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Women's participation in the life and mission of the Church, from Christifideles Laici.

Women's participation in the life and mission of the Church

from Christifideles Laici,

The vocation and the Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and the World
Post-Synodal Apostalic Exhortation of His Holiness John Paul II, 1988, #49-52

Women and Men

49. The Synod Fathers gave special attention to the status and role of women, with two purposes in mind: to themselves acknowledge and to invite all others to once again acknowledge the indispensable contribution of women to the building up of the Church and the development of society. They wished as well to work on a more specific analysis of women's participation in the life and mission of the Church.

Making reference to Pope John XXIII, who saw women’s greater consciousness of their proper dignity and their entrance into public life as signs of our times,(176) the Synod Fathers, when confronted with the various forms of discrimination and marginalization to which women are subjected simply because they are women, time and time again strongly affirmed the urgency to defend and to promote the personal dignity of women, and consequently her equality with man.

If anyone has this task of advancing the dignity of women in the Church and society, it is women themselves who must recognize their responsibility as leading characters. There is still much effort to be done in many parts of the world and in various surroundings to destroy that unjust and deleterious mentality which considers the human being as a thing, as an object to buy and sell, as an instrument for selfish interests or for pleasure only. Women themselves, for the most part, are the prime victims of such a mentality. Only through openly acknowledging the personal dignity of women is the first step taken to promote the full participation of women in Church life as well as in social and public life. A more extensive and decisive response must be given to the demands made in the Exhortation Familiaris Consortio concerning the many discriminations of which women are the victims: “Vigorous and incisive pastoral action must be taken by all to overcome completely these forms of discrimination so that the image of God that shines in all human beings without exception may be fully respected.”(177) Along the same lines, the Synod Fathers stated: “As an expression of her mission, the Church must stand firmly against all forms of discrimination and abuse of women.”(178) And again: “The dignity of women, gravely wounded in public esteem, must be restored through effective respect for the rights of the human person and by putting the teaching of the Church into practice.”(179)

In particular when speaking of active and responsible participation in the life and mission of the Church, emphasis should be placed on what has already been stated and clearly urged by the Second Vatican Council: “Since in our days women are taking an increasingly active share in the whole life of society, it is very important that they participate more widely also in the various fields of the Church’s apostolate.”(180)

The awareness that women with their own gifts and tasks have their own specific vocation, has increased and been deepened in the years following the Council and has found its fundamental inspiration in the Gospel and the Church’s history. In fact, for the believer, the Gospel - namely, the word and example of Jesus Christ - remains the necessary and decisive point of reference. In no other moment in history is this fact more fruitful and innovative.

Though not called to the apostolate of the Twelve, and thereby to the ministerial priesthood, many women nevertheless accompanied Jesus in his ministry and assisted the group of Apostles (cf. Lk 8:2-3); were present at the foot of the Cross (cf. Lk 23:49); assisted at the burial of Christ (cf. Lk 23:55); received and transmitted the message of resurrection on Easter morn (cf. Lk 24:1-10); and prayed with the Apostles in the Cenacle awaiting Pentecost (cf. Acts 1:14).

From the evidence of the Gospel, the Church at its origin detached herself from the culture of the time and called women to tasks connected with spreading the Gospel. In his letters the Apostle Paul even cites by name a great number of women for their various functions in service of the primitive Christian community (cf. Rom 16:1-15; Phil 4:2-3; Col 4:15 and 1 Cor 11:5; 1 Tim 5:16). “If the witness of the Apostles founds the Church,” stated Paul VI, “the witness of women contributes greatly towards nourishing the faith of Christian communities.”(181)

Both in her earliest days and in her successive development, the Church, albeit in different ways and with diverse emphases, has always known women who have exercised an oftentimes decisive role in the Church herself and accomplished tasks of considerable value on her behalf. History is marked by grand works, quite often lowly and hidden, but not for this reason any less decisive to the growth and the holiness of the Church. It is necessary that this history continue, indeed that it be expanded and intensified in the face of the growing and widespread awareness of the personal dignity of woman and her vocation, particularly in light of the urgency of a “re-evangelization” and a major effort towards humanizing social relations.

