Can Catholic Women Fix the Church?

Many other Catholic women, though, are questioning why they cannot take greater leadership positions in the Church. Some suggest that if the Church were less paternalistic, much of the sex abuse problem may have been avoided altogether, or at least handled better.

"I think the church is making a huge mistake in leaving women out of the picture," Rea Howarth, coordinator of Catholics Speak Out, said. "It's an apartheid of gender. It's really rooted in ancient attitudes that women are basically subhuman."

Although women cannot be ordained, a recent study by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the national organization that represents more than 1,000 elected leaders of U.S. Catholic sisters, shows how religious sisters and other Catholic women wield clout in other ways in the Church.

Women indeed make high-level executive decisions for the Catholic Church affecting its personnel, property and policies, the four-year study found, in positions such as chancellors, tribunal judges, diocesan finance directors, directors of Catholic Charities, vicars and pastoral directors.

The discussion of women's power in the Church should expand beyond ordination, said Sister Kathleen Pruitt, president of the Leadership Conference.

"When we focus on just ordination, we miss the overall dialogue of how do we look at the whole range of gifts of men and women and the freeing up of those gifts into the service of the Church," Pruitt said. "In the context of that discussion, the issue of ordination or non-ordained ministry [for women or married men] would in effect be on the table for discussion."

Nonetheless, the Leadership Conference recently has expressed to church leaders the importance of incorporating women into the discussions about any reforms in light of the sex abuse scandal.

Different Voices at the Table

"Women bring a different voice to the table," Pruitt said. "We must be heard."

The Leadership Conference has also been invited in an "observer" role to the U.S. bishops' June meeting in Dallas — where the Church's handling of the sex abuse scandal is expected to be a major topic.

Still, for some Catholic women, their current possibilities for leadership positions are not enough.

Some say women do most of the "grunt" work in the Church but don't share enough in the major decision-making. Allowing women to be ordained would be a symbolic nod to gender equality and an assurance that women's voices are heard, some say.

"Without women the church would be in a mess," said Judy Courtien, 48, a religion teacher in Alexandria, Va. "They're stuck in neutral and don't want go forward. It's fine to draw lines and say these are the rules, but things change."

Although the Catholic Church is not a democracy, some Catholic women activists say women can force change. One way is to withhold donations unless demands about women's roles are met, Howarth said.

"You rule by the consent of the governed," she said. "If people decide they're going to be responsible donors, they're going to essentially say 'no we're not settling for that.' It will change."

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