Women in the Church: indications for the way forward

women praying
Image by Giovanni Portelli Photography

At a recent meeting with the priests of the diocese of Rome, Pope Francis said the following words as if in passing: “Today we forget everything far too quickly, even the magisterium of the Church! Part of this is unavoidable, but we cannot forget the great content, the great intuitions and gifts that have been left to the People of God”.[1] These are important words that call on us to carefully consider how there can be such forgetfulness regarding the great insights that have been available to us for several decades.

We should not forget, for example, how far the Church has advanced since the Second Vatican Council and during the pontificates that followed with regard to the subject of women in the Church. In fact, we can take from here some points of departure for the task that Pope Francis has given us, that of studying the vocation and mission of women in the Church and of making it known.

We can distinguish two main lines of thought in the recent teaching of the Church.

1.     The anthropological line

The Pope has stated on numerous occasions that it is important not simply to opt for pragmatic solutions, even though they also may be necessary. We must do the work of deeper study, and the first area that needs to be looked into more is that of the anthropological roots of the subject.

Mulieris Dignitatem begins by asking how we can better understand “the reason for and the consequences of the Creator's decision that the human being should always and only exist as a woman or a man”.[2] It goes on to consider sexual difference. This is probably the most important topic in anthropology in our times, but it is one about which there is currently great confusion. This confusion does not contribute to the making of calm decisions and to discerning how best to proceed in Ecclesia on these issues. Discussions often become diverted because of ideologies, sociologism, feelings of being victimised and other difficulties.

Instead, if we reread the issue of sexual difference in the light of the anthropological approach given by the teachings of the Church, then we have important clues on how to proceed. They are that men and women have equal dignity and they share the same human nature. At the same time they are different, entrusted to each other and committed to each other as a gift. Sexual difference teaches us that none of us is self-sufficient and that we were created for relationship and rapport. Every “I” needs a “you” to be complete. Nobody is self-contained. As the poet said, no man is an island. Sexual difference is a special way of experiencing this fact.

Although sin introduced conflict and division to the original unity of man and woman, Jesus reconciled this relationship by making it possible for the differences between them not to be seen as “a source of discord to be overcome by denial or eradication, but rather as the possibility for collaboration, to be cultivated with mutual respect for their difference”.[3] Sexual difference is a treasure with great potential for mutual cooperation. It is a relationship that is enriching for both, and differences can become an important resource in striving for a world that is more in keeping with human dignity.

In the Genesis accounts it is clear that God entrusts the earth and its cultivation to both man and woman. God invites them to cooperate with creation and to work for the transformation of the world in the service of human dignity. The family is a privileged space where a man and a woman work together in collaboration. It is not the only space. Culture and the Church are areas in which this working together in collaboration must take place in a serene and effective way.

2.     The ecclesiological context

We are commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, and that Council taught that the Church is the People of God. It is a communion of people joined together by their common dignity as children of God, and by their common mission to bear witness to their faith in the one Lord. This people has one shepherd who is Jesus Christ. It is not a uniform people. Rather it is structured, a communion of different states of life, ordered one to the other. They are different but complementary, and they support each other as they carry out the mission of the Church. Each of these states of life has its own basic nature as well as the individual and community charisms that are also given to people of different states of life. This is so that they may enrich each other and place themselves at the service of others.

Vatican II emphasised the participation of the lay faithful in the threefold mission of Christ as Priest, Prophet and King. Its source is the anointing of Baptism and Confirmation and the dynamic sustenance of the Blessed Eucharist.[4] All of this is part of a renewed sense of the mystery of the Church. However, there are still many reductive perceptions that refer to the Church as if it were limited to the hierarchy and institutions. These elements are undoubtedly important, but they are at the service of the wider mystery that is more significant and important. This is the mystery of the Church as Spouse and Mother, a sign and instrument of the communion of God with humankind and human beings among themselves.

To promote a more effective presence of women in the Church means to seek greater fidelity to what the Church really is. The great mystery of the Church needs both its marian roots and its petrine roots. Pope Francis has said this several times as he noted that a woman, Mary of Nazareth, the mother of Jesus, is more important than bishops. She precedes all in holiness and in her person the Church finds perfection. Her role is not passive, abstract or distant. On the contrary, she is truly a mother and teacher for all the faithful, and she leads them with her powerful intercession and example to a fuller encounter with her Son Jesus. Von Balthasar said that Mary is queen of the apostles without taking on any apostolic power herself. She has another greater power.[5] We could add that Mary Magdalen was also sent by the risen Jesus to inform the apostles about the resurrection, even though she was not part of the college of apostles. She had another greater mission.

We must then find ways by following the indications from anthropology and ecclesiology that we have been given by recent Church teaching and which we should not allow to be forgotten. In fact, much of what has been said and written only remains to be put into practice. Christifidelis Laici said this twenty five years ago: “Above all the acknowledgment in theory of the active and responsible presence of woman in the Church must be realized in practice”.[6]

Ana Cristina Villa B


[1] Pope Francis, Meeting with the priests of Rome, 6 March 2014.

[2] John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem, 1.

[3] Cf. CDF, Letter on collaboration, 12.

[4] Cf. ChL,14

[5] È «regina degli apostoli senza pretendere per sé i poteri apostolici. Essa ha altro e di più.» H.U. von Balthasar, Neue Klarstellungen, trad.it., Milano 1980, p.181. My translation.  

[6] John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles laici, 51. 

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