Gathering together the pronouncements of the Second Vatican Council which reflect the Gospel’s message and the Church’s history, the Synod Fathers formulated, among others, this precise “recommendation”: “It is necessary that the Church recognize all the gifts of men and women for her life and mission, and put them into practice.”(182) And again, “This Synod proclaims that the Church seeks the recognition and use of all the gifts, experiences and talents of men and women to make her mission effective (cf. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation, 72).”(183)

Anthropological & Theological Foundations

50. The condition that will assure the rightful presence of woman in the Church and in society is a more penetrating and accurate consideration of the anthropological foundation for masculinity and femininity with the intent of clarifying woman’s personal identity in relation to man, that is, a diversity yet mutual complementarity, not only as it concerns roles to be held and functions to be performed, but also, and more deeply, as it concerns her make-up and meaning as a person. The Synod Fathers have deeply felt this requirement, maintaining that “the anthropological and theological foundations for resolving questions about the true significance and dignity of each sex require deeper study.”(184)

Through committing herself to a reflection on the anthropological and theological basis of femininity, the Church enters the historic process of the various movements for the promotion of woman, and in going to the very basic aspect of woman as a personal being, provides her most precious contribution. But even before this the Church intends, in such a way, to obey God who created the individual “in his image,” “male and female he created them” (Gen 1-27) and who intended that they would accept the call of God to come to know, reverence and live his plan. It is a plan that “from the beginning” has been indelibly imprinted in the very being of the human person - men and women - and therefore in the make-up, meaning and deepest workings of the individual. This most wise and loving plan must be explored to discover all its richness of content - a richness that “from the beginning” came to be progressively manifested and realized in the whole history of salvation, and was brought to completion in “the fullness of time,” when “God sent his Son, born of a woman” (Gal 4:4). That “fullness” continues in history: God’s plan for woman is read and is to be read within the context of the faith of the Church, and also in the lives lived by so many Christian women today. Without forgetting the help that can come from different human sciences and cultures, researchers, because of an informed discernment, will be able to help gather and clarify the values and requirements that belong to the enduring essential aspects of women and those bound to evolve in history. The Second Vatican Council reminds us: “The Church maintains that beneath all changes there are many realities which do not change; these find their ultimate foundation in Christ who is the same yesterday, and today, and forever (cf. Heb 13 8).”(185) The Apostolic Letter on the Dignity and Vocation of Woman gives much attention to the anthropological and theological foundation of woman’s dignity as a person. The document seeks to again treat and develop the catechetical reflections of the Wednesday General Audiences devoted over a long period of time to the “theology of the body,” while at the same time fulfilling a promise made in the Encyclical Redemptoris Mater(186) and serving as a response to the request of the Synod Fathers.

May the reading of the Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem in particular, as a biblical-theological meditation, be an incentive for everyone - women and men - and especially for those who devote their lives to the human sciences and theological disciplines, to pursue on the basis of the personal dignity of man and woman and their mutual relationship, a critical study to better and more deeply understand the values and specific gifts of femininity and masculinity - not only in the surroundings of social living but also and above all in living as Christians and as members of the Church.

This mediation on the anthropological and theological foundations of women ought to enlighten and guide the Christian response to the most frequently asked questions, oftentimes so crucial, on the “place” that women can have and ought to have in the Church and in society.

It is quite clear from the words and attitude of Christ, which are normative for the Church, that no discrimination exists on the level of an individual’s relation to Christ, in which “there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28) and on the level of participation in the Church’s life of grace and holiness, as Joel’s prophecy fulfilled at Pentecost wonderfully attests: “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh: your sons and daughters shall prophecy” (Joel 3:1; cf. Acts 2:17ff.). As the Apostolic Letter on the Dignity and Vocation of Woman reads: “Both women and men...are equally capable of receiving the outpouring of divine truth and love in the Holy Spirit. Both receive his salvific and sanctifying ‘visits.’”(187)

Mission in the Church and in the World.

