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“America” magazine’s survey of women in the Church

An intriguing finding of the survey is that most Catholic women consider the care for the poor and the Eucharist as the two most essential elements of Catholic life.

(zwiebackesser/us.fotolia.com)

Last month, America magazine published a fascinating survey regarding the attitudes of women in the Church. They were kind enough to publish a few of my reactions to the study, but I would like, in this article, to offer a fuller response to their findings.

One of the most disturbing conclusions from the survey is that women are increasingly disengaging from the life of the Church. The America editors themselves observed that this does not bode well for evangelization, for women have traditionally played a crucial role in the passing on of the faith. I couldn’t agree more. Hans Urs von Balthasar famously opined that Jesus’ own faith and sense of identity (at the level of his human nature) was awakened by the smile of his mother and by her relaying of the story of Israel. I have always taken this as emblematic of the indispensable contribution of mothers to the religious formation of their children. That said, I am equally concerned about the massive attrition of men from the practice of the faith, for study after study have indicated that the fidelity of fathers and grandfathers has a disproportionately significant impact on the faith-development of children, both male and female.

A second finding of the study is that women feel the Church should do more to welcome unmarried parents, the divorced, the widowed, and singles. Once again, I strongly concur. I’m a great devotee of the Catholic Action model that was so prevalent in the period prior to Vatican II but which has largely fallen into desuetude in the last forty or fifty years. In line with Catholic Action instincts, we ought to gather people of similar backgrounds, experiences, and formation and teach them the method of “see, judge, and act.” So yes, parishes could bring together single mothers, widows, etc., and invite them to look at their lives in light of the Gospel and to determine, on that basis, what ought to be done. It is indeed true that, too often, parish life revolves almost exclusively around the concerns and interests of married people and their families. This can and should change.

A third conclusion of the survey I will admit I find a bit puzzling. Only 18% of the women questioned feel that they are “very much involved in decision-making.” Now I fully understand that, given the hierarchical structure of the Church, the final call in most matters belongs to the pastor or the bishop; nevertheless, in my experience in two major Archdioceses, Chicago and Los Angeles, women are rather massively involved in the process of decision-making. Parish staffs and leadership teams are predominantly female, and increasingly, chancery offices and pastoral centers have ample female representation. And this is not simply my subjective impression. I distinctly recall a study by the theologian Catharine LaCugna, which appeared twenty-five years ago in the pages of America. She reported that 80% of religious education instructors and sponsors for the catechumenate are women; that 75% of Bible study leaders and participants are female; that 80% of those who join prayer groups are women; and that 70% of those who are active in parish renewal programs are female. I can’t help but speculate that those numbers have only increased in the last quarter century. And mind you, I enthusiastically applaud this development, which has only enriched the life of the Church.

An intriguing finding of the survey is that most Catholic women consider the care for the poor and the Eucharist as the two most essential elements of Catholic life. Well, Pope Benedict XVI said that the Church has three essential tasks: it worships God, it evangelizes, and it cares for the poor. So my first response to this statistical finding is, “two out of three ain’t bad.” The Eucharist is indeed the central act of worship, the “source and summit of the Christian life,” and serving the poor is the moral commitment that flows most directly from rightly ordered worship. However, I must say that I do worry that the women surveyed didn’t seem to put evangelization on an equal footing, especially now when so many are drifting into the ranks of the “nones.” I also remark a certain cognitive dissonance. On the one hand large numbers of women say that the Eucharist is central to one’s identity as a Catholic, and yet 75% of women stay away from the Mass on a regular basis. The Fathers of Vatican II wanted “full, conscious, and active” participation in the liturgy. This survey confirms what a thousand other surveys over the past five decades have indicated, namely, that we are a long, long way from realizing that conciliar aspiration.

I must say that what both surprised and heartened me the most was the discovery that fully 90% of the women surveyed say that they have not experienced sexism in the Catholic Church. Obviously, any type of sexism at any time is bad, but I wonder whether any other organization could put up numbers as good as these. Would 90% of women in the corporate world, in Hollywood, in government, or in education say that they never experienced sexism? I sincerely doubt it. I think that these numbers indicate that, though we still have a lot to do to address the problems of sexism and misogyny in the Church, we have indeed made a good deal of progress.

