Do Women Have a Future in the Catholic Church? Social Justice Orgs Petition Bishops This Week

No denomination has suffered as acutely as the Roman Catholic Church from the changes remaking American Christianity, from a rise in unaffiliated individuals (particularly millennials) to an alarming decline in women’s church attendance.

Now the decline in millennial women’s attendance and participation in the church has become so acute that progressive Catholic leaders are raising alarm about a “lost generation” of Catholic women—and potentially their children as well–if the church doesn’t radically change the way it relates to women.

As sociologist Patricia Wittberg wrote in America Magazine about 2008 data that indicated a first-ever decline in religiosity among young Catholic women as compared to men:

Both genders of millennial and Gen X Catholics are much less devout and much less orthodox than their elders, and many practice their religion infrequently if at all. But the decline is steeper among women. Millennial Catholic women are slightly more likely than Catholic men their age to say that they never attend Mass (the first generation of American Catholic women for whom this is so), and the women are significantly more likely to hold heterodox positions on whether the pope is infallible and whether homosexual activity is always wrong. None of the millennial Catholic women in the survey expressed complete confidence in churches and religious organizations.

And as I noted recently in RD, the trend of women leaving the church only accelerated through 2012.

Arguing that the future of the church is in danger without women—who have not only attended services and prayed more often then men, historically, but who carry out much of the work of the church—a coalition of 30 Catholic social justice organizations will petition the U.S. Catholic bishops for concrete changes to create A Church for Our Daughters today at the bishops’ semi-annual meeting in San Diego.

The groups participating include advocates for women priests, such as the Association of Roman Catholic Womenpriests and the Women’s Ordination Conference, the Catholic LGBT equality groups DignityUSA and New Ways Ministry, the Catholic reproductive rights group Catholics for Choice, and Catholic reform organizations such as Call to Action and FutureChurch.

The petition calls on the Catholic bishops to:

…work with us to build a Church that strikes down every oppressive practice, teaching, and law that assigns women and girls to a subordinate status.  We call on our leaders to create a Church that is truly inclusive and alive with the gifts, spirit, and potential of all its members.

Among the demands are a church that “honors the vocations and ministries of all its members,” removes gender and sexuality-based restrictions on the sacraments, and “seeks to be fully inclusive and representative of women and to integrate their wisdom and insights in all areas of Church life including governance, decision-making, teaching, theological reflection, and canon law.”

For many participants, the jarring incongruities between the way women are treated in the larger world and in the Catholic Church become increasingly difficult to accept as their daughters grow up in the church. “I sort of feel that I’m selling her a bit of fakery by continuing to take her to a segregated institution,” Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, told RD in reference to his daughter. “Can you imagine if Apple told its women employees that they could go to the cafeteria and make lunch for everyone but that they couldn’t be on the Board of Directors? The Catholic Church is the only large institution that we accept this from.”

For the Catholic women participating in the effort, it’s a way to reject the false dichotomy that the church creates between “who we are as women and who we are as Catholics,” said Sara Hutchinson Ratcliffe of CFC. “To reduce women to ‘strawberries on the cake’ as Pope Francis did dismisses our agency to make decisions and to practice our faith in a fully integrated way.”

The petition calls for a church that “celebrates and promotes a spirituality that recognizes an inclusive God, beyond gender, and incorporates language that is inclusive and representative of God’s feminine, masculine, and non-gendered attributes in liturgy, doctrine, and pastoral practice.”

Beyond concrete demands for the leadership of the church, like equal pay for women, honoring women’s moral agency to make their own health care decisions and ending structural discrimination against women, it’s an aspirational document that publicly spells out the kind of church many Catholics would like to see said Ratcliffe. “We are reaching out to those Catholics, especially millennials, who are less likely to attend church. We are asking them what they want for the future of their church,” she said. “What do they want their church to be?”