The Place of Women in the Church: Possibilities and Limits in Today’s Church (lugar das Mulheres na Igreja: possibilidades e limites na Igreja hoje)

Mary E. Hunt, Ph.D.

A video of Mary’s most recent presentation in Brasil can be found here. The text of the lecture in English is below.

While Pope Francis in the first five years of his papacy is the focus of conferences and publications, the historical data of what is happening with real people, with the majority of the church, is what will endure. My view on “The Place of Women in the Church: Possibilities and Limits in Today’s Church” is grounded in the Francis papacy but takes its content from the experiences of Catholic women. As a white, U.S., Catholic feminist liberation theologian, I am involved in movements and activities to bring about changes for Catholic women which will create a more just, democratic, and equitable church capable of nurturing those same qualities in an increasingly unjust, fascistic, and elitist world.

Five interrelated themes ground this analysis:

  1. Pope Francis has achieved virtually nothing with regard to women and is not likely to do so
  2. In many ways it is harder for women to achieve change in the Francis years than during the time of his predecessors
  3. “Gender ideology” is a case of projection that epitomizes the methodological problem with contemporary Vatican theology
  4. What Francis could do to make feminist theologians say that he had brought about change
  5. Constructive next steps to achieve what feminist theologians envision with or without Francis
  6. Pope Francis has achieved virtually nothing with regard to women and is not likely to do so

Five years into his pontificate, Francis has succeeded in softening the image of the pontiff while not changing the substance of the papacy. This is a public relations feat after the last two popes whose leadership was rigid, clear, and hierarchical both in content and in method. But it is superficial and problematic because it masks the depth of the problems at hand and distracts from change. Not surprising, given who he is, this approach is “Jesuitical,” in that what you see is not always what you get. There have been several of what seem to be steps forward which have not amounted to much.

For example, Francis’ much-touted Study Commission on the Women’s Diaconate that includes members with a wide range of theological positions is highly unlikely to promote substantive changes in the all-male clerical caste. It may end up with women deacons who would be at the service of the church without having the option of presbyteral ordination with which comes jurisdiction. Rather than opening jurisdiction to all ordained persons regardless of gender, such a female diaconate would disastrously put women who already minister under increased ecclesial supervision without in any way sharing decision-making power.

The Vatican might point to the naming of three women academics to be consulters for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith as a step forward but that is debatable.[1] It comes at a time when that office is far less powerful than it was under previous popes. All three women have longtime institutional church connections, two of them with the Gregorian University and one with the Pontifical John Paul II Institute in Rome. There is nothing wrong with this but it is not hard to guess their theo-politics on controversial issues like abortion and same-sex love. This “add women and stir” approach gives the appearance of progress but guarantees that nothing of structure or substance will change.

This dynamic replicates what has happened in many Catholic institutions of higher education where conservative women have been hired to avert claims of gender discrimination. Meanwhile, progressive, and often more highly qualified women are systematically kept out. Ivone Gebara silenced and shunned here in Brazil, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and Rosemary Radford Ruether excluded from Catholic faculties in the United States are prime examples of a pattern repeated all over the world.

The issue, finally, is not gender as such, but what feminists both male and female bring to the table. Contemporary feminism is an interstructured analysis and commitment to end racism, economic oppression, heterosexism, ecological disaster, as well as sexism. Talk of gender without simultaneous analysis of race, class, and the like is simply outdated. Feminism is, among other things, an antidote to clericalism that is a major obstacle to the living out of Gospel values of equality and inclusivity.

These two strongest claims to change during the first five years of Francis pale before what has not changed. Few lives, especially of marginalized, poor, young, immigrant, trafficked women are affected by these bits of window dressing. Nothing has anything changed with regard to the Roman Catholic official position on inclusive forms of sex education; effective, economical contraception including condoms and the imperative to use birth control for responsible parenting; abortion as a moral choice in some instances and always a choice made by the person most affected by it, namely a pregnant woman; autonomy for women’s religious communities; the right of women as well as men who feel called to priesthood to test their vocations with full support of the community; the right of lesbian/bisexual/trans women to embrace their sexual orientation and gender identities as they see fit. These remain firmly entrenched both theologically and in pastoral practice without even substantive, inclusive conversation about them.

