Catholic women across the world are calling for a wide range of reforms to the church, according to the results of our survey of more than 17,000 Catholic women from over 100 countries published this month.
A substantial majority were concerned about the prevalence of abuse, racism, and sexism in church contexts, and many raised issues relating to transparency and accountability in church leadership and governance.
The International Survey of Catholic Women is one of the most extensive surveys of Catholic women ever undertaken, and its findings should inform lasting and genuine change in the Catholic Church.
The aim of the survey was to gather feedback on the experiences of Catholic women. It provides insights into the complex realities of Catholic women’s lives, the ways in which they express their faith, and their relationships with the institutional church. We devised and managed the survey along with Professor Tina Beattie from the University of Roehampton, London.
The large number of responses clearly indicates a desire by Catholic women to share their aspirations and frustrations, and to make their views on the situation of women in the Catholic Church known to the Synod.
Respondents identified themselves as women from all walks of life – single, married, divorced, LGBTIQ, and religious. While the findings cannot claim to be representative of all Catholic women, they articulate the diverse hopes and struggles of women in the worldwide church.
The views of Catholic women reflect the cultural and communal contexts within which their faith is experienced and practised. This diversity is rarely represented in church documents or theology, and many women struggle to see the relevance of church teachings to the complex realities of their lives.
Many women ‘conflicted’ with the Catholic Church
The survey found that even when women have considerable struggles with Catholic institutions, nearly 90% said their Catholic identity is important to them. Many continue to practise their faith despite ongoing difficulties with the institutional church.
Several respondents used words like “frustrated”, “hurt”, “angry”, and “conflicted” when describing their relationship with the church.
Most respondents said they would welcome reform in the Catholic Church, especially – but not exclusively – regarding the role and representation of women.
One woman from Australia observed “we walk the line of being valuable members of society but voiceless in many elements of the church”. Another, from Nicaragua said, “stop making women invisible”.
A minority of respondents expressed a preference for church reform based on a pre-Vatican II model of authority, priesthood, and liturgy. Vatican II was an important meeting of all Catholic bishops held in Rome between 1962-1965 who made progressive decisions about the future of the worldwide church.
Abuse remains a central problem
Respondents consistently identified the sexual, physical, and emotional abuse of women, children, and other vulnerable people as a central problem for the church.
Some respondents disclosed experiences of abuse and harassment, while others expressed disappointment at the lack of effective action to address the crisis of sexual abuse.
One woman from Canada wrote:
they have a long way to go in dealing with the scandal and cover up. I know this firsthand. I feel as betrayed by the institutional betrayal as I do by my abuser […] This is coming from a committed lifelong Catholic who has never left the church.
Many respondents were deeply concerned about transparency and accountability in church leadership and governance. There was agreement that a less hierarchical and authoritarian model of the church was urgently needed, with greater collaboration and sharing of authority between clergy and laity (lay people).
A substantial majority of respondents identified clericalism as having a negative impact on church life. Clericalism is the idealisation of male clerics and subsequent abuses of power.
A respondent from Panama remarked, “I wish that women had more voice and that we were not abused by clericalism that excludes us and takes away our dignity”.
Most respondents linked their Catholic identity with social justice, and wanted church leaders to address poverty and marginalisation. Several raised the issue of economic justice in church affairs, including the lack of adequate pay for female church workers, both lay and religious.
The challenge for the Synod is to demonstrate that the many concerns raised by respondents in the survey are carefully listened to and addressed.
The Flemish bishops have taken an historic step in the Church’s ministry to gay Catholics by producing an official recognition of same-sex couples within the context of a prayer service.
Their bold move seeks to follow the pastoral approach of Pope Francis rather than the one taken by the Holy See’s doctrine office, which last year said the Church cannot bless same-sex couples. The initiative seeks to balance the pastoral care for gay Catholics while remaining within the bounds of Church teaching and loyal to Rome. It is also another sign that the Church is beginning to make a decisive shift in how it handles LGBTQ Catholics.
Crucially, the bishops say their initiative to couples is in line with the Pope’s family life document, Amoris Laetitia, with its emphasis on discernment, accompaniment and integration and demand that “every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her dignity”.
They also point out that in Amoris Laetitia, Francis argued that an individual’s conscience can recognise what “God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits” even if it does not live up to the “objective ideal”. In other words, unmarried couples or those in “irregular” unions can still make decisions based on conscience and undertake spiritual discernment and development.
“It is the first time that bishops say it’s okay to be LGBT and that this group is to be respected, have a place inside the Church and say ‘we give you a ministry, and a place of exchange and dialogue’,” said Willy Bombeek, who will be coordinating ministry to gay Catholics for the Flemish bishops.