51. In speaking about participation in the apostolic mission of the Church, there is no doubt that in virtue of Baptism and Confirmation, a woman - as well as a man - is made a sharer in the threefold mission of Jesus Christ, Priest, Prophet and King, and is thereby charged and given the ability to fulfill the fundamental apostolate of the Church: evangelization. However, a woman is called to put to work in this apostolate the “gifts” which are properly hers: first of all, the gift that is her very dignity as a person exercised in word and testimony of life, gifts therefore connected with her vocation as a woman.

In her participation in the life and mission of the Church, a woman cannot receive the Sacrament of Orders, and therefore cannot fulfill the proper function of the ministerial priesthood. This is a practice that the Church has always found in the expressed will of Christ, totally free and sovereign, who called only men to be his apostles;(188) a practice that can be understood from the rapport between Christ, the Spouse, and his Bride, the Church.(189) Here we are in the area of function, not of dignity and holiness. In fact, it must be maintained: “Although the Church possesses a hierarchical structure, nevertheless this structure is totally ordered to the holiness of Christ’s members.”(190)

However, as Paul VI has already said, “We cannot change what our Lord did, nor his call to women; but we can recognize and promote the role of women in the mission of evangelization and in the life of the Christian community.”(191)

Above all, the acknowledgment in theory of the active and responsible presence of woman in the Church must be realized in practice. With this in mind this Exhortation addressed to the lay faithful with its deliberate and repeated use of the terms “women and men,” must be read. Furthermore the revised Code of Canon Law contains many provisions on the participation of women in the life and mission of the Church: they are provisions that must be more commonly known and, according to the diverse sensibilities of culture and opportuneness in a pastoral situation, be realized with greater timeliness and determination.

An example comes to mind in the participation of women on diocesan and parochial Pastoral Councils as well as Diocesan Synods and particular councils. In this regard the Synod Fathers have written: “Without discrimination women should be participants in the life of the Church and also in consultation and the process of coming to decisions.”(192) And again: “Women, who already hold places of great importance in transmitting the faith and offering every kind of service in the life of the Church, ought to be associated in the preparation of pastoral and missionary documents and ought to be recognized as cooperators in the mission of the church in the family, in professional life and in the civil community.”(193)

In the more specific area of evangelization and catechesis, the particular work that women have in the transmission of the faith, not only in the family but also in the various educational environments, is to be more strongly fostered. In broader terms, this should be applied in all that regards embracing the Word of God, its understanding and its communication as well as its study, research and theological teaching.

While she is to fulfill her duty to evangelize, woman is to feel more acutely her need to be evangelized. Thus, with her vision illumined by faith (cf. Eph 1:18), woman is to be able to distinguish what truly responds to her dignity as a person and to her vocation from all that, under the pretext of this “dignity” and in the name of “freedom” and “progress,” militates against true values. On the contrary, these false values become responsible for the moral degradation of the person, the environment and society. This same “discernment,” made possible and demanded from Christian women’s participation in the prophetic mission of Christ and his Church, recurs with continued urgency throughout history. This “discernment,” often mentioned by the Apostle Paul, is not only a matter of evaluating reality and events in the light of faith, hut also involves a real decision and obligation to employ it, not only in Church life but also in human society.

It can be said that the problems of today’s world already cited in the second part of the Council’s Constitution Gaudium et Spes, which remain unresolved and not at all affected by the passage of time, must witness the presence and commitment of women with their irreplaceable and customary contributions.

In particular, two great tasks entrusted to women merit the attention of everyone.

