Responsive image
Nederlands/Vlaams Deutsch Francais English language Spanish language Portuguese language Catalan Chinese Czech Malayalam Finnish Igbo
Japanese Korean Romanian Malay language Norwegian Swedish Polish Swahili Chichewa Tagalog Urdu
Beyond the Collection Basket from 'Woman in a Man's Church' by Arlene Swidler

Beyond the Collection Basket

from Woman in a Man's Church pp. 65-81.
by Arlene Swidler
First published by Paulist Press, New York, 1972.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions

Women thinking about their position in the Catholic Church often have to stop to ask whether they are being accurate. Is it women who have no authority over the expenses and budgeting of the parish, or is it laypeople in general? Is it women who are under-represented in the liturgical commissions and committees of the dioceses and parishes or is it just lay women who are overlooked? (Sisters are, of course, technically laypeople also, but their position and role in the Church are so different from other women’s that they are popularly thought of as a separate category.)

People are becoming increasingly aware that the Catholic Church is excessively clerical. All the functions of the organization-executive, judicial, and legislative, as well as the allotment of monies and official theorizing-are done almost exclusively by priests and bishops. The entire Church, clergy and laity, has gone along with this system for so long that it’s ingrained in all of us, and there’s no sense in pointing fingers. There are people on both sides trying to overcome the division: priests are looking for lay people to form part of the parochial team and share decision-making and work, and lay people are searching for responsibility in their parishes. Unfortunately there aren’t nearly enough of either.

But even this would be a mere first step at a time when women are demanding to go all the way-and fast. Why, they ask, should not qualified women run the diocesan social service offices and allocate funds, when it is clearly women and children who are most in need? Why shouldn’t qualified women-especially married women-run the Family Life offices and act as judges in the ecclesiastical marriage courts? Why shouldn’t women have equal voice in managing and staffing the seminaries training servants for the entire People of God? The questions get louder and louder.

Women have not been very successful in getting professional positions high up on the policy-making levels in any of the Christian churches. Several of the major Protestant denominations have made surveys of women’s employment in the past few years, and in no case were the women happy about the results of their surveys.

An interesting example is a study of employment on the national level by the American Baptist Convention. The ABC, in a tradition of sexual equality, has been ordaining women for more than eighty years, and it has had several women presidents of the Church.

Rev. Elizabeth Miller found in this study that the merger of the men’s and women’s Mission Societies in 1948 meant that the number of executive positions held by women has lessened. The women’s groups had also served as a sort of training ground for church executives, and their loss and the fact that there are now only 4 women to 78 men at the department head level (the first rank above the basic professional level) means there is little hope that women can be promoted to the higher levels. (In 1958 the ABC had ten women department heads or equivalents.) The author points out that on the national and also the local levels, reorganization often means that the women are “reorganized out.”

Why the change? The Rev. Ms. Miller suggests several reasons: the attitude of society that men are the supervisors and women are the supervised, and the unwritten assumption that pastoral experience is necessary for most executive positions while at the same time women are discouraged from pastoral work. But she also states, “In some instances the replacement of women by men in staff positions was done deliberately in order to increase the status of the job or to ‘change the image’ of the work from being an interest of women to a work of interest that should involve men. Little thought, however, was given to what this concern about ‘status’ or ‘image’ said to women about themselves or to the Convention about its attitude toward women.”

Employment in the Catholic Church is still more difficult for women, because our struc ture is still more clerical. Unlike the Baptists, it is not necessarily pastoral experience but only the reception of Holy Orders which is a prerequisite for almost any job of importance. There are a lot of employment possibilities in peripheral areas, but the big offices where policy is made are almost entirely clerical, and the few laypeople hired on the administrative level are usually all men.

Thus the diocesan chief superintendent of schools is almost always a priest and-up until 1972-was always a man. The heads of Family Life Bureaus are priests. Yet most of the teachers in the system are female, as are half of the married people.

Women are making inroads in some of these areas. In 1968 Pittsburgh became the first U.S. diocese to prepare civil lawyers to work in ecclesiastical marriage courts. They get a special course in canon law and papers and cases to study. These lay lawyers are a great success; the petitioners identify much more easily with lay advocates.

Such situations are still unusual. The average woman seeking an annulment from the church has priests as defender, prosecutor, and judge. She will not even be free to take a woman lawyer with her to the trial. Unless she is very unusual, the whole business will be unnecessarily humiliating and threatening.