Transforming official Catholic teaching in gender and sexuality is not a northern and western preoccupation, nor an individual matter. Rather, these are the areas where the Vatican continues to exercise its diminishing power in the public arena to shape social policy and laws. For example, at the United Nations, the Holy See under Pope Francis’ leadership has not withdrawn an inch from its anti-abortion posture. Rather, it has added a conservative voice to the rightwing coalitions against women’s reproductive justice.

I wish I could report more progress on women. But it seems that women remain this pope’s Achilles heel. His frequent and sexist jokes about women theologians as the “strawberries on the cake,” disparaging remarks about mothers-in-law, and his stereotypic portrayal of a woman shopping, gossiping, and taking care of children in Gaudete et Exsulatate (Ch. 1, par. 16) betray a deep and abiding lack of knowledge of what today’s women are doing. For example, I doubt he has heard of Astrid Lobo Gajiwala, a scientist in Mumbai who started a tissue bank, as well as a theologian who worked with other women to help the Catholic Bishops Conference of India draft a Gender Policy of the Catholic Church of India in 2010.[2] She is one of literally millions of women worldwide engaged in ministry, theology, and social service. In a clerical, homosocial environment, this pope is not likely to get much new data. Continued reliance on his memories of Grandmother Rosa as a role model cannot be expected to take him far beyond where he is today.

  1. In many ways it is harder to achieve change in the Francis years than during the time of his predecessors

The irony is that Pope Francis has made it harder, not easier, for women to make our claims heard in the church. On October 7, 1979, U. S. Sister of Mercy Theresa Kane welcomed John Paul to the U.S. on behalf of women religious saying:

“As I share this privileged moment with you, Your Holiness, I urge you to be mindful of the intense suffering and pain which is part of the life of many women in the United States… to be faithful to its call for reverence and dignity for all persons, [the church] must respond by providing the possibility of women as persons being included in all ministries of our church.”[3] I daresay the church was never the same. Note that on his U.S. visit Francis did not schedule such a meeting with women religious.

Pope John Paul II was horrified by Theresa Kane’s gentle but strong call for women’s full inclusion in the church. Years of struggle between the Vatican and U.S. women religious have roots in this public event. Suddenly, the men of the Vatican realized to their dismay that the very nun who represented American women religious had no hesitation to speak candidly and as an equal to the pope, something most of the men never dared. She spoke not as a layperson to a cleric—those terms are woefully outdated—but as a Christian to a Christian, adult to adult, person to person.

Progressive feminist groups rooted in the Catholic tradition have developed “women church” groups, not churches of women but communities in which women and other marginalized groups are full members. Women-Church Convergence is the coalition of those groups including the Women’s Ordination Conference, Catholics for Choice, Dignity USA, women’s religious congregations, the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual (WATER), among others. They have struggled for decades to change the language of worship to make it inclusive, to promote the ordination of women, to secure women’s reproductive justice, to empower feminist ministers. During the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVII, not only was there no support for this work but there was strong opposition. While the struggle continues, it has changed.

With Francis, the scene is more welcoming of women, or so it seemed. Another group, Voices of Faith,[4] arose in the last six years, publically unconnected to the activist groups and with a new approach that only those with enormous resources and personal connections can attempt. It “aims to bring together leaders in the Vatican with the global Catholic community, so they can recognize that women have the expertise, skills and gifts to play a full leadership role in the Church.” This was an inside approach led by women whose families’ financial help funds institutional church work.

For four years on International Women’s Day, Voices of Faith met inside the Vatican for a conference on women’s issues with support from various Vatican officials and Jesuit colleagues, some of whom receive funding from the same Austrian Götz Foundation that underwrites Voices. In private conversation with the activist groups, and as the blatant discrimination became more and more obvious, the women’s agenda became more progressive and words like ‘ordination’ and ‘ministry’ crept in.

