Pierless Bridges

The Joan and Ralph Lane Center for Catholic Social Thought and the Ignatian Tradition

May 2020 Faith with Justice

Women and the Church: Bearing Witness to New Life

By Kerry Alys Robinson

These are not easy days to be Catholic. These are not easy years to be Catholic as we confront the crisis of clergy sexual abuse and fractured trust in church leadership, replete with clericalism, sexism, and poor stewardship. I firmly believe, however, that women hold the key to positive managerial reform, the restoration of trust in the church and in church leadership, and that now is precisely the time when the church most needs women, and what women uniquely have to offer.

The best advice I can offer in times of anguish when the institutional church fails to live up to its potential or manifests ignoble qualities – clericalism, arrogance, fear, secrecy, sanctimony, prejudice, sexism, or mediocrity — comes from my teacher and spiritual director, a beloved Sister of Mercy, Margaret Farley. She said, “Remember what it is you most love about the church and membership in it. Name what you love. Claim what you love. It will provide ballast to allow you to navigate with fidelity and focus when you are disappointed and discouraged.”

I have taken this advice to heart and highly recommend the discipline.

Have you thought about this? When people ask you why you are Catholic or why you 23 stay? What do you tell them? What do you most value about our faith?

My list is long and wide. I love Catholic social justice teaching, our church’s rich intellectual tradition, sacramental life and imagination, mercy, the Eucharist, the primacy of conscience, prayer and transcendence, forgiveness, the preferential option for the poor and most vulnerable, the injunction to be Christ-like. I love that wherever there is human suffering in this world, the church is at the vanguard of providing relief, promoting justice and advocating for peace. I am daily grateful for Pope Francis. I am grateful that he is on the global stage restoring our faith in humankind by his integrity and mercy, particularly at a time when so many others commanding the global spotlight behave and speak in such ignoble, demeaning ways. I love that Pope Francis has given us Laudato si’, which provides people of goodwill a seminal roadmap to care for our common home and one another. And in my grief over losing my friend, I am grateful more than I can say for our church’s articulation of the communion of saints, the conviction of eternal life, the fact that love doesn’t end with death.

I am reminded of Msgr. Geno Walsh’s famous injunction: “Followers of Jesus are promised two things: Your life will have meaning and you will live forever. If you get a better offer, take it!”

The Catholic church is the largest global humanitarian network with enormous potential, and therefore responsibility, to address human suffering and complex global challenges. It is also the vehicle through which the Catholic faith is transmitted to nearly 1.3 billion people.

Sui generis, with a divine mission, the church is distinct from secular institutions. Nevertheless, it is composed of people, facilities, property, and finances that deserve to be handled with the highest levels of ethics, care, accountability, and contemporary best managerial practices. That level of care should be commensurate with the degree to which its mission is deemed important, urgent, beneficial, and salvific.

Deep within the Catholic imagination, if not universally applied in practice, is imago dei, the conviction that all people are created in God's likeness. All forms of prejudice and discrimination are contrary to Catholic teaching. This faith claim, alone, argues for the full participation, value, and equal respect for women as for men.

Decades of substantive Catholic social teaching have brought inviolable insight into how Catholics and people of goodwill ought to comport and conduct ourselves. An especially important assertion is the preferential option for the poor: Those of us most in need, most marginalized and most vulnerable deserve the particular attention, care, and advocacy of those of us to whom much has been given. It bears noting that women and children are disproportionally, adversely affected by poverty, war, climate change, illness, unemployment, and forced migration, and least likely to cause or contribute to such deleterious conditions. 

The church is embroiled in a particular set of crises: clergy sexual abuse and concomitant leadership failures. Better analyses of root causes, more effective solutions, and a commitment to positive cultural change is best achieved when women are included at the tables of decision making. This is true in every sector and context. The church needs the insightful, prophetic, experienced perspective, voice, and contribution of women now more than ever.

Add to this the growing disaffection of young adults and young women in particular with the church. Young women need role models and clear understandings that their service to the church will not be met with gratuitous limitations on the exercise of their full complement of gifts and talents as they live out their vocation.

For those who value the church’s mission and vitality, its impact as a global humanitarian network, and the restoration of trust in church leadership, concern about the role of women is a matter of managerial and moral urgency. How compromised is the church by failing to include women at the highest levels of leadership and at the tables of decision making in the Roman curia and throughout the institutional church? Nearly every institution in the world has accommodated and incorporated women in leadership — often reluctantly at first, only to admit the practical, tangible value of having done so.

Recruiting competent women to positions of leadership and increasing the percentage of women serving in such roles to approximate that of men is crucial. In the U.S there are, increasingly, inspiring examples of women serving in senior diocesan positions and serving as CEOs of national Catholic apostolates. Do we have as many women as men serving on pastoral councils, diocesan finance councils, and boards of trustees of Catholic charities? If not, why not? What informs the reluctance to appoint women as pastoral life coordinators overseeing parishes given the very serious priest shortage? What informs the reluctance to extend the vote to women religious participating in synods? How long must we wait for women to be restored to the diaconate? What impact does the insistence that authority, leadership, and decision-making be solely tied to ordination have on the presence, participation, and active engagement of women in the church?

We can help the church emulate what it advocates. We can provide a strong signal to young women that they are valued in leadership and decision making in the church by ensuring that they are, and visibly so. We can work toward better human resource policies and structures that take seriously lay vocations. How do we identify, recruit, form, train, place, compensate, evaluate and promote women in the church? Do we invest in their formation? Do we use our creativity, will and determination to find ways to reduce or forgive their student debt? We can reimagine seminary formation to ensure that it is conducive to healthy lay-clergy collaboration and co-responsibility. We can insist that a candidate’s ability to work collaboratively and effectively and respectfully with women be a requirement in the selection and appointment of bishops. We can establish effective mentoring programs for young Catholic women. We can seek out mentors and serve as mentors over the whole course of our lives. And we can expand our imagination and appoint women to the diplomatic core, communication apostolates, and the prefectures and presidencies of dicasteries.

Women are essential to the future of a vibrant church.

In closing, let’s change the narrative, raise up our sisters, our histories and our stories. Let’s be the church we yearn to see. A more relevant church to young adults, a more joyful church, a church of integrity, ethics, trust, justice and openness. A safe environment for the most vulnerable. A church worthy of profound generosity. A church at the forefront of justice, peace and charity. Let us be bearers of the good news, witnesses to new life. Help to give faithful, articulate, prophetic voice to the importance of baptismal rights and responsibilities. Be part of the global transformation of consciousness that celebrates, invites, affirms and encourages the genuine collaboration of laity, religious and clergy in the service of the church’s mission.

A church the world needs because the world needs solace, healing, peace, hope, mercy, generosity, and the light and love of Christ. 

KERRY ALYS ROBINSON (kerry@leadershiproundtable.org) is global ambassador for Leadership Roundtable, where she previously served as executive director. From 1997 to 2007, she was the director of development for Saint Thomas More Catholic Chapel and Center at Yale University. Robinson is a member of the board of directors of the Raskob Foundation for Catholic Activities in Wilmington, Delaware, and a member of Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities (FADICA).


  1. Redacted from the original and printed with permission. Kerry Robinson, “Women and the Church: Bearing Witness to New Life,” Lecture on “Women Shaping the Catholic Social Tradition” (University of San Francisco, November 15, 2019).