Catholic · Cool Catholic women

Smells and Belles: Examining Catholic Women’s Roles in the Church

Many forget that famous Southern belle, Scarlett O’Hara, was Catholic. But would she have made a good altar server?

Dear Susan,

I know you remember my story about when my mother was working U2 surveillance in the CIA’s guided missile program during the Cold War.  She was often the only female in her department. Every night, one person would stay late to put confidential documents in the Burn Bag for destruction. When it was mom’s turn, she diligently gathered all the classified material that needed to be destroyed in the bag, along with every pin-up picture and girly calendar that the men had at their workstations. A blow for feminism?  Maybe, but she would never have described herself as a feminist and I have no idea what she would have made over the current controversy swirling about women in the diaconate. As far as I know, she never questioned the Church’s teachings on men in the priesthood or the sacrament of Holy Orders.

Should women be deacons? One call-in show I listen to featured a woman who was very upset by the idea we would discuss this. “All this is just about a title. Power, that’s all it is.” Yes, I agree. Let’s call it what it is: do women have power in the Church? Titles do connote power in the workplace and everywhere else there are humans. If you don’t have a formalized role, you don’t have a voice. You may have some outside influence but you are not part of the process. So the question is not so much should women be allowed in the diaconate but do women have any power in the church? What is the role of Catholic women in the Church?

People keep telling us to serve, but just because we serve doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have a voice. Choices for serving in parish ministry often include cooking, cleaning, sewing and teaching. You can even do a variety of sewing crafts at many parishes. At our parish, we have crafters, quilters and crocheters.  Susan, you are a woman of many gifts and talents that you use in service on your Pastoral Council but you are also able to shine as The Knitting Pilgrim, which is not a skill I possess. And even within these divisions there is a hierarchy; I know you consider crocheters as Children of a Lesser Yarn Craft.  More than 90% of the elementary catechists I have worked with over the years are women. I have nothing against any of these ministries but what if you have different gifts? What if you are a good leader? An amazing policy analyst? An incredible speaker? Is there a formal role for you to play in the Church beyond serving as a lector or organizer of VBS and the parish festival? Will your voice ever be heard in faraway Rome? I don’t know and I don’t think anyone else really does, either.


Traditionally, more U.S. women than men attend church services across denominations, but the gap has been closing recently, particularly in our faith.  Our Church shines in the honor it shows Mother Mary and it is one of the few institutions that defines and defends the unique differences between men and women. However, I don’t know where the unique female voice is heard in Church leadership. People often point to the female doctors of the Church,  a title given to some saints who have contributed in a special way to theological teaching. Out of 36, there are four women doctors and all were named after 1970. Three of them were named in the last 50 years and all of them, unfortunately, have passed away, so, while their legacies live on, they cannot make current contributions to Church policy.

Pope Francis has at least been willing to open up the discussion about women’s roles in the Church. I understand that in parts of the world where the Church is growing quickly, such as Africa and Asia, that women’s rights are not as far advanced as the West and we need to respect their points of view. However, it seems that for every jump forward the Pope leads, our own US bishops find a way to rein us back in. For example, on July 22, we celebrate a newly elevated Feast of St. Mary Magdalene. Pope Francis raised her memorial day to a feast day specifically because of her role as an evangelizer. I, for one, welcomed this feast and would love to learn the truth about the role she played with the apostles and the significance of her being the first person to see the risen Christ.

No girls need apply?

At the same time, we have a San Francisco pastor banning female altar servers and I know he is not alone. The two main reasons U.S. bishops and pastors are banning altar girls are that (1) the girls are generally much better than the boys in this role and (2) because the girls are so awesome, boys are being discouraged from becoming altar servers and that could have a deterrent effect on vocations to the priesthood. Some in the laity agree with this view. From my layman’s perspective, if we are relying on altar servers as that big a part of our recruitment into the priesthood, we are in trouble. Secondly, no one wins when we operate from a position of weakness. Girls shouldn’t be allowed to serve because they are too good at it? All of these arguments stem from fear, fear that we will not protect men’s vocations to the priesthood. Jesus always taught us not to act out of fear.

I know I have raised more questions than answers in this letter, but I believe I am reflecting some of the confusion that many Catholic women have about their roles in the Church. I am also amused by the debate about women in the priesthood. For a Church that values Sacred Tradition, there seems to be an awful lot of Bible verse quoting defending the male priesthood. One of my favorite articles (most of which I can’t follow) is that men alone should be priests because they produce sperm. Yes, really.  So, while it may not be time for women in the priesthood, it is time for women to ask questions about where we do fit in. We need clarity more than Holy Orders at this point. Oh, and those sewing circle volunteer forms? No offense, but I’m putting them in the Burn Bag.

Love from your craft-challenged friend,


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