However, in 2018, the Vatican barred the group from holding their annual meeting inside the walls because some of the invited speakers were beyond the men’s level of tolerance. Vatican officials, led by Cardinal Kevin Farrell head of the Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life, judged Former President of Ireland Mary McAleese, a very public supporter of LGBTIQ justice, and Ugandan lesbian activist Ssenfuka Joanita Warry to be unacceptable. To their credit, Voices of Faith refused to disinvite their guests and moved the meeting to a nearby Jesuit hall that is not technically within the Vatican.

Mary McAleese explained how women “experience the church as a male bastion of patronizing platitudes to which Pope Francis has added his quota. John Paul II has written of the ‘mystery of women.’ Talk to us as equals and we will not be a mystery.” She concluded, “we challenge Pope Francis to develop a credible strategy for the inclusion of women as equals throughout the church’s root and branch infrastructure, including its decision-making.”[5] I echo her words.

Warry was equally clear: “I believe it is my responsibility, my duty, my role to change the mentality that surrounds me because I believe I’m on a mission from God… There is much more I’d want to do in the church, but I’m often limited by my sexual orientation and gender, which was created by God…I believe things can be different. Women have a lot of roles they can do in the church. Let no one stand in the way of the Holy Spirit.”[6] I applaud and stand with her.

Revoking the welcome at the Vatican because the women wanted to set the parameters of their own conversation foreshadowed the very latest statement on women issued on May 8, 2018. New initiatives to study women are now located in the renewed mandate for the Dicastery for the Laity, Family, and Life. The wording of the document lays bare the extent and contours of the problem:

  1. Women’s issues are firmly under the category “lay,” guaranteeing that no consideration will be given to the presbyteral ordination of women. (see Title)
  2. The method is as circumscribed as ever: “The Dicastery works to deepen the reflection on the relationship between men and women in their respective specificity, reciprocity, complementarity and equal dignity” (Art. 9). This reinforces stereotypical, sexist gender binaries that are at the heart of the problem. The much-discredited notion of complementarity remains unchanged. The possibility of “equal dignity” is simply antithetical to such a worldview.
  3. “Valuing the feminine ‘genius’” (Art. 9) is a fraught term that women find insulting and men should too. Moreover, culturally constructed notions of femininity and masculinity have long outlived their usefulness, replaced by the full personhood of all.

Much more needs to be said about this short statement, and Catholic women have written a letter to Pope Francis on these very points for which they are gathering signatures. But the pattern is set under Francis–there is the appearance of something positive, namely complimenting women’s abilities when in fact it is really a way to stereotype and pigeonhole women based on our reproductive capacity.

In his sermon of May 21, 2018, the Pope described the church as a mother—“gentle, tender, smiling and full of love,” waving the red flag in front of the bull again by reinforcing stereotypes that pigeonhole women and leave good men aside.[7] Imagine an immigrant mother with three hungry children, a spouse who is ill, and without work. I doubt she is smiling and gentle. I suggest that such a woman become the reference point for evaluations of the papacy of Francis. Each word of praise for the pope needs to be measured against and nuanced by how the particular aspect of the papacy helps or hinders a young, poor, marginalized perhaps trafficked woman. Otherwise, I conclude that women do not matter to church officials.

To add insult to injury, the same Cardinal Kevin Farrell, head of the Dicastery for the Laity, Family, and Life who barred Mary McAleese and Ssenfuka Joanita Warry from the Vatican is now in charge of developing women’s roles. He will preside over the August 2018 World Meeting of Families in Ireland. Images of LGBTIQ people were initially included and then erased from the meeting promotion. This does not bode well for women.

