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A Psychological Investigation of 100 women who feel called to the Priesthood in the Catholic Church

A Psychological Investigation of 100 women who feel called to the Priesthood in the Catholic Church

Chapter 4. Who are the Women?

from Called to Break Bread? by Fran Ferder. 1978.

Study sponsored by: Priests for Equality and the Quixote Centre both at
3311 Chauncey Place, #301
Mt Rainer, MD, 20822.

The l00 women studied ranged in age from 17 to 59. Their average age was 36. Almost all of the women, 95%, described their health as good or excellent. Interview reports indicated that the interviewers experienced many of the women in the study as physically attractive. Interviewers used terms such as “attractive,” “pretty,”striking," and “beautiful in their descriptions of 52% of the women studied. No mention of physical appearance was made for 8% of the women, while 31% were described as “plain,” “neat,” “average,” or “pleasant.” Descriptions such as “unpleasant,” “unattractive,” and “overweight” were given to 9% of those interviewed. The women who feel called to ordination are feminine. They do not, as a group, give the appearance of masculinized women. Interviewers referred to 47% of the women as “feminine” in appearance; described 8% of them as “masculine”; and used no gender adjectives for the remaining 45%.

The dress or attire of the subjects also received commentary by the interviewers. Terms such as “tasteful,” ”fashionable,» or “professional” characterized the attire of 37% of the women; while 42% dressed “casually” for the interview session. Only 2% were identified as attired “inappropriately” or “ill--kempt.” Another 2% were described as “nunnish” in dress. No descriptions were noted for the remaining 17%.

Women who feel called to priesthood experience this call in all walks of life. They were distributed according to status as follows:

Members of religious communities.. 72%
Single............................................ 21%
Married......................................... 5%
Divorced....................................... 2%

These women report that their experience of a call to ordained ministry is not a recent phenomenon. Nearly one-fourth of them have felt called to priesthood for more than 10 years. This fact alone suggests that the call expeienced by many women is not a fad--induced response. The graph below shows the length of time that all of the women studied have desired ordination:

1- 3 years.................... 32%
3 - 5 years................... 22%
5 - l0 years.................. 17%
more than l0 years....... 22%

Information about nationality reveals that the largest percentage of the women studied are of Irish or mixed Irish heritage. Those of German or mixed German decent comprised the second largest category, with those of French, English, Polish, Scotch, and Canadian backgrounds showing progressively smaller representation. The graph below illustrates the data on nationality. In most cases, the dominant nationality was used for the statistics on background. However, in some cases, the dominant nationality was not identified as such by the subject, or equal proportions of more than one nationality were listed. In those cases, both, (or all), were used for statistics, resulting in proportions which exceed 100%:

Irish ............ 30%
German........ 22%
French......... 11%
English......... 8%
Polish........... 6%
Scotch......... 5%
Canadian..... 5%
Italian........... 3%
Swedish....... 2%
Hungarian.... 2%
Welsh.......... 2%
Norwegian... 2%
Cuban.......... 2%
Russian........ 1%
Chech.......... 1%
Dutch........... 1%
Greek.......... 1%
Bohemian..... 1%

The family size of those studied represents a great deal of variety. Subjects ranged from being only children to being one among twelve siblings. The average number of children in the families of the l00 women studied was 4.4. Subjects thus averaged 3 to 4 brothers and sisters. With regard to birth order, 44% ofthe women in the sample were first--born. The research on birth order suggests that first--born children are often more assertive, more independent, and have a greater sense of responsibility than children born later. Leaders are often first--born members of their families.

Only 15% of the women in the sample were last--born, or youngest members of their families, while 5% were middle children. Another 5% were only children. The remaining 31% of the subjects occupied other positions of birth order, with half of these (15%) being second-born in families larger than three children. Middle children are not seen in positions of leadership as frequently as are first-borns. Further, youngest children and only children are not seen in service-oriented positions as frequently as are first-borns. These research findings (McClelland & Steele, 1973), support the evidence that women who feel called to ordination, 44% of whom are first--born, are motivated by a sense of responsibility and a desire to serve.