Mr Bombeek is an openly gay Catholic who for decades had worked in Catholic education and as a spokesman for Flemish Catholic schools. Inspired by Francis’ call to give a voice to the voiceless, he started to explore ways for same-sex couples to be accepted and recognised but to do so in a manner that is loyal to the Church.
The matter needed to be addressed, he felt, because clandestine church services for LGBT couples had been taking place for some time. Mr Bombeek brought together a group of gay Catholics, theologians, and parents who produced a document that was submitted to the bishops. To their surprise, the bishops then produced their own prayer text and statement, which was published on 20 September.
The decision by the Dutch-speaking bishops of Belgium formally to recognise gay partnerships has already sparked an aggressive pushback from certain voices in the Church. Some even accuse the bishops of a “schismatic” act that defies Catholic teaching. But this claim has been dismissed by Church commentators in Belgium.
“The Flemish bishops are the last ones to be schismatic,” Hans Geybels, a theologian who is the former spokesman for the late Cardinal Godfried Danneels, said. “They try to keep in line with Rome.”
By coincidence, the bishops are due in Rome in late November for their “ad limina” visit, where they will have meetings with Pope Francis and officials in the Roman Curia.
The same-sex blessing topic is likely to be on the agenda, with the question focussing on the extent to which the Flemish bishops are in breach of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s 15 March 2021 ban on blessings for gay couples, which Francis signed off on.
That document emphasised that any blessing ceremony for gay couples “would constitute a certain imitation or analogue of the nuptial blessing” given to married couples. But the bishops have repeatedly stressed that what they have sanctioned is distinct from a sacramental marriage between a man and a woman.
There is also a theological debate about how far the bishops have formally given approval to the “blessings” of same-sex couples. The prayers to be said with couples asks that God “may bless and perpetuate this commitment of love and fidelity” and at the end advises that a “Benediction” or blessing be given to the couple.
Nevertheless, there is enough creative ambiguity in the wording of the prayers, which makes them difficult to “pin down” into a neat category, while the service of recognition of a same-sex couple is described as a “moment of prayer” and is presented as a proposal.
The Flemish bishops have adopted a very different tone, style and approach to the Holy See’s doctrine department, which has produced several harshly worded rulings on homosexuality in recent decades.
He told the British comedian Stephen K Amos, a gay man, that giving “more importance to the adjective [gay] rather than the noun [man]” is not a good and people who “select or discard people because of the adjective…don’t have a human heart”. Even though the Vatican issued a document in 2003 setting out why it is “necessary to oppose legal recognition of homosexual unions”, the Pope has given his support to civil partnerships, and last year Francis said the Church cannot give a credible witness to Jesus Christ through “legalism or clerical moralism”.
He made the latter remarks just a few days after the doctrine office had released their ruling on same-sex blessings.
Both Bombeek and Geybels said the Flemish bishops are seeking to respond to the needs of the local church and are not trying to implement a Church-wide policy. The Dutch-speaking part of Belgium has traditionally been very Catholic but, in recent decades, has seen a huge drop-off in Mass attendance and participation.
For years, the Catholic faith community of our country, in all its sections, together with other social actors to create a climate of respect, recognition and integration. Many of them, moreover, are committed in an ecclesiastical context or a Christian institution. The bishops encourage their collaborators to continue to follow this path. In doing so, they feel supported by the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, which Pope Francis wrote after the 2015 Synod of Bishops. Distinguish, accompany and integrate: these remain the key words.
With these words, on 17 March 2021, we, the bishops of our country, published a communiqué on pastoral dealings with homosexual persons and couples. In Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis explicitly states that every human being, regardless of their sexual orientation, should be respected in his dignity and treated with respect (AL 250). We want to continue on that path by giving this pastoral a more structural character.
Pastoral care and guidance
The pastoral attention of the church community concerns first and foremost the homosexual persons themselves. Along the sometimes complex path of acknowledging, accepting and living positively, we want to remain close to them. Some remain celibate. They deserve our appreciation and support. Others prefer to live as a couple, in lasting and faithful union with a partner. They too deserve our appreciation and support. Because this relationship too, although not a church marriage, can be a source of peace and shared happiness for those involved.
Their family and relatives equally deserve this pastoral attention and guidance. An attitude of understanding and appreciation is of great importance. Pope Francis explicitly asks these families to offer respectful pastoral guidance so that their members who exhibit a homosexual orientation can enjoy the necessary support to understand and fully fulfil the will of God in their lives (AL 250). Our focus should also be on the wider society and church community. Notwithstanding a growing social recognition of the homosexual fellow man, many remain with questions. At the same time, homophobic violence can raise its head. A better understanding can promote better integration.