I conclude that Francis makes progress on women more not less difficult. No one can argue that women are ignored. Rather, the ways women are defined do not reflect how women see ourselves or our preferred future. It could easily make one long for the “good old days” of Pope John Paul II who, with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as his theologian, made no such pretense and therefore was easier to resist. Now, if women criticize Francis we are seen as ungrateful or undermining his good work on ecology, economics, and so forth. Instead, I respectfully suggest that those who support Francis actually reinforce his progressive agenda by expecting it to include women as full persons in every aspect of life including ordination, ecclesial decision-making, and personal decisions.

There are many reasons for the recalcitrance on women. But, in addition to deeply ingrained ignorance about and resistance to gender equality, I speculate that Vatican officials and most national conferences of bishops live in terror of Catholic women. Sharing jurisdiction with women would surely expose criminal sexual abuse and its cover-up, financial improprieties and its cover-up, theological ineptitude and its cover-up. Instead, the men trump up a new charge—gender ideology—to keep the forces of liberation at bay.


  1. “Gender ideology” is a case of projection that epitomizes the methodological problem with contemporary Vatican theology

In the face of shrinking numbers of practicing Catholics in major donor countries like Germany, Italy, and the United States, and with an epidemic of clergy sexual abuse and episcopal cover-up, the term “gender theory” or “gender ideology” is promoted by the Vatican as a flash point for discussion. It is hard to imagine why so much emphasis is put on something that social scientists are simply incorporating into their work. But on reflection, it is clear that rigid gender binaries and claims to different natures of women and men are lynchpins that hold the kyriarchal church together.

Apparently, the growing biological and social scientific consensus in favor of the broad range of ways in which human beings live out their gender identity and sexual orientation is simply too hot for the Catholic hierarchy to handle. It undermines the fragile and indefensible sexist and heterosexist anthropology on which the Roman Catholic house of cards is built. Claims that male supremacy and heteronormativity are given in the cosmos are repeated without evidence beyond medieval sources; vast evidence to the contrary is simply ignored.

Insights into sex and gender put to rest the long-held claims about natural law that are conversation stoppers in kyriarchal Catholic ethical discourse. Once that foundation is shattered, it is a short route to dismantling the top down, male over female, heterosexual over homosexual, human over animal hierarchical dualism that undergirds so many laws and customs throughout the world. I understand why Vatican officials are worried; they have every reason to be. New self and collective understandings emerging from the social sciences cannot be ignored forever. Such data could benefit from careful ethical considerations and deep encouragement to embrace the human variety we now know is normative. But the deep spiritual and ethical resources of Catholicism are lost in the scramble to preserve outmoded notions of gender and sexuality.

One need only recall the manipulation of the word “feminism” by the Vatican to see the pattern here. First Catholic officials rejected “feminism.” Then, as feminism gained traction in the world, they vilified it turning it into the ‘f’ word. They finally co-opted it into “Christian feminism” with careful caveats against feminists who are lesbians and those who support reproductive justice. The same dynamic is playing out with “gender.” At first Vatican officials ignored or perhaps did not know what it was. They probably did not know about theorist Judith Butler until it was too late! Then, as the influence of gender theories spread, they turned to vilifying it. I predict that we are a short step away from their use of “Christian gender” rhetoric that will affirm the gender binaries as eternally given, reject trans everything, and reaffirm heterosexual hegemony.

What is most astonishing is that data of the social sciences play no role in the construction of theology for those who oppose advances in sex/gender. Despite heavy reliance on scientific data in Laudato Si, Pope Francis’ well-received encyclical on the environment and human ecology, the same rigor is absent from the sex/gender conversation. Neither social nor physical scientific studies are taken seriously. This methodological failing is simply disqualifying for postmodern discourse.

Repercussions of this flawed approach accrue inside the ecclesial institution as well as in the civil arena. That puts another kind of pressure on Roman officials to oppose sex/gender changes. Ordination of women as deacons, priests, and bishops and perhaps to be named as cardinal or elected as pope are seemingly in-house matters. But they are tied to the same claim to the natural sex/gender order. If gender bends, so too must ordination, birth control, even abortion, because there is simply no basis to claim that women are subordinate and can be treated as such due to women’s reproductive capacity. Because jurisdiction is linked with ordination, that is, because only ordained persons can make most decisions in the Roman Catholic Church, changes in sex/gender mean changes in who has power in ecclesial matters. That, finally, is what is at stake in-house.

