting point for any consideration of the Church's ministry, for it is through these sacraments that each person is called to and empowered for ministry. The Council went on to say that each person committed to further the mission of the Church should be recognized by the faith community as actively participating in the Church's ministry. Thus the Council emphasized that there is one People of God but many forms of service.

Since the Council did not look on the world as totally bereft of God's saving presence, the Church's mission was now not solely a one-sided one of bringing salvation to the world. It is also a mission to identify the grace-filled riches present in the mysteries of human life, of which the world itself may not yet be fully aware. Thus the Council also spoke of mission and ministry in the context of the human experience. We find the clearest expression of the integration of the Church and the world in Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, which represented the beginning of an effort to bridge the estrangement of Church and world. Gaudium et Spes described the relationship between Gospel and culture. Its perspective was determined by its vision of the human person and the rights and duties belonging to each one.

But even before Gaudium et Spes, the Church had begun to recognize a new situation developing with regard to a more equal role for women in society. Pope John XXIII, in his 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris, identified "three things which characterize our modern age." The second of these signs concerned "the part that women are now playing in political life." Pope John went on to write, "Women are gaining an increasing awareness of their natural dignity. Far from being content with a purely passive role or allowing themselves to be regarded as a kind of instrument, they are demanding both in domestic and in public life the rights and duties which belong to them as human persons" (Pacem in Terris, # 41). Gaudium et Spes recognized the urgency to further the cause of treating all women and men with dignity and equality, emphasizing the rights and freedom of every person (GS, 60). The document refers to "new social relationships between men and women"(GS, 3) and for the first time refers to marriage as "an intimate partnership" (GS, 60), an emphasis and focus that were new at this level of the teaching of the universal Church.

The Second Vatican Council also called for a recognition of the equality of persons within the Church. In Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, the Council recognized the wonderful diversity in the Church and taught that there is "in Christ and in the Church no inequality on the basis of race or nationality, social condition or sex" (LG, 32). All share a true equality with regard to their dignity and to the common activity of all the faithful for the building up of the Body of Christ.

Role of Women in Society

Turning now to the changing role of women, I want to look first at how this is occurring in society at large. When we look at some of the societal changes of the past 35 years in our country, it seems fair to say that during the last generation the change in women's roles can be described as increased freedom, that is, the degree of legal and social freedom women experience themselves as enjoying. These changes include shifts in patterns of relationship between men and women in marriage and in family life, new opportunities in public life and the business world, legal protections in the workplace and in education, and a new awareness of sexism in virtually every social structure including the Church. In addition, both men and women are developing skills and confidence in a variety of roles that were once the domain of the other gender.

The really profound change, however, is in the self-understanding among women, in a movement toward autonomy and self-determination, where women do not see themselves over against or in competition with men, but side-by-side with men in mutual, collaborative, equal relationships whether in the home, the community, or the workplace. Some equate this developing self-awareness with a denigration of the traditional roles of wife and mother. On the contrary, this enhanced self-concept is not only compatible with these roles; it makes a contribution to living them in a more salutary and fulfilling fashion.

The signs of change and progress, if you will, are all around us. Women now occupy positions of leadership at all levels of society. Women have headed some of the most important and largest nations on earth, such as Great Britain, India, and Israel; and today preside in Ireland and Indonesia. Two women serve on the Supreme Court of the United States, as governors, cabinet members and advisors to the President, and a woman recently served as U.S. Secretary of State. An increasing number of women serve in the Senate and House. A woman entered the presidential race a few years ago and was considered a serious and viable candidate. Women are now in board rooms as well as classrooms; they serve as presidents and chief executive officers of major corporations.

Still, more is needed by way of reform. For example, what about pay equity, that is, equal pay for work of equal value? What about the women, especially single mothers, who do not have the economic and educational resources needed to move upward in our society? Their choices are few, and the pressures are many.

