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Letters & Op-Eds - 2016

The Catholic Church Should Encourage Women Leaders

Glenn Northern

22 June 2016

The fact that my sister couldn’t be an altar server, as my brother and I were, confused me as a child. It was the first of many ways I noticed that she and all the other women I knew were treated differently in church. It was fine for them to be in the chorus at the back but they could not be deacons, nor could they be priests. Powerful lessons about compassion, social justice, and equality in the eyes of God couldn’t hide the proof that, in the eyes of the church, women and girls were relegated to a supporting role. Now I am godfather to a niece who, decades later, is still in very much the same situation as my sister was. Like so many others brought up in the Catholic faith, my niece may not see the point of questioning an institution that misses the mark of its own teachings and fails more than half of its parishioners. But the church needs her to stay and to question.

Just last year, Fr. Joseph Illo outraged parents when he chose to ban altar girls at Star of the Sea parish in San Francisco. In February, St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson called upon parishes in his archdiocese to boycott the Girl Scouts of the USA, alleging that the organization’s mission is “incompatible” with the hierarchy’s views of abortion and contraception, when in fact they take no position at all on these issues. In early June, the entire Catholic church was embroiled in discussions on Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation about men and women in married life. Yet, the U.S. bishops’ conference emerged from its Spring Special Assembly without addressing women’s role in the church. At every Mass, women are still relegated to a supporting role: they don’t wear vestments and they never preach. Catholic children ask why—but the hierarchy never does. A Church for Our Daughters, a grassroots Catholic campaign working for a church that recognizes the full equality of all of its members, wants that inclusion to start now.

There’s a lot to do. Though Pope Francis has been a breath of fresh air for the church overall, he has a blind spot when it comes to women. In 2013 and 2015, he declared that the door to ordaining women priests was “closed.” Even when the pope tries to include women, they must fit into only a few (sometimes uncomfortable) slots. Francis’ allusions to a “feminine genius” or a “theology of women” keep the stained glass ceiling firmly in place and women in restricted roles in the church. When he called for more female theologians, he nonetheless described our learned Catholic women as decoration: “the strawberry on the cake.” The sprinkling of women at the last few synods shows that this type of inclusion is inadequate. Of the approximately 360 attendees at the Synod on the Family in 2015, only 30 were women, and they couldn’t vote. One of these was Sr. Carmen Sammut, leader of the International Union of Superiors General, a worldwide organization of religious sisters. She described it as attending “the synod on the family from a back bench.”

Significant debates about church policy have taken place at recent synods, and they need to go further. Yet the carefully selected group of married women and women religious did not reflect Catholic women from all walks of life. For one, the majority of Catholic women who use modern contraception weren’t heard in Rome—nor were they heeded by U.S. bishops still blocking universal no-fee coverage of contraception under the Affordable Care Act.

The church needs to change. A Church for Our Daughters is telling the hierarchy to abolish oppressive practices, teachings and laws that relegate women to second-class status. Our petition demands a church that respects the rights, conscience, autonomy, skills and vision of all its members. We want a church that honors women’s moral agency to make decisions that impact their health, bodies and family life. Girls who dream of being priests should be encouraged, just like boys. Parents are fighting for a larger role for women out of a deep love—for their daughters and the church.

Women should no longer be consigned to riding the bench. They have many callings—to speak, to lead, to minister.

This letter was originally published by TIME Magazine.