In a meeting with Polish bishops, Pope Francis lamented, “In Europe, America, Latin America, Africa, and in some countries of Asia, there are genuine forms of ideological colonization taking place. And one of these – I will call it clearly by its name – is [the ideology of] ‘gender.’ Today children —children! —are taught in school that everyone can choose his or her sex. Why are they teaching this? Because the books are provided by the persons and institutions that give you money. These forms of ideological colonization are also supported by influential countries. And this [is] terrible!”[8]

The Pope sounds utterly naïve in such statements, like his recent revelation that young people use cell phones almost as extensions of their bodies. As Canadian Jesuit Bernard Lonergan used to say, “The church often arrives a little breathless and a little late.” Still, when church policy is predicated on outdated understandings there are real world consequences.

One alleged case was in Colombia.[9] After the suicide of a gay teen, progressive people updated textbooks on sex/gender. Catholic conservatives, following the Pope, objected. There is speculation that the failure of the plebiscite in that country that would have affirmed an end to decades of civil war was due in part to the religious right’s opposition to the potentially life-saving books. People voted no, rather than affirm anything progressive coming from the government, so the war drags on. The price of rejecting a reasonable consensus among scholars can be calculated in lost lives, both physical and spiritual. Some LGBTIQ teens commit suicide in part because of the anti-queer church teachings. This must end.


  1. What Francis could do to make feminist theologians say that he had brought about change

            A Peruvian journalist asked me recently what Francis could do to make feminist theologians say that he had brought about change. My response was that Pope Francis could renounce the papacy. I do not mean resign like Benedict XVII with yet another cleric lined up to take his place. I mean he could begin to dismantle the kyriarchal structure of the institution thus rejecting the patriarchal theology on which it is based by abolishing the very job he holds in favor of democratic, participatory styles of church and ministry. Obviously, I am not holding my breath for this to happen, but it is the best way I can envision for substantive structural change to take place in the foreseeable future.

For example, in the case of Chile, why replace the thirty-four bishops who have tendered their resignations? Why not try something new, or perhaps something quite ancient as the early church surely was more participatory than the contemporary church. I imagine teams of people, women and men, in the dioceses of Chile doing the administrative, ministerial, and sacramental tasks once reserved for bishops. I predict that after a year no one will miss the bishops as competent lay people with professional skills put their talents to work for the community. Nothing would prevent a bishop from being part of such a team if he were competent.

Failing that, Francis could easily name women as cardinals who would take part in electing his successor. He could join the 21st century by studying and using social scientific data that erode the gender binary. He could declericalize the administration of the church as well as the ordained ministry, replacing it with what Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza decades ago named “a discipleship of equals.”[10] Again, I am not optimistic.

I am deeply disedified by Francis’ current approach. In every instance, it promises more for women than it delivers. It makes claims to women’s ‘special’ status only to be contradicted by increased stereotyping. His very affability and pastoral approach obscure and make attractive deep sexism with negative consequences for women all over the world whose bodies and spirits are damaged and limited by such ideas. Any positive claims about church change during this pontificate need to be nuanced to indicate that such changes leave aside half (or more) of the church’s members. A large asterisk is in order on the first five years of the Francis pontificate or women do not matter.

  1. Constructive next steps to achieve what feminist theologians envision

Given this critical analysis, what do feminist theologians envision with or without Francis and his successors? I conclude by naming four focus areas that are the most minimal next steps, what I am developing as “Cosmic Catholicism” which goes beyond a global approach to one that includes the planet and beyond.[11]

  1. Shared leadership in both theological and pastoral areas
  2. Democratic decision-making
  3. Variety in liturgical, theological, and theo-ethical approaches
  4. A broad opening to persons of other religious faiths and of no faith whatsoever


  1. Shared leadership in both theological and pastoral areas

Power sharing is the heart of the matter. Sharing leadership in setting theological priorities and pastoral practices, making space for marginalized voices, providing resources for training and education, the admission of a wide variety of sources for theological reflection are some concrete ways in which new forms of church will emerge as patriarchal theology and polity are replaced with various inclusive approaches.

