NOTRE DAME, Ind. — The church needs the voices of women wherever important decisions are made — and it needs their voices now more than ever, speakers said during the three-day Women of the Church Conference.
The national conference, held Oct. 18 to 20 at St. Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Ind., drew 150 women of all ages — from college students to elderly religious — and a handful of supportive men.
The sexual abuse crisis and its cover-up by bishops has hobbled the church, said Kim Daniels during an Oct. 19 panel discussion on promoting women in church leadership positions. Daniels is the associate director of Georgetown University’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life.
“Catholic women have credibility in spades,” Daniels said. “We need to use that credibility to recover our voice in the public square” and elsewhere.
Daniels, who also is a member of the Vatican’s dicastery for communication and a consultant to the U.S. bishops on religious liberty, described herself as “right of center.” Promoting women in church leadership transcends right and left — “It’s something people agree on across lines,” she said.
Daniels and several other speakers also emphasized the need to encourage and form young women to become church leaders.
Kerry Robinson, founding executive director of Leadership Roundtable and a keynote speaker at the conference, said young women must feel welcomed and see examples of female leadership in the church, if the church hopes to retain them.
Robinson said it’s hard to be Catholic right now, noting that the church “has ennobled me and at times broken my heart.”
She encouraged conference participants to consider why they remain Catholic.
“What do you love and value about your faith?” she asked them.
She noted that Leadership Roundtable, a network of senior leaders in the church, believes the perspectives of lay leaders, especially women and other marginalized people, are important for good decision making.
“Diversity matters; who is at the decision-making table matters,” she said, adding that studies have shown better decisions are made when there are diverse viewpoints.
Another keynote speaker, Dr. Cecilia González-Andrieu, offered an impassioned presentation on what she called the broken, wounded and charred Catholic Church. Her talk was titled “#MineToo.”
Whether it’s a “perfect storm” or a “dumpster fire” engulfing the church — both phrases she deemed inadequate — the church is nevertheless a mess, said González-Andrieu, an associate professor of theology at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.
People on the margins — such as people in poverty and indigenous people — have the gift of “clear-eyed perspective,” she said.
“The poor of the world can see most clearly what is wrong because they are close to the ground … and rely on God and each other,” she noted.
Women, she said, should align themselves with them, to “immerse yourself in la realidad (the reality) of the powerless,” she said.
She also called on women to “imagine expansively” to change structures that enabled the church to be corrupted.
But in doing so, she said, act with the power of love, not with the power of the world.
“Reach for Christ so it’s his power,” González-Andrieu said. All this effort should ultimately aim toward the “reign of God,” she added.
Joan Rosenhauer, executive director of Jesuit Refugee Service USA, also delivered a keynote address, noting that women already hold some leadership positions in the church.
Women are theology teachers and preachers, they lead social service and healthcare organizations, they are presidents of colleges and universities and lead critical diocesan ministries, as well as parishes in some dioceses.
“There are parishes that would hardly function without women,” Rosenhauer said, adding it’s important to “honor the already highly effective ministry women do in the church.”
“We cannot let our impact be diminished,” she told her listeners, which included educators, journalists, parish workers and social workers. “We need to own and lift up our place in the church.”
She also highlighted the role clericalism has played in what she called the church’s “unimaginable failure in leadership” during the abuse crisis.
Clericalism, she said citing Pope Francis, “confuses priestly service with priests’ power. What’s lost is servant leadership.”
“We should be a model of service,” Rosenhauer said. “We need to reform ourselves on the values of our faith.”
Among the conference participants were a dozen people from the Archdiocese of Louisville, including lay women, women religious and a priest who promotes lay ecclesial ministry, Father Joseph Merkt.
Jane Cruthirds, a theology teacher at Sacred Heart Academy, asked the presenters several questions during the conference aimed at helping her as a teacher of young women.
“It was important for me to attend the Women of the Church Conference to hear from female theologians and church leaders,” she said after the conference. “I have a renewed image of the church that values the wisdom of women as much as it loves and honors Mary, Our Mother.”
She also noted that she gained “an expanded theological network to lean into when devising units for my students on topics such as sacraments, morality and Christology.”
This is the second gathering of the Women of the Church leadership conference. The first was held in 2016 at Monastery Immaculate Conception in Ferdinand, Ind. It was co-sponsored that year by the Sisters of St. Benedict of Ferdinand and St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology.
The conference was created in response to Pope Francis’ call for a “more incisive female presence” in the church in his 2013 apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel.”
This year’s organizers include the Sisters of the Holy Cross and St. Mary’s College, as well as several others.