There has been progress, yes, but there still remains a cycle of helplessness among so many women who struggle to survive against overwhelming odds of poverty, violence and marginalization with barely enough resources to live by. Progress in our society is sporadic.

Role of Women in the Church

What progress can we identify in the Church? Over the past thirty-five years, many official church voices have been raised on behalf of women's increased participation in the Church. The documents of Vatican II, papal statements, statements of individual bishops, synodal statements, the many statements of Pope John Paul II especially his letter On the Dignity and Vocation of Women, the 1995 statement of the U.S. Bishops, Strengthening the Bonds of Peace, and the 1998 statement of the Bishops' Committee on Women in Society and the Church, From Words to Deeds, all speak eloquently and persuasively to the principle of equality.

Changes in the role of women in the Church, however, have also been shaped by circumstances unforeseen by the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council. For example, the number of lay women and lay men wanting to play a more formally active role in Church ministry and the unexpected decline in the numbers of active clergy and religious in the United States are phenomena that have significantly influenced changes in who is ministering in the Church at the dawn of the 21st century.

There is no doubt that today more women are involved in numerous and varied ministries on both the parish and diocesan levels than there were in 1965 or 1975. Some of these changes reflect a shift in the deployment of personnel in traditional forms of ministry. For example, we have experienced in our country, and will continue to experience, a decrease in the number of women religious serving in schools and hospitals. At the same time, the number of women serving in parish-based ministries (such as religious education, youth ministry, sacramental preparation programs, services for the sick, the elderly, and the disabled) has continued to increase over the same period. A study conducted by the National Pastoral Life Center in NY for the Bishops' Subcommittee on Lay Ministry reports that 82% of parish lay ministers are women. In addition, growing demands for pastoral ministry have witnessed increasing numbers of women providing institutional pastoral care in health care facilities, as prison chaplains, in direct services to the poor and homeless, and in services to women and children.

More recently, perhaps over the past ten years, the number of women holding leadership positions in parishes and dioceses has increased as well. Today women serve as parish coordinators, pastoral associates or assistants, heads of diocesan departments and secretariats, chiefs of staff and chancellors, positions traditionally held by ordained priests. A 1999 study by the National Association of Church Personnel Administrators (NACPA) for the USCCB Committee on Women found that over 40% of the diocesan administrative and professional positions, including about one-quarter of the top positions, are held by women.

As a canon lawyer -- a discipline an increasing number of women are studying, let me say a few words about the Code of Canon Law and its treatment of the role of women in the Church. When the revised Code of Canon Law was promulgated in 1983, Pope John Paul II described the code as fully corresponding to the nature of the Church, "especially as it is proposed by the teaching of the Second Vatican Council." "In fact," he stated, "this new Code could be understood as a great effort to translate [the]...conciliar doctrine and ecclesiology into canonical language."1 Citing elements that characterize the "true and genuine image" of the Church, the Holy Father identified the conciliar teaching on the "doctrine according to which all the members of the people of God, in the way suited to each of them, participate in the threefold"mission of Christ. He spoke of a "fidelity in newness and newness in fidelity" in the revised law's expression of the Council's teaching. It is in the code's acknowledgment of a proper role for the laity in the mission and ministry of the Church that the revised law has helped to promote the role of women in the Church. Lay persons, and therefore women, are permitted to perform certain liturgical functions and hold a number of ecclesiastical offices heretofore open only to clergy.

However, while we acknowledge the undisputed fact that many more positions in the Church are now open to women than were thirty-five years ago, progress has not kept pace with the call issued by the Holy Father and the institutional Church itself, in a spirit of co-discipleship, for increased participation of women in Church service.