First of all, the task of bringing full dignity to the conjugal life and to motherhood. Today new possibilities are opened to women for a deeper understanding and a richer realization of human and Christian values implied in the conjugal life and the experience of motherhood. Man himself - husband and father - can be helped to overcome forms of absenteeism and of periodic presence as well as a partial fulfillment of parental responsibilities - indeed he can be involved in new and significant relations of interpersonal communion-precisely as a result of the intelligent, loving and decisive intervention of woman.

Secondly, women have the task of assuring the moral dimension of culture, the dimension - namely of a culture worthy of the person - of an individual yet social life. The Second Vatican Council seems to connect the moral dimension of culture with the participation of the lay faithful in the kingly mission of Christ: “Let the lay faithful by their combined efforts remedy the institutions and conditions of the world when the latter are an inducement to sin, that all such things may be conformed to the norms of justice, and may favor the practice of virtue rather than hindering it. By so doing, they will infuse culture and human works with a moral value.”(194)

As women increasingly participate more fully and responsibly in the activities of institutions which are associated with safeguarding the basic duty to human values in various communities, the words of the Council just quoted point to an important field in the apostolate of women: in all aspects of the life of such communities, from the socio-economic to the socio-political dimension, the personal dignity of woman and her specific vocation ought to be respected and promoted. Likewise this should be the case in living situations not only affecting the individual but also communities, not only in forms left to personal freedom and responsibility, but even in those guaranteed by just civil laws.

“It is not good for man to be alone: let us make him a helper fit for him” (Gen 2:18). God entrusted the human being to woman. Certainly, every human being is entrusted to each and every other human being, but in a special way the human being is entrusted to woman, precisely because the woman in virtue of her special experience of motherhood is seen to have a specific sensitivity towards the human person and all that constitutes the individual’s true welfare, beginning with the fundamental value of life. How great are the possibilities and responsibilities of woman in this area at a time when the development of science and technology is not always inspired and measured by true wisdom, with the inevitable risk of “dehumanizing” human life, above all when it would demand a more intense love and a more generous acceptance.

The participation of Women in the life of the Church and society in the sharing of her gifts is likewise the path necessary for her personal fulfillment - on which so many justly insist today - and the basic contribution of woman to the enrichment of Church communion and the dynamism in the apostolate of the People of God.

From this perspective the presence also of men, together with women, ought to be considered.

The Presence and Collaboration of Men Together with Women

52. Many voices were raised in the Synod Hall expressing the fear that excessive insistence given to the status and role of women would lead to an unacceptable omission, that in point, regarding men. In reality, various sectors in the Church must lament the absence or the scarcity of the presence of men, some of whom abdicate their proper Church responsibilities, allowing them to be fulfilled only by women. Such instances are participation in the liturgical prayer of the Church, education and, in particular, catechesis of their own sons and daughters and other children; presence at religious and cultural meetings; and collaboration in charitable and missionary initiatives.

Therefore, the coordinated presence of both men and women is to be pastorally urged so that the participation of the lay faithful in the salvific mission of the Church might be rendered more rich, complete and harmonious.

The fundamental reason that requires and explains the presence and the collaboration of both men and women is not only, as it was just emphasized, the major source of meaning and efficacy in the pastoral action of the Church, nor even less is it the simple sociological fact of sharing a life together as human beings which is natural for man and woman. It is, rather, the original plan of the Creator who from the “beginning” willed the human being to be a “unity of the two,” and willed man and woman to be the prime community of persons, source of every other community, and at the same time to be a “sign” of that interpersonal communion of love which constitutes the mystical, intimate life of God, One in Three.