About Bishop Robert Barron 131 Articles
Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. He is the creator of the award winning documentary series, "Catholicism" and "Catholicism:The New Evangelization." Learn more at www.WordonFire.org.

14 Comments

  1. “I must say that what both surprised and heartened me the most was the discovery that fully 90% of the women surveyed say that they have not experienced sexism in the Catholic Church. ”

    How is sexism being defined? According to feminist standards? Because if that is the case, then it is no surprise that women do not find the Catholic Church sexist, even if Holy Orders is not available to them. They are able to have positions of authority and influence in every other respect, and this is the thing — this is not good for the health of the local Church. That Bishop Barron thinks this is a laudable development shows how in touch our bishops are with community and the exercise of authority and what sociosexual dynamics are really like. Rather, they are bureaucrats accustomed to institutionalized practices.

    Is it the case that now that they have it all, and a feminized liturgy, they are still discontent? Perhaps. One wonders who was canvassed for a survey published by America magazine.

    ” The America editors themselves observed that this does not bode well for evangelization, for women have traditionally played a crucial role in the passing on of the faith.”

    But an even more crucial role is to be played by the father, who has been deliberately marginalized by the state.

    As for the care of the poor and taking care of those who are being “marginalized” by the institution, well, community-making is primarily the prerogative of men, who vet and integrate other men (and their families) into the community — women play a support role, they do not guard the perimeter. Of course, what do Catholics living in large population centers and receiving sacraments at mega-parishes know about real community? Very little or nothing.

  2. What comes to mind is a statement attributed to St. John Paul II: “The most effective form of evangelization is personal holiness”. If women are actively engaged with love and adoration of Christ in the Eucharist and with love and care for the poor, I think evangelization naturally follows.

  3. Why should Bishop Barron be surprised that Catholic people, women now themselves following men in the great wrong turn of the “ contemporary Church,” don’t care about the Gospel and leave the Church?

    This happens because the Catholic leadership itself teaches them, in high school, colleges and seminaries, as Cardinal Kasper teaches (his book “Jesus the Christ,” 1974, pp 90-91) that the Gospel is full of “legends.”

    Doesn’t Bishop Barron knows that Cardinal Kasper teaches our people to disbelieve?

    A church is stupid when it teaches its children on Monday that the Gospels are legends, and then proclaims a “New Evangelization” on Tuesday as theatrics for the parents.

    That is our Church right now, the Church of Kasper, who is the praises “theologian” of the destructive Pope Francis.

    It is the spawn of the cult of America magazine.

  4. The good Bishop seems overly concerned with perceptions and surveys. He should be concerned that a large majority of catholic women and men have no more or less than an 8th grade education in the faith and do not believe that the Church is Teaching Truth.
    A careful examination of how Humanae Vitae has not be taught, and how picking and choosing teachings as if they were mere teachings of men has been taught as acceptable, would reveal the real problems.

  5. This morning I saw a clip of Chris Stefanick’s new RISE UP! men’s renewal series. His work, that of Matthew Kelly, and Steve Bollman to name but a few is a response to men’s fading from view in church life in general. I worked in adult and family ministry for over 30 years, trying to implement St. John Paul’s Exhortation Familiaris consortio, esp. nos. 65 – 71. I can tell you that unless and until bishops and pastors follow his prescription to accompany couples through their life cycle, many of the problems cited – lukewarmness of spirit, faint faith, and weak knowledge, will continue. Though marriage preparation has improved in many parishes from the old one-day Pre Cana model, we underwhelm couples at infant baptism, they drop out and drop off their children for their next 3 sacraments. This is their life cycle, the very years when many couples can drift apart allowing their children’s activities to fracture solidarity. Are parish leaders not colluding with this secularization of faith? But it is the VERY time couples and their families need to grow in health, happiness, and holiness. The few men I’ve met who’ve broken through, because of one of these men’s programs, an ACTS or Christ Renews His Parish retreat or other wake-up call, all say they wish they’d been evangelized sooner. St. John Paul gave the Church a template in 1981. 35 years later we have the second, even more contentious, Synod on the Family. I pray somehow, some time, some way the holy Spirit might inspire our chief pastors to take long term, strategic action on behalf of marriage. Both conjugal and celibate vocations would benefit, and the Church can be strengthened, renewed, and send “credible witnesses” to mirror the Gospel of mercy and redemption. Most likely, parish ministry structure would have to be modified. Difficult but not impossible. Meanwhile, the father of lies continues to “evangelize” couples and children daily on screens in hours that far outnumber the hours they spend weekly in worship or faith formation while the church continues to try harder in our programs or the bishops publish documents/statements decrying the latest assault on life, marriage, family, etc. but do nothing. I would love to ask St. John Paul what he thinks of that!