Another reason women are not succeeding in finding good professional positions is the lack of real recruitment procedures. High executive staff positions are never advertised, and in one recent case a priest who did place a notice in a newspaper was called on the carpet by his bishop. The important policy-making positions in any diocese will ordinarily be filled by the patronage system: the bishop appoints the men he wants.

The situation in church structures outside the regular diocesan system is just as frustrating. There are, for example, lots of good competent women theologians looking for college teaching jobs. A few years ago all looked well for their employment, and the Placement Bureau of the College Theology Society reported that very few schools scouting for new instructors specified either sex. But now positions are fewer. Not only is the competition keener, but women don’t even get into the competition. Half a dozen Catholic colleges surveyed informally this year all indicate that they are hiring new faculty in an unorganized way. They do not go to college placement bureaus; they do not place ads; they don’t even ask for recommendations from local graduate schools.

This is typical of all departments in today’s colleges and universities. When there is a position open, the present faculties are consulted for suggestions, and males tend to have male friends they want to help. This “grapevine system” means that few women even get to hear about openings. Even men who are unemployed contend it’s a pretty undemocratic and inefficient way to operate.

Jobs are opening up in other areas, especially those where the team concept is developing. College campuses, for example, are now likely to talk about a team chaplaincy, a term that emphasizes the advantages of having different kinds of people with differing backgrounds and experiences working together. Sometimes the formation of the team itself shows a different kind of prejudice, with the emphasis on getting a nun-a more official type of female-rather than a woman with relevant experiences like college teaching or marriage and family. As a matter of fact, though many women-Sisters and lay women-are working to break down the artificial male-female barriers, too often they are not even aware of their own Sisters-vs.laywomen prejudices. Real church teamwork is still a long way off.

The Sisters who are working in campus ministry are both successful and enthusiastic. Often they start with the assumption that they will be counselling the young women and are surprised to find themselves spending more time talking with the male students. Besides counselling they do almost everything the priestchaplain does: arrange ecumenical activities, plan liturgies, teach, organize courses.

One Protestant woman minister says she’s enthusiastic about her work as campus minister but even more enthusiastic about the fact that she and her husband form a team. Working together, they bring two viewpoints to every subject, their opinions on sexual questions are taken much more seriously, their home has become a real center for religious discussion and activity.

In fields like retreat work women can make a real contribution. Who but a Sister can understand the problems of religious women? Who but a married woman can put the doubts and problems of today’s wives and mothers into words and suggest solutions? The days are past when we thought that all people faced the same temptations and needed the same advice, but we are only beginning to see that the knowledge necessary for guiding people comes not from books but from having struggled with the problems for ourselves.

Journalism has always been an area in which women were comparatively easily accepted, and for the most part this is true in religious journalism, though there are still editors who think that religious news means news about priests and that only men reporters can work with priests. Today’s religious educators and parish co-ordinators are often women too.

The other positions with power in the churches-or in any organization-are the board memberships. This is where more general policy questions are decided and where, often, funds are allocated and statements written and released. These positions are not held by paid employees but by “volunteers.” There is always a distinct difference between board and staff of any organization.

In the Catholic Church in this country there are two boards, the United States Catholic Conference and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. They are really the same group -the US bishops-operating under two different names when they deal with internal and external problems. Not only is it impossible for a woman to be a member of either of these boards, but it is virtually impossible for her to appear to testify at any of their meetings.

The various Protestant churches deal with this question in different ways. The Episcopalians, for example, in their triennial meetings, have two houses, and women can be elected delegates to the lower house. Presbyterians have strong lay rule; each presbytery (comparable to a diocese) has both clerical and lay delegates from each member church, and women are eligible in both categories, though of course they are never represented in anything like their real proportion of the membership.

The women of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) recently decided it was necessary to tell people the facts about their church, one of the more liberal on the woman question. Their Department of Christian Women’s Fellowship recently issued a flyer headed with a big sign, “We have listened . . Now we want to join the ACTION!” and signed “Women of the Christian Church.” They started out with some “Facts and Fallacies” like these.

FALLACY: Since women have the equal opportunity with men to be elected to any office of the church, women have served in all positions.

FACT: No woman has ever been elected moderator of the General Assembly or president of the International Convention.

FALLACY: Women have been elected to top positions on the general staffs of the Christian Church.

FACT: No woman has ever been the top executive of a board or agency of the executive of a board or agency of the church, and few women are in advanced staff positions.

The flyer quotes two pages of statistics to show that although women make up 32% of the General Board, the committees appointed or approved by the General Board contain only 19% women. And the boards of the Units-or agencies-of the Christian Church are only 10% women.