  1. Democratic decision-making

By virtue of baptism, Catholics are responsible to participate in the life and ministry of the church. Either this is institutionalized from the local to the global level for everyone or it isn’t. ‘Democratic’ means involving the community in discussion and voting, in action and contemplation, in sacrament and ministry. A democratic church is one in which everyone participates, but also one in which everyone is welcome on their own terms, not defined by others when it comes to communion, lifestyle, or civil status. “All are welcome” is a good summary of the Gospels.      

  1. Variety in liturgical, theological, and theo-ethical approaches

Communities in which people are encouraged to self-define and make choices will necessarily become increasingly diverse. Rather than seek a least common denominator, the postmodern challenge to Catholicism is to find ways to live creatively and faithfully with this diversity. What is ‘catholic’ moving forward is a commitment to empowering these various communities to live out their faith variously while at the same time finding ways to stay in communication and communion. It is not an easy task, but it is the task ahead for which young people need preparation now. Growing up with globalized communication, social media and the like, they are in a great position to carry this out.

  1. A broad opening to persons of other religious faiths and of no faith whatsoever

            While Catholics have enough challenges within our own tradition, a broad opening to persons of other faiths and those who profess no faith whatsoever is needed. The character of interreligious interaction is crucial, beginning with a respectful and welcome embrace of the many ways people choose to be (or not to be) religious. Only then can Catholics re-understand ourselves adequately in the world.

These four starting points for conversation underscore the deep contrast between contemporary kyriarchal Catholicism with its male-only clerical class, its top-down decision-making, it efforts to avoid enculturation as much as possible, and its brazenly exclusivist approach to religious variety (Dominus Iesus).

This “Cosmic Catholicism” as I call it is emerging. Early Catholic feminists never imagined that our fledgling efforts at equality would result in such a deep and transformative movement of the spirit. That is precisely what is happening for which I am deeply grateful.

[1] Hannah Brockhaus, “Laywomen among New CDF Appointees” Catholic News Agency, April 23, 2018,, accessed June 12, 2018.

[2] Deborah Rose-Milavec, “Gender Policy: One Path for Women’s Equality in the Catholic Church” Questions and Answers about Women’s Ordination | FutureChurch, March 8, 2015,, accessed June 12, 2018.

[3] Marjorie Hyer and Megan Rosenfeld, “A Challenge From Nuns” The Washington Post, October 08, 1979,, accessed June 12, 2018.


[5] Voices of Faith, “Mary McAleese ‘The Time is now for change in the Catholic Church’” Youtube video, 22:11, March 9, 2018,

[6] Carol Kuruvilla, “Catholic Women’s Event Persists Despite Vatican’s Rejection Of Progressive Participants” The Huffington Post, March 09, 2018,, accessed June 12, 2018.

[7] Elise Harris, “Pope Francis: Like Mary, the Church Is a Mother” Catholic News Agency, May 21, 2018,, accessed June 12, 2018.

[8] Inés San Martín, “Pope’s Critique of ‘gender Theory’ Emboldens Bishops to Speak out” Crux Now, August 22, 2016,, accessed June 12, 2018.

[9] Ana Campoy, “Gender Identity, and Other Reasons Colombians Rejected Their Peace Deal That Had Nothing to Do with the Peace Deal” Quartz, October 04, 2016,, accessed June 12, 2018.

[10] Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Discipleship of Equals: A Critical Feminist Ekklēsia-logy of Liberation, NY: Crossroad, 1993.

[11] Mary E. Hunt, “Cosmic Catholicism in Embodied Conversation,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, 33.2, 2017, 123-126.