The Flemish bishops want to anchor their pastoral commitment to homosexual persons and couples on a structural basis. The policy team of the Interdiocesan Service for Family Pastoral Care (IDGP) will have an additional staff member to take this to heart. The bishops have appointed Willy Bombeek for this purpose. In addition, each diocese will appoint someone to look after the same pastoral focus in the context of diocesan family ministry. He or she will be the point of contact for that diocese. As interdiocesan coordinator, Willy Bombeek will work with them and provide them with the necessary training and guidance.
Pastoral of encounter
This pastoral focuses on encounter and conversation. Even believers who live in a stable homosexual relationship desire respect and appreciation. It hurts when they feel they do not belong or are excluded. They want to be heard and recognised. That is what this pastoralapproach is: their story from uncertainty to growing clarity and acceptance; their questions regarding church positions; their joy of knowing a permanent partner; their choice of an exclusive and lasting relationship; their firm desire to take responsibility to take responsibility for each other and their desire to be of service in church and society. In this pastoral approach, there is room for spiritual discernment, for inner growth and for conscientious decisions. Pope Francis calls for people’s conscientious judgment to be people to be valued and supported, even in life situations that the objective ideal of marriage do not fully live up to it: Conscience can earnestly and honestly recognise this which is now the noble answer one can give to God, and it can recognise with some certainty that this answer is the self-giving that God demands amid the complexity of concrete limitations, even if the full objective ideal is not achieved (AL 303).
For homosexualpersons or couples it is important to integrate in the community of faith. About that integration, Pope Francis writes: The important thing is to integrate everyone, to help everyone help everyone to find their own way of being part of the Church community, so that they would be personally touched by the ‘undeserved, unconditional and gratuitous’ mercy. No one should be condemned forever, because that is not the mindset of the Gospel! I address myself not only to divorced people and people in a new relationship, but to all, in whatever situation they find themselves (AL 297).
Prayer for love and faithfulness
During pastoral meetings, people often ask for a moment of prayer to ask God that He may bless and perpetuate this commitment of love and fidelity. What concrete content and form that prayer can take is best discussed by those involved with a pastoral leader. Such a moment of prayer can take place in all simplicity. Also, the difference should remain clear with what the Church understands by a sacramental marriage.
For example, this prayer moment could proceed as follows.
• Opening word
• Opening prayer
• Scripture reading
• Engagement of the two people involved. Together they express before God how they
towards each other.
God of love and faithfulness,
today we stand before You
surrounded by family and friends.
We thank You that we could find each other.
We want to be there for each other
in all circumstances of life.
We confidently express here
that we want to work on each other’s happiness
day by day.
We pray: give us strength
to be faithful to each other
and deepen our commitment.
In your nearness we trust,
from your Word we want to live,
given to each other for good.
• Prayer of the community. The community prays that God’s grace may work
be active in them to care for each other and for the wider community in which they
God and Father,
we surround N. and N. today with our prayer.
You know their hearts and the path they will take together from now on.
Make their commitment to each other strong and faithful.
According to L’Avvenire, the pope met with Italian LGBTQ+ Catholic group The Tent of Jonathon in a Wednesday (21 September) conference to discuss the organisation’s plan to build a hospitable church that would cater to LGBTQ+ people.
The group, which was founded in 2018, works with various religious organisations to provide “sanctuaries of welcome and support for LGBT people and for every person affected by discrimination.”
In an effort to convince Pope Francis, organisation members gave him a collection of letters from the parents of LGBTQ+ children who have faced “isolation and suspicious within the Christian community.”
Having urged religious parents to “never condemn your children” in a 26 January address, adding that parents should “not hide behind an attitude of condemnation,” the conferences appeared to convince him as he told the organisation to continue with the church’s construction.
Despite upholding traditional church teachings that claim homosexuality is “intrinsically disordered,” the pontiff has been surprisingly forthcoming about introducing LGBTQ+ members into Catholic proceedings.
In 2013, he famously said: “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?”
But there is still a long way to go for LGBTQ+ acceptance in the Vatican. During the same address, he condemned what was cryptically described as lobbying by the LGBTQ+ community.
“The problem is not having this orientation,” he claimed. “We must be brothers. The problem is lobbying by this orientation, or lobbies of greedy people, political lobbies, Masonic lobbies, so many lobbies. This is the worse problem.”
Pope Francis has also repeatedly shut down any hope of same-sex marriage in the Catholic Church, most recently in 2021 when he said he “doesn’t have the power to change sacraments.”
“I have spoken clearly about this, no? Marriage is a sacrament. Marriage is a sacrament. The church doesn’t have the power to change sacraments. It’s as our Lord established.”
Excommunications for LGBTQ+ positive paraphenalia is still incredibly common in local Catholic communities. In June, a middle school was kicked out of the Catholic fold after officials refused to remove Pride and Black Lives Matter flags from school grounds.