It becomes clear that just making a change in rules-allowing women to be ordained or ecclesiastical professionals-will not of itself insure a real change in women’s status and role unless it is accompanied by a real education of all the members, male and female, cleric and lay. At the same time it is clearer than ever that re-education of attitudes will do nothing without a simultaneous change in laws.

Historians of the woman suffrage movement in America have been wondering why feminism more or less collapsed several decades ago. The reason seems to be that feminists set their hearts on the vote and in their working toward that goal convinced themselves it was the answer to all women’s problems. It wasn’t, of course, because women have to be trained to use their power of suffrage intelligently. But at least women now have the tool to free themselves. Church laws can be changed, too, to give women opportunity to see what sorts of contributions they might make.

Still the Church is much more than a group of people who devote themselves to its work for their livelihood or who get together in small groups to decide what the rest of us are going to do. Not many women-or men-can operate on those levels, or would even want to. The important thing is that the best available talent be used for God’s work in the Church and that the needs, the insights and the experiences of all the People of God be gathered together in the Church’s thinking.

These ordinary laypeople need from their Church a chance to contribute something to the total Catholic community beyond the Sunday collections. Too often no opportunity is available. And, just because Father finds it more convenient and comfortable to confer with men, it’s usually the case that the women are even more limited than the men. This is especially unfortunate, because Catholic women are still often told to stay at home and mind the house rather than the store, and they more than their husbands need ways in which to make a meaningful contribution to society.

If parish councils-the elected, not the appointed kind-get a real start, and women are encouraged to run for parish offices, the whole process of change may begin there. But again, only a small fraction of parish members can be on the council at one time.

One of the big tasks of any Christian community should be to create groups and channels through which members can give of themselves in order to help others. Task forces, work-days, ad hoc committees all should be available. Instead we often find card parties and dances to raise money for somebody else to go out and do something Christian.

If women educate the children in school and at home, why don’t they figure more prominently on school boards? Why aren’t former nurses trained as volunteer hospital visitors for the parish? Why aren’t the women of the parish asked to make parish surveys to discover the problems of the needy, who will for the most part be women and children?

Ecumenism is a good example. At the moment we don’t need a lot more theologizingthe structures are already far behind in finding ways to implement the findings. What we need is a large amount of grassroots getting to know each other, visiting back and forth, experiencing one another’s forms of worship, planning for the ecumenical future. And women would have a lot to offer in this kind of situation. Just by training and experience, they know how to plan a pleasant social evening, how to help people meet other Christians as people, how to keep a conversation going. Yet ecumenism is hardly ever a lay affair. No wonder people find it boring!

Whenever any group is considered inferior and relegated to the drudge jobs, its members tend to lose ambition. After a few generations they may be convinced they never had any ambition, that to be content with a job in which one cannot exercise one’s mind is simply natural. Most Sisters don’t think it strange that although they cannot enter a seminary as students or teach in it, they are expected to do the cooking and cleaning.

With expectations, ambitions-and willblunted, the first move of any newly-conscious oppressed group is usually an attempt at selfconsciousness and self-determination. The group decides to run its own schools and own affairs, and “colonialists,” or members of the oppressor group, are not very welcome except in a strictly supportive capacity, and sometimes not even then.

The strange thing is that the Catholic Church is the one institution which has women’s “separatist” organizations built right into its traditions, and they are as yet unused. The religious orders still have female inferiority written into them, with the Sisters being subject to male clerics in the parish, diocesan, and world levels.

But the women’s schools are a different matter. Separate education for women in Catholicism has a different purpose than in the secular world, where the great women’s colleges were formed to give women an opportunity for education in a day when all the existing colleges and universities were limited to males. In the Catholic Church women’s schools were started as a method of keeping women separate and teaching them to be women, i.e., docile wives. It also gave Sisters an opportunity to teach, because it was often considered unseemly for them to be teaching males.

Still Sisters have more of a tradition of development of oneself and one’s talents than most laywomen do, and there is a lot of talk about self-discovery in recruiting women for women’s schools and colleges. There is a lot to be hoped for.

At this point it is still mostly hope. In many ways Catholic schools are moving backwards, as people like Father Andrew Greeley have been noting for several years now.

