The Role of Women in the Church

Theresa Marino 11/29/22

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Why doesn’t the church step into the 21st Century with roles for women? It’s safe to say that if you’re an American Catholic, you’ve heard this question tossed around a time or two. As a Catholic millennial female myself, my own notion of femininity has been through the ringer and back again. On the one hand, the Church emphasizes from youth the meekness, purity and obedience of Mary which is held out as the idyllic model of female perfection (CCC). On the drastic other end of the idea spectrum, American popular culture wastes no opportunity to leverage TV, media or educational platforms to promote images of strength, independence and autonomy as ideals for women. It is culturally understood that a woman ought to be liberated from every traditional gender role which may have its roots in the natural cycles of her biology and that she ought not be silent before any man, much less any institution founded by one. 

It is important to note here that not all of modernity is being raised in the same cultural dichotomy that I was as a Catholic American. Having been very blessed to travel around the world in my lifetime, I have observed firsthand the differences of cultures in third world nations which are in contrast to ours. Nations in coastal Africa and the rural Caribbean which I’ve visited still maintain traditional gender roles which are ingrained and seldom raised as problematic unless by anglo saxon visitors such as myself, who transplant for a time from more progressive countries on missionary or humanitarian efforts. 

To demonstrate my point, a brief story. I attended a lively community dance in developing El Cercado, a poor inland region of the Dominican Republic. Many different local men asked me to join them on the dance floor, continuously, one after another for the entire night. I was beat by the end and had so much fun! Being taken by their initiative and interest in partnering with me despite my clear lack of knowledge of the Bachata, it was explained to me that in Dominican culture it is “the man’s job to make sure the woman is having fun.” It would be considered rude to leave a woman sitting without a partner, and if she didn’t enjoy herself it would be the collective fault of the men around her. 

I had never heard such a thing in all my life as an American who has attended very many weddings and parties without a dance partner, and seldom asked to dance by one man in the room let alone an endless line of strangers! There was something so tangibly easy and uncomplicated about the formula they all subscribed to in an unspoken way. I’m sure something that helped was my ignorance of the steps, so that I had no inclination to compete but was instead happy to follow their lead, which was in every case pronounced and unique. 

To the point of whether or not women are meant to have more “leadership” roles in the Catholic Church, my inclination is that we may be asking the wrong question from a place of overcorrection in response to the un-Christian practices of some cultures throughout history which have not respected women. From the beginning, Christ Himself elevated the role of women in 1st Century Israeli society by demanding they be treated with dignity in each His public teachings, including them in the evangelization efforts of the first apostles, giving them privileged roles in His own personal life, and assuming one into Heaven body and soul as no other human being ever has been. The highest saint in Heaven is unarguably a woman. It was through a Woman that God chose to become incarnate. Women were entrusted with the preparation of God’s body after crucifixion, and the discovery of His body in the Resurrection. Women have been entrusted with the divine mystery of bringing forth life into this world as men can never do. Today, women in America hold every position of leadership in the Church that can be held outside of ordained ministry, which was clearly reserved by Christ for men configured uniquely to His physical image.

Perhaps, those of us women who still insist on asking the question “Why doesn’t the church step into the 21st Century with roles for us?” need to be countered with this question: “Why doesn’t the 21st Century woman step into God’s plan for her, though it is different from the man’s?” Is it perhaps because we have devalued our own unique role so severely that we are displeased with it unless it is more masculinized? If we spent more time emphasizing the precious value, unique strengths and gifts of women, and less time comparing it with the precious value of men, perhaps we would feel less at odds with the differences between them. They are intentionally different. The Divine Mind made it so. 

The beautiful truth which we keep avoiding as Americans is that we are meant to be helpful to one another as two partners in a beautiful dance. We are helpful because we are different, moving in cooperation and not competition – stepping back and forth not at the same time. The more we resist acknowledging the dignity in our differences as women, the less happy we will be and the less time we’ll have to delight in the dance that God wants us to enjoy! God has always had a special role for women in His plan for humanity. It is time we take pride in it once again, as male and female saints throughout our Church’s history have always done, to no detriment of the other.

Thomas Griffin is the chairperson of the religion department at a Catholic high school on Long Island where he lives with his wife and son. He has a masters degree in theology and is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Empty Tomb Project: The Magazine. He writes for several media outlets.

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