Promise and Challenge: Catholic Women Reflect on Feminism, Complementarity and the Church

promise and challenge

Excerpt from the book’s Introduction

An Invitation... and a Response
By Mary
Rice Hasson, JD

I believe that we have much more to do in making explicit this role and charism of women...
-Pope Francis, July 28, 2013, Press Conference

Since early in his papacy, Pope Francis has spoken, and continues to speak, “with his customary frankness and spontaneity” about the role of women in the Catholic Church. He expresses his desire for the Church to address women's “deep questions” about the meaning of womanhood and to “develop a profound theology of womanhood.” He acknowledges the need to make “greater room” for a “more capillary and incisive female presence in the Church,” including the “presence of women ... where important decisions are made, both in the Church and in social structures.”

Given the richness of the Church's existing teachings on women, what might a more “profound theology of woman'” cover? And where, and in what new ways, might women serve the Church, so as to become a more widespread and influential presence?

The pope doesn't exactly say.

Like his predecessors, however, Pope Francis reiterates the Church's definitive teaching that the path forward does not include ordaining women to the priesthood. “Women in the Church must be valued, not ‘clericalized’” he says. While women and men possess equal dignity, the Church teaches, “reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion.” In the sacramental economy, Pope Francis emphasizes, the ordination of men should not be identified with power or “superiority” but with service, oriented toward the “holiness of Christ's members”. Men and women, then, as Pope Saint John Paul II wrote, are called to “collaboration” with “mutual respect for their difference.”

Indeed, women are more visible than ever within the Church, collaborating with men in a variety of ways. In his encyclical letter The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis praises the “many women [who] share pastoral responsibilities with priests, helping to guide people, families and groups and offering new contributions to theological reflection.” Women increasingly outnumber men on Church marriage tribunals, serving as auditors, notaries, and defenders of the bond. In recent years, the Vatican also has appointed women not only to serve on pontifical councils, but also to hold leadership positions on those bodies. Similarly, women now shoulder significant responsibility on Vatican commissions and boards, at pontifical universities, and in Vatican administrative and managerial positions.

And Pope Francis seems intent on breaking new ground, according to his own style and timing. In September 2014, he appointed five female scholars to the influential International Theological Commission, which examines doctrinal questions for the pope and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Two “renowned [female] theologians,” including one contributor to this book, Sister Sara Butler, MSBT, served the ITC in two previous terms. Sister Prudence Allen, RSM, a new appointee, is an expert on the theology of women, and several contributors to this book build upon her work as a foundation for further insights. According to the Vatican press release, the ITC appointments affirm the “growing female involvement in theological research.”


The pope's warmth and openness sparked, and continues to spark, wide-ranging conversations among Catholic women over whether and what kind of new directions might be desirable for women and the Church.

This book grew out of one such conversation.

In April 2014, the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the Catholic Information Center, both of Washington, D.C., co-sponsored a symposium on women, which brought together a cross-disciplinary group of thirty-eight outstanding female Catholic scholars, thinkers, and ministry leaders to engage Pope Francis's observations in a serious way. The symposium aimed to move the conversation about women and the Church forward by probing the teachings on complementarity and envisioning ways to bring “a more incisive female presence” into the culture and the Church. It was an outstanding event, rich in scholarship and challenging discussions-a vivid testament to the “presence” of talented Catholic women serving the Church.

The symposium presentations, enriched by the fruits of in-depth discussions among the participants, form the substance of this book. As such, this book represents one effort by particular Catholic women to respond, in a spirit of service and fidelity, to the pope's invitation.

This book also affirms that, despite the media's fairly common portrayal of Catholic women as a disaffected lot, the Church has a wide reservoir of intellectually and spiritually well-formed women with hearts on fire for the Lord and the Church and her authoritative teachings. As one symposium attendee put it, “we're here”, and the wider world needs to know that. In particular, the members of the “JP II Generation” have embraced the faith in all its beauty-doctrines, sacramental life, and evangelistic mission. Whether young, middle-aged, or mature, single, married, or religious, countless Catholic women are already at work serving the Church, their families, and society with great love-an “incisive and capillary presence,” if you will.

Our hope is that this book, written by “daughters of the Church”, will prompt further conversations among women (and men), as well as additional research and exploration of these ideas. We hope that the book will prompt action as well. The book’s final chapter, “Promise and Challenge” includes some additional points raised in the symposium discussions­ theological and practical considerations that warrant future exploration.

This book's expert contributors - female theologians, philosophers, attorneys, and an economist - are a diverse group. They offer intriguing insights and analyses pertinent to the theological and practical aspects of expanding women's roles within the Church and society. Some of them present original scholarship, others synthesize new ideas with established teachings, and several analyze the practical challenges inherent in possible changes. All bring their personal experience and spiritual depth, as well as their professional expertise, to the task.

Although unequivocal in their support for the Church and her teachings, these writers do not shy away from tough questions. Several contributors address frankly the clericalism, insularity, and disengagement of some Church leaders, on various levels, which hinder the fruitful collaboration of men and women within the Church. Others observe that previous promising calls for “the promotion of women” have fallen short on the practical level. As a result, women's potential contributions to “the moral dimension of culture” and the Church's “mission of evangelization” have been underdeveloped. But the writers also praise warmly the Church's long history, long before feminism, of affirming women's dignity, leadership, and service, and they acknowledge the beauty of Church teachings proclaiming the dignity and vocation of women. Indeed, these teachings form the cornerstone of the ideas shared in this book.

And that leads me to an important point. This book does not advocate for changes in Church teachings on ordination or sexuality; our premise is that the Church's teachings represent a sure guide for women (and men) along the path to human flourishing and eternal salvation. Nor does this book attempt to represent all the many perspectives found among Catholic laywomen and women religious concerning the role of women in the Church. We do expect that much of what is written here, however, will resonate intellectually and experientially with many Catholics-men and women, cleric and lay. Purposely, this book offers a collection of ideas - not a consensus from the symposium - that we hope will be a catalyst, spurring others in the Church to engage these ideas or propose their own.

Contributions to the book:

  • Foreword by Mary Ann Glendon: Toward a Deeper Appreciation of Complementarity

  • Even our Feminism Must Be Service, by Helen M. Alvaré, JD

  • Some Thoughts on the Theology of Women in the Church, by Sister Sara Butler, MSBT, STL, PhD

  • The Promise and the Threat of the “Three” in Integral Complementarity, by Elizabeth R. Schiltz, JD

  • Two Women and the Lord, by Sister Mary Madeline Todd, OP, STL

  • The Feminine Genius and Women’s Contributions in Society and in the Church, by Margaret Harper McCarthy, PhD

  • The Genius of Man, by Deborah Savage, PhD

  • The Dignity and Vocation of Men, by Theresa Farnan, PhD

  • With Motherly Care, by Catherine Ruth Pakaluk, PhD

  • Engaging Women, by Erika Bachiochi, JD

  • Can Catholic Women Lean In?, by Mary Hallan FioRito, JD

  • Offense, Defense, and the Catholic Woman Thing, by Mary Eberstadt

  • Promise and Challenge, by Mary Rice Hasson, JD.

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