Precisely for this reason, the most common and widespread way, and at the same time, fundamental way to assure this coordinated and harmonious presence of men and women in the life and mission of the Church, is the fulfillment of the tasks and responsibilities of the couple and the Christian family in which the variety of diverse forms of life and love is seen and communicated: conjugal, paternal and maternal, filial and familial. We read in the Exhortation Familiaris Consortio: “Since the Christian family is a community in which the relationships are renewed by Christ through faith and the sacraments, the family’s sharing in the Church’s mission should follow a community pattern: the spouses together as a couple, the parents and children as a family, must live their service to the Church and to the world.... The Christian family also builds up the Kingdom of God in history through the everyday realities that concern and distinguish its state of life: it is thus in the love between husband and wife and between members of the family - a love lived out in all its extraordinary richness of values and demands: totality, oneness, fidelity and fruitfulness - that the Christian family’s participation in the prophetic, priestly and kingly mission of Jesus Christ and of his Church finds expression and realization.”(195)

From this perspective, the Synod Fathers have recalled the meaning that the Sacrament of Matrimony ought to assume in the Church and society in order to illuminate and inspire all the relations between men and women. In this regard they have emphasized an “urgent need for every Christian to live and proclaim the message of hope contained in the relation between man and woman. The Sacrament of Matrimony, which consecrates this relation in its conjugal form and reveals it as a sign of the relation of Christ with his Church, contains a teaching of great importance for the Church’s life - a teaching that ought to reach today’s world through the Church; all those relations between man and woman must be imbued by this spirit. The Church should even more fully rely on the riches found here.”(196) These same Fathers have rightly emphasized that “the esteem for virginity and reverence for motherhood must be respectively restored,”(197) and still again they have called for the development of diverse and complementary vocations in the living context of Church communion and in the service of its continued growth.


176. Cf. John XXIII, Encyclical Letter Pacem in Terris: AAS 55 (1963), 267-268.

177. John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio, 24: AAS 74 (1982), 109-110.

178. Propositio 46.

179. Propositio 47.

180. Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People Apostolicam Actuositatem, 9.

181. Paul VI, Discourse to the Committee for the International Year of the Woman (18 April 1975): AAS 67 (1975), 266.

182. Propositio 46.

183. Propositio 47.

184. Ibid.

185. Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes, 10.

186. TheEncyclical Letter Redemptoris Mater, after having recalled that the “Marian dimension of the Christian Life takes on a particular importance in relation to women and their status”, states, “In fact, femininity has a unique relationship with the Mother of the Redeemer, a subject which can be studied in greater depth elsewhere. Here I simply wish to note that the example of Mary of Nazareth sheds light on womanhood as such by the very fact that God, in the sublime event of the Incarnation of his Son, entrusted himself to the ministry, the free and active ministry of a woman. It can thus be said that women, by looking to Mary, find in her the secret of living their feminity with dignity and of achieving their own true advancement. In the light of Mary, the Church sees in women the reflection of a beauty which mirrors the loftiest sentiments of which the human heart is capable: the totality of the gift of self in love; the strength that is capable of bearing the greatest sorrows; limitless fidelity and tireless devotion to work; the ability to combine penetrating intuition with words, support and encouragement" (John Paul II Encyclical Letter Redemptoris Mater, 46: AAS 79 [1987], 424-425.

187. John Paul II Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem, 16.

188. Cf. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration On the Question of Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood Inter Insigniores (15 October 1976): AAS 69 (1977), 98-116.

189. Cf. John Paul II. Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem, 26.

190. Ibid., 27; “The Church is a differentiated body, in which each individual has a role; the tasks are distinct, and must not be confused; they do not favor the superiority of one over the other, nor do they provide an excuse for jealousy; the only better gift, which can and must be desired is love (cf. 1 Cor 12-13), The greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven are not the ministers but the saints” (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration on the Question of Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood lnter Insigniores [l5 October 1976], 6: AAS 69 [1977], 115).

.191. Paul VI, Discourse to the Committee for the International Women's Year (18 April 1975): AAS 67 (1975), 266.

192. Propositio 47.

193. Ibid.

194. Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium, 36.

195. John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio 50: AAS 74 (1982), 141-142.

196. Propositio 46,

197. Propositio 47.

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