In a statement, Massachusetts bishop Robert J. McManus, who chose to excommunicate the Nativity School of Worcester, said: “I publicly stated in an open letter…that ‘these symbols (flags) embody specific agendas or ideologies (that) contradict Catholic social and moral teaching
“It is my contention that the ‘Gay Pride’ flag represents support of gay marriage and actively living a LGBTQ+ lifestyle.”
In response, school president Thomas McKenney said that the flags “represent the inclusion and respect of all people” and that they simply state “that all are welcome at Nativity and this value of inclusion is rooted in Catholic teaching.”
The Roman Catholic Church wears its age well — and yet, after 2,000 years, is still developing new features, still growing into its body. Perhaps, for world religions, 2,000 years seems like puberty: you’re at the age where lots of people know you and recognize you, but inside you’re expanding in ways that are still going to surprise them.
Georgetown is a place where some of the Catholic body’s most important parts can be found: two schools, two parishes and a world-famous university.
Now, this oldest neighborhood in Washington, D.C., is also home to a growing part of the Catholic Church that many Catholics would surely find a little surprising: women priests.
On Sunday morning, Sept. 18, in a secluded backyard garden on R Street, a community of Catholics gathered for what was likely the first ever Catholic Mass held in Georgetown celebrated by a woman.
Washington Home Inclusive Monthly Mass (WHIMM) organized the Mass and invited Rev. Kathleen Blank Riether to celebrate it. In person and remotely, roughly 30 Catholics prayed, read and worshiped, while sharing the sacrament of the Eucharist — the bread and wine — consecrated by the female Catholic priest.
“Sounds like heresy,” said an older member of Holy Trinity when I told him I was going. “My dad would probably say the same thing,” I replied with a smile. I went anyway.
I am not much of a rule breaker. I wasn’t even sure how comfortable I was going to WHIMM’s Mass in the first place. I am also a parishioner of Holy Trinity and attend daily Mass (not every day). I was born at Georgetown University Hospital and was raised in a conservative Catholic family. I was teased by my Italian grandmother for going to “pagan school” — I went to National Cathedral School. I graduated from Georgetown. And I am a disciplined former ballerina who likes to match her belt to her shoes and pay her credit card bill early.
It was at Holy Trinity where I first learned about WHIMM. A few months before the pandemic, WHIMM’s mission was shared with me at a lecture in the parish’s McKenna Hall about women in the early church. The lecture was co-hosted by the parish’s RCIA coordinator and a parishioner with a Ph.D. in theology from Catholic University, both women. When I learned how women were key evangelizers in the early church and were even ordained as deacons, these early Christian women reminded me of NCS’s former headmistress, Aggie Underwood, whose infamously intense academic environment taught us that — as women — we could do anything.
Catholics do not teach girls that they can do anything. If a girl raised in a Catholic church, who grows to love her church, is asked “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and she replies, “I want to become Pope,” the answer is, “No.” And yet, here I was, standing in a garden on R Street, witnessing a female Catholic priest bless me.
“We live in a finite, imperfect world in which every person and situation are an inextricable mix of both good and bad, right and wrong,” said Rev. Riether in her homily during Mass. “Though our minds want to automatically categorize people, situations, and things as right or wrong, good or bad, life is just not that simple… [Life] is a process of learning how to live with and negotiate the harsh realities of this world while upholding and living as fully as we can the teachings of Jesus.”
Reither belongs to Roman Catholic Womenpriest’s Eastern Region, an umbrella organization for the group of ten female Catholic priests called the Living Water Inclusive Catholic Community, the group from which WHIMM typically invites female priests. Based in Maryland, Living Water’s website states it began offering Masses in 2008 at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Annapolis and at the Stony Run Friends Meeting House in Baltimore. One of the leaders of Living Water is Andrea M. Johnson, a woman ordained deacon in 2005, priest in 2007, and now bishop as of 2009. Officially, the Catholic Church excommunicates women who are ordained priests. The ordained women claim the right of apostolic succession.)
Although WHIMM’s Masses are primarily celebrated in private homes, they also offer “Mass on Mass” for a larger gathering in an outdoor park on Massachusetts Avenue and Fulton Street NW. This open, public Mass is offered just steps from the Vatican Embassy, where participants walk to afterward for a short prayer service.
“The goal is not to just bemoan or dismantle what is broken,” says Jane Malhotra, WHIMM’s founder, “but to also build something better.” “Behold, I am making something new!” quotes the group on its website from Isaiah 43:19.
Malhotra was inspired by her aunt, Anne E. Patrick, and her book “On Being Unfinished,” where she explains a belief in creative responsibility: “a willingness to