    • Kudos to Charlie’s analysis.
      An old lady and admirer of Bishop Barron, I am disappointed in his take that issues of sexuality have been to big a focus the last 50 years.The fallout of women and men is even greater than surveyed. Some contend, me included, that the beauty of an authentic theology of sexuality and marriage has been given almost no catchesis since Humane Vitae. When, by many surveys, greater than 80% of childbearing age Catholic women are contracepting or sterilized it is obvious the beauty of chastity has not been preached.The American Bishops, for the most part, have abandoned laity, especially women, who have been frustrated in their efforts to promote chastity, in and outside of marriage. Bishop Barron misses the opportunity to include the Catholic understanding of chastity and sacramental marriage in his belief that people are attracted to the “beautiful.” Women are naturally attracted to beauty in the faith but there is nothing beautiful in contraception, men addicted to porn, fatherless homes because the truth and beauty of God’s plan for married love is rarely articulated from the pulpit. Would that every Bishop would lead his priests to preach the goodness and beauty of the theology of the body and give hope, consolation, and support to women, young, mature, married or unmarried.
      I pray daily for the Jesuit priest who catechised and evangelized me on the truth and beauty of Humane Vitae 50 years ago. I often wonder how many priests have read it or who could teach, preach, or counsel on the beauty of this teaching.

  6. ‘It is indeed true
    that, too often, parish life revolves
    almost exclusively around the concerns and interests of married
    people and their families. This can
    and should change.’ Amen to that. My late husband and I had no children and I always jokingly referred to myself using that sad biblical term ‘barren’ (no pun intended). Honestly, I always felt a little lost or overshadowed by the ‘fruitful’. Now, as a widow, I am really struggling to find my place in our beautiful Church. I just have these visions of myself in widow’s weeds being the professional mourner like at an old-style Italian funeral…

  7. I wasn’t surprised when I read that Bishop Barron wrote a review of this worthless magazine called inappropriately “America.” This is the same Jesuit magazine with the editor James Martin, the homosexualist priest and not surprisingly, a Jesuit. Barron you many also remember was interviewed by the homosexual jew, Rubin. And, when asked about the law allowing homosexuals to marry, said that he didn’t think that the law should be rescinded.

  8. “That said, I am equally concerned about the massive attrition of men from the practice of the faith, for study after study have indicated that the fidelity of fathers and grandfathers has a disproportionately significant impact on the faith-development of children, both male and female.”

    I should have added that when Latin church life is so heavily feminized and the average Sunday Mass serves exaggerated emotion, men will be repelled.

  9. As a woman, I do find the Eucharist the most important thing in our Church as it has been central to the Church since the beginning. One would not really know that though based upon the lack of reverence, the proliferation of the extraordinary ministers, the inappropriate dress and lack of formation of the members of the Church. People follow their leaders and we are in short supply. We are losing so much in our Church by those within it who are actively trying to destroy it and that goes up to the highest office. It certainly encompasses America magazine and the Jesuits. If you want people to return to the Mass and become active in evangelization, you need to restore the Mass and you need to start teaching the faith. Yes, the Bishops.

  10. Sexism was a word never used when my Mother raised us in the church. Perhaps, she was afraid to mention the word sex or she remained in the sexism gender closet.

    Mom’s mother Being from Ireland she loved the church. She took most in stride and continued her sexism duties of cleaning the altar linen. Sexism stepped in again when she was restricted form retrieving the cloth, as an altar boy, I occasionally retrieved them for her. In all of recorded history women were the strongest emotionally and the least appreciated sex.

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