Situations in other church groups are not necessarily better. The United Presbyterian Church in the USA, for example, recently made a study of its 46 church-related colleges and came up with some dismal statistics. None of the 46, it discovered, had a woman as chairman of the Board of Trustees (or Directors), and there are very few women on the boards at all. Ten colleges have no women trustees. Two colleges, Wilson and Beaver, have 36% and 33% women trustees, but that’s not very impressive when we realize they are women’s colleges! And none of these 46 institutions has a woman president.

If schools and colleges are really to be run in a way to allow women to discover themselves without spending their energies impressing males, to determine their own likes and ambitions, and to become seriously involved in helping to determine the future, there are a number of things which would have to be provided:

1. A large proportion (perhaps threefourths) of the faculty would have to be women. These women would have to be seriously dedicated to teaching and to scholarship. The fact that they would not be inferior in competence to the men on the faculty would be reflected in the fact that women would hold a proportionate (three-fourths) number of department chairmanships etc.

2. The faculty would provide good examples, or role models, of women following various patterns. There should be dedicated Sisters, but also happy dedicated single professional women and at least as many women who are successfully combining scholarship and family life. Teachers with young children might need some special schedule juggling for a few years, but their example would be more than worth the trouble.

3. The school would help to destroy the myth that women can’t get along together and prefer men for bosses by keeping women in the top administrative positions-certainly the presidency, and at least three fourths of the other positions as well as the board of trustees.

4. Although women’s colleges traditionally focus on the liberal arts, they would need a strong program of vocational guidance.

5. Women students need the opportunity of seeing and talking with successful women in various fields and professions. At least threefourths of the commencement speakers, award winners, and outside lecturers on campus or in assemblies would be women.

Most Catholic women’s colleges and schools would flunk this test. It’s quite clear that women today can’t blame men for all their problems.

Prof. Rosemary Ruether of Howard University sees several special tasks for women’s colleges:

“Women’s colleges are natural sources of institutional power for women in society, and of institutional power for women in society, and they should be used more consciously as such (just as Negroes are discovering that the Negro college, also founded under conditions of discrimination, is a source of black institutional power in society)

Both women and the women’s college have a special freedom to demythologize the work culture which dominates current education, and to keep the cultivation of the whole man in view as the real horizon both of educa tion and of life." (“Are Women’s Colleges Obsolete?" The Critic, Oct.-Nov. 1968, p. 64.)

In what ways could women’s colleges fulfill the two tasks suggested by Dr. Ruether?

To what extent do the Catholic women’s colleges and schools in your experience recognize the tasks? implement them?

The Catholic Citizen, the Journal of St. Joan’s Alliance, recently reported:

“Bishop Gran of Oslo speaking for the Scandinavian Bishops’ Conference on the question of priestly celibacy favoured the acceptance of some married priests. He referred to the marriages of Lutheran clergy, whose wives play an important part in parish affairs. He added ‘They are good housekeepers, something not to be overlooked at a time when servants have become practically extinct and the number of nuns is diminishing.’ DEC. 1971, p. 143.)

What are the advantages for women of a celibate clergy?

What are the disadvantages?

To what extent are nuns seen as the servants of priests?

Make your own survey. Identify the positions of power in your diocese. You might want to use three categories: those which need specific theological training (dogma professor at seminary); those which need specific training in other fields (editor of diocesan newspaper); those which merely require ability and willingness to dig in and work (members of diocesan ecumenical commission).

Do any in the first category actually require ordination-do they require the saying of Mass or hearing of confessions?

How many of these positions are held by priests? Sisters? lay men? lay women?

Be inspired - to read the whole book go to: https://www.ipubcloud.com/shop/bookstore/woman-in-a-mans-church-a-history-of-womens-impact/

Contents of “Woman in a Man's Church” Support our campaign Sitemap Contemporary theologians Join Campaign activities Go back to home page

Wijngaards Institute for Catholic ResearchThis website is maintained by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.

The Institute is known for issuing academic reports and statements on relevant issues in the Church. These have included scholars' declarations on the need of collegiality in the exercise of church authority, on the ethics of using contraceptives in marriage and the urgency of re-instating the sacramental diaconate of women.

Visit also our websites:Women Deacons, The Body is Sacred and Mystery and Beyond.

You are welcome to use our material. However: maintaining this site costs money. We are a Charity and work mainly with volunteers, but we find it difficult to pay our overheads.

Visitors to our website since January 2014.
Pop-up names are online now.

The number is indicative, but incomplete. For full details click on cross icon at bottom right.

Please, support our campaign
for women priests
Join our Women Priests' Mailing List
for occasional newsletters:
An email will be immediately sent to you
requesting your confirmation.