As a group, the women who wish to be priests are highly educated. Masters degrees are held by 72% of them, and another 5% hold doctorates. Those having a bachelors degree only, numbered 6%, and another 7% are pursuing a bachelors degree. Associate degrees or certificates have been earned by 8% of the women studied. Only 2% of the sample did not hold, nor were they pursuing, a bachelors degree. Because intelligence is a necessary prerequisite for the attainment of an advanced degree, such as a Masters or Doctorate, the assumption can be made that the women who are seeking ordination are an intelligent group of individuals, who have high levels of motivation to pursue goals and attain educational objectives.

The specialty areas for the degrees currently held by the women in the study are shown below:

    Specialty Area  
Bachelors degree only ............. 6% Religious Studies............. 3%
    Education....................... 2%
    Social Sciences............... 1%
       
Masters degree(s)................... 72% Theology.......................... 16
  Education, Languages....... 13
  Religious Education.......... 12
  Divinity............................ 6
  Psychogy/Counseling........ 5
  Pastoral Studies............... 4
  Science............................ 4
  Art................................... 4
  Scripture.......................... 3
  Liturgy............................. 2
  Health Services................ 1
  Music............................... 1
  Philosophy....................... 1
       
Doctorate................................ 5% Philosophy........................ 2
  Languages........................ 2
  Mathematics..................... 1
     
Associate degrees, certificates.. 8% Religious Education........... 4
    Health, Human Service..... 3
Business........................... 1

Slightly over half of the women in the sample (58%) are actively working toward degrees other than those already obtained. As mentioned in previous statistics, 7% (5 of whom are under 22 years of age) are working toward completion of a bachelors degree. Another 30% of the women are pursuing either a first or second masters degree. Doctorates are currently being sought by 11%, while 3% are studying for associate degrees, or simply taking a program of studies not directed toward the granting of a degree. Of those studying, 18% are full-time students and the remaining 33% are working toward their degree on a part-time basis.

The areas of study currency being undertaken by those women who are seeking ordination include:

    Specialty Area  
Bachelors degree..... 7% Liberal Arts...................... 4
    Religious Education........... 3
       
Masters degree(s).... 36% Divinity............................. 14
    Theology...........................
    Religious Education............ 7
    Scripture........................... 2
    Counseling........................ 2
    English/History................... 2
    Psychology........................ 1
       
Doctorate................ 11% Theology........................... 7
    Ministry............................. 3
    Clinical Psychology............ 1
       
Associate degree..... 3% Liberal Arts........................ 2
Health Services.................. 1

On basic data survey, the women in the sample listed 33 different occupations or positions currently held. Because many of these were quite similar in nature, they have been grouped into major categories. As can be noted, well over half (66%) of the women who feel called to priesthood are currently involved in positions of direct religious ministry. “Direct religious ministry” is a term given to all of those positions involving the delivery of services that are identified by their titles as religious in nature; those which are commissioned by a parish, diocese, retreat house, religious community, or other religious organization.

The listing of occupations held by the women in the study further reveals the presence of a great deal of leadership skill among them. Exactly one-third of those studied currently hold administrative or leadership positions in parishes, dioceses, educational institutions, or their own religious communities.

Positions Currently Held
Students (full time)..................................... 18%
Teaching (other than religious areas)........... 16%
Housewife/mother...................................... 2%
Administration (secular position)................. 3%
Administration (Direct religious services)..... 30%
......Catholic Education (4%)
......Parish (14%)
......Diocese (6%)
......Religious Community (6%)
Staff for direct religious services................. 31%
......Parish (25%)  
......Counseling/therapy/retreat (4%)  
......Education (Catholic) (2%)  

The schools in which the members of the sample were educated were predominantly Catholic/parochial. One-fourth of the women (26%) were educated exclusively in Catholic schools and colleges throughout the entire period of their formal education. Another 65%, representing nearly two thirds of the sample, were educated in all three types of institutions of learning, attending public, private (non-Catholic), and Catholic/parochial schools at different times in their lives. Only 9% of the samples were educated exclusively in public institutions.

