The Church has made things very difficult for women. Publicly, women are denied ordination and positions of authority and power in virtually every area of Church life, whether at the parish or curial level. Privately, the Church has denied women the right to make decisions regarding sexual, marital, and maternal issues as matters of conscience. In consequence, many women have left in protest, but, despite this, women still make up more than half of the Church’s members. In parishes across America, women are the backbone of liturgical, educational, and charitable work that defines the face of the Church to its members. Besides that, women are most often the administrators of parish offices and schools. It is obvious that women’s participation, particularly at the parish level, is fundamental and foundational to the survival of the Church as we know it.
On a theological level, women, both lay and professed, have made great strides in reclaiming the early history of women’s contributions to the Church, and integrating this heritage into a new vision for women in the Church. Premiere among them is Elizabeth Johnson, a professed nun who authored Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God (2007), a well-received and academically esteemed volume that examines notions of God across the centuries in many cultures and religions. In 2011, Johnson was rewarded for her efforts by the doctrinal committee of the United States Council of Catholic Bishops with an official rebuke that questioned her loyalty to official Church teaching. Catholic theologians across the country roundly criticized this attempt to embarrass and demean one of their own.
In the face of clerical and hierarchical absolutism regarding the role of women, how much longer will empowered and educated Catholic women tolerate this inequity that strangles their perceived gifts for sacramental service and diminishes their right of conscience? The answer is not yet clear, but hopefully its resolution will be on Pope Francis’ agenda.