Women, for example, are still prohibited by law from exercising certain liturgical functions such as preaching the homily and being officially installed as lectors or acolytes. Women are still barred from holding certain offices in the Church, particularly those which require the exercise of the power of governance or jurisdiction; nor can a woman be appointed an episcopal vicar, say, for example, Vicar for Religious. At times qualified women are excluded from consideration for offices or positions that are legitimately open to them, and for which ordination is not a requirement, simply because of their gender. Though statistics show that many more women are being appointed to leadership positions in the Church, questions about the scope of their responsibility and their inclusion in decision-making structures and processes remain. Are women's gifts and experience being used and are their voices being heard?

So, despite the beginnings of progress, there remains a cycle of frustration among those women in the Church who want to be genuine partners in ministry, who seek better ways to serve the Church and her people, who want to be judged by their character and competency and not by their gender or by preconceived notions of their roles, and who want the Church as an institution and community to be committed to creating an environment of collaboration in which the dignity of every person is respected and each baptized believer is called and given a chance to use his or her gifts for building up the kingdom.

Issues and Challenges for the Future

At this moment in our history, what then are some of the issues and challenges that we face at the beginning of a new century?

I have selected three areas in which I believe women can be influential in effecting further change for the lives of women in the Church in the 21st century, areas that present both challenge and opportunity in shaping that future.

First, Pope John Paul II, in his various statements and addresses, as well as the bishops of the United States, have given attention to societal reforms that would support women's right to equality in society at large, such as equal pay, equal opportunity for advancement, equal pension and benefit plans, child care provisions, flex-time, family leave, and alternate work schedules. In an effort to eliminate obstacles to fair treatment in the Church, it seems to me that the first and foremost challenge we face is to be advocates for women in our society, especially for those who are economically disadvantaged. We should be concerned about such issues as just wages, equality of women with men in the workplace, equal opportunities for education, the recruitment and retention of women of color, and the value of parenting and family life. As we all know, the concerns of women are not confined to the Church. They are present at all levels of our society and in the communities in which we live.

The second area of challenge concerns models for ministering in the Church. In his exhortation on the vocation and mission of the lay faithful, Christifideles Laici, Pope John Paul II states that "it is necessary that the Church recognize all the gifts of men and women for her life and mission, and put them into practice" (#49). The Holy Father goes on to encourage the "coordinated presence of both men and that the participation of the lay faithful in the salvific mission of the Church might be rendered more rich, complete and harmonious" (#52). In support of such coordination, we should encourage our bishops in their efforts to promote collaborative models of ministry in which clergy, lay and religious work together as responsible, capable persons in service of the Church. In Strengthening the Bonds of Peace, the U.S. bishops call for ongoing dialogue between women and men in the Church and pledge themselves to continue the dialogue "in a spirit of partnership and mutual trust."

Collaborative ministry, if taken seriously, will require parish staffs and diocesan offices to promote the inclusion of women in ministerial work and collegial decision-making. At the same time, bishops and those responsible for seminary training might assess their priestly formation programs to ensure that those preparing for ordained ministry understand the Church's teaching on the dignity of women and the role of women in Church and society and develop the skills necessary for effective collaborative ministry.

Thirdly, if we are to enhance the role of women in the Church today, women must take advantage of the opportunities to participate in those areas of Church life that are legitimately open to them, that invite women to use their gifts for the building up of the Body of Christ and for its mission of salvation. It is true that the opportunities for such service will vary from diocese to diocese and even from parish to parish. Where they do not exist we should advocate the opening of such ministries to women, where they do exist we should encourage and affirm the participation of women as readers of the Word of God, extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist, altar servers, members of diocesan and parish councils, team ministry participants, marriage and family life counselors, child and adult catechists, spiritual directors, educators, members of diocesan and parish committees, participants in diocesan synods, and collaborators in decision-making and policy-setting processes. To move forward Pope John Paul's "appeal to women of the Church to assume new forms of leadership in service," ask your bishops to urge the bishops of the United States to welcome this "contribution of women" at all levels of Church leadership and to take the steps necessary to put into action their own words, so clearly stated in From Words to Deeds, to clarify the relationship between the two sources of empowerment for ministry jurisdiction and ordination and to distinguish those instances when the power of jurisdiction and leadership in the community can be separated from the power of orders..

Finally, we must go beyond encouraging and affirming the involvement of others. Women themselves (you and I) must become active participants in the mission and ministry of the Church. Pope John Paul II urges us to put into practice all the gifts of men and women for the life and mission of the Church, to make real the possibilities that have already been stated by the Second Vatican Council for the mission of the community (CF 49). The pope goes on to say that the acknowledgment in theory of the active and responsible presence of women in the Church must be realized in practice (CF 153). He challenges us "to move from words to deeds," a call taken up by the U.S. bishops, as we move forward into this 21 century. The words of the Holy Father and the bishops are clear, yet we know that actions often speak louder than words. For the Church to be credible to the women of the 21st century, especially the young woman of today and tomorrow, a new understanding of the multiple and diverse roles and the changed expectations of women will be needed. Actions that support women in their new demands and struggles at home, in the workplace and in society as well as their needs and concerns about leadership, power and church processes will speak concretely to principles of solidarity, participation and mutuality. The NCCW leadership development program, "Spirituality and Service: A Formation program for Catholic leaders for the 21st Century" is a wonderful example of efforts to prepare women for leadership roles in their parish, council and community.

Conclusion Observations

In concluding my reflections let me say that as an organized community of people with a body of belief and law that governs all, the Church will continue to face the issues and the tensions associated with the role of women in the Church. Women and men together should have more than a passing interest in this issue, since it is undoubtedly one of the ones contributing in large measure to the shape the Church takes in the 21st century.

But there is another side of the story, one that should be remembered especially by those grown fainthearted and weary in the face of discussions -- and sometimes outright arguments -- over law and theology. The Church exists not only as an organized society, with leadership, structures and rules, visible for all to see, like any other society. It is also the community enlivened by the breath of the Holy Spirit who blows whither he wills and by the grace of Christ which is not limited to the few but poured abundantly on all. It is a community of believers seeking holiness among whom the greatest is to be the servant of all. If you or I are ever disheartened or grow impatient with the pace of change or are tempted to forget how dynamic and alive our Church is and needful of the gifts we have to bring, let us remember the hope and the courage of those who have gone before us, women like Catherine of Siena, Katharine Drexel, and the founding women of the NCCW whose legacy of servant leadership continues to inspire us and challenge us to make a difference every day.

Before beginning my remarks this morning, I want to acknowledge first the horror of the events of September 11 in New York and in Washington and to pay tribute to the many women affected by the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the women who "make a difference every day." Let us remember the valiant women who perished in the attacks and plane crashes, the strong women who weep and mourn the loss of spouses, children, parents, siblings and other loved ones, the faithful women who struggle every day to reassure their children that they will be safe, and the many women in this convention hall, in this country and around the world who pray for peace. May God renew our hope and guide us all in the ways of wisdom and courage.


Recently I had the opportunity to visit Ireland for the first time. I traveled with three other sister of mercy visiting the country from coast to coast. For me, one of the most memorable places we visited, besides the home of Catherine McAuley, foundress of the Sisters of Mercy, was the Foxford Woolen Mills in County Mayo. The mills were founded in 1892 by a nun, Mother Agnes Morrogh Bernard, to help the people of Foxford improve the quality of their lives following the devastation from the potato famine. Though Mother Bernard and her community are no longer present in the mill, the work she began and the spirit of courage and service she brought to the people of Foxford continues today. Sustained by her faith and unyielding confidence in God, she worked to alleviate suffering and poverty in nineteenth century Ireland. As a women in the Church and within her community, Mother Morrogh Bernard made a difference. She was truly a servant leader.


1 John Paul II, apostolic constitution, Sacrae Disciplina Leges, English translation in Code of Canon Law: Latin-English Edition (Washington DC: CLSA, 1983) xiv.


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