Most of the women called to priesthood were born into Catholicism (91%). The remaining 9% identified themselves as converts to the Catholic faith.

All of the women in the study were surveyed with regard to the persons, activities, and publications which have influenced their lives. When asked which three women in the world have served as important models for them, 164 different women were mentioned as models by the group as a whole. Most frequently mentioned as an important model for those seeking ordination was Dorothy Day. One-fourth of those interviewed experience her as an influential figure in their lives. Slightly less than one-fourth of the sample reported that their own mothers have served as important models for them. Listed as third and fourth in order of influence respectively were Mother Theresa of Calcutta and the Blessed Virgin Mary. Those women-models listed by more than two subjects are listed below in the order of frequency mentioned:

Dorothy Day......................... 26%
Mothers................................ 18%
Mother Theresa of Calcutta... 11%
Blessed Virgin Mary.............. 10%
Theresa of Avila.................... 8%
Margaret Farley, RSM.......... 8%
Teachers............................... 8%
Elizabeth Carroll, RSM......... 7%
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross........... 6%
Catherine of Siena................. 6%
Marjorie Tuite....................... 6%
Grandmothers....................... 5%
Marie Augusta Neal.............. 5%
Barbara Jordan..................... 4%
Elizabeth Seton..................... 4%
Francis Borgia, OSF............. 3%

The different authors listed as important and influential by the women studied numbered 191. Interview results revealed that Sacred Scripture is read regularly by almost all of the women seeking ordination and is regarded by them as a most important written source of influence. Other than the Bible, the subjects reported that Henri Nouwen's books are favored. Teilhard de Chardin was identified as the second most influential author and Karl Rahner was third. A listing of the favorite authors of the women seeking ordination follows. Those authors are listed which were identified by five or more women. They appear in order of frequency mentioned:

Henri Nouwen...................... 21%
Teilhard de Chardin............... 19%
Karl Rahner.......................... 17%
Thomas Merton.................... 10%
Hans Kung............................ 9%
Theresa of Avila.................... 7%
Gregory Baum...................... 7%
Rosemary Radford-Ruether... 7%
Eugene Kennedy................... 6%
Raymond Brown................... 5%
James Carroll........................ 5%
John Powell.......................... 5%
Anthony Padovano................ 5%

The women in the sample report that they read “most” or “occasional” issues of many regular publications and periodicals. The NCR appears to be the most popular of these, with most of its issues read by over three-fourths of the women (80%). About half of them read most issues of their diocesan newspapers, and one-fourth read most issues of both America Magazine and Network publications. A listing of common publications read by the women seeking ordination follows:

Publication Read most issues Read occasional issues Never read
NCR.................................... 80% 18% 2%
Diocesan paper.................... 50% 48% 2%
America............................... 25% 65% 10%
Network(& other Peace and Justice publications).............. 24% 54% 22%
Review for Religious............. 22% 58% 20%
Critic.................................... 17% 73% 10%
Theological Studies............... 16% 64% 20%
MS...................................... 13% 51% 36%
Theology Digest ................... 12% 53% 35%
Commonweal....................... 12% 76% 12%
The Way.............................. 7% 41% 52%
Cross Currents..................... 6% 65% 29%
Bible Today.......................... 4% 61% 35%
New Woman........................ 3% 8% 89%
Catholic Mind....................... 1% 46% 53%

A final survey given to all l00 women in the sample examined the degree to which a series of common activities and religious experiences was important to the spiritual and personal fulfillment of each. Daily private prayer was identified by the largest percentage of the women as “very valuable” (87%). Reading scripture regularly and involvement in small group discussions of spiritual concerns were second and third respectively. That activity which was lowest on the list of valued involvements among women who seek ordination was participation in charismatic prayer groups. Approximately 60% of the women either do not participate at all in such groups, or they identified them as having little value for them. Only 10% of those seeking ordination listed involvement in charismatic prayer groups as ”very valuable.”

Overview Signs of a Vocation A woman's journey Steps to take Answering critics Writing your story
Six options for Catholic women who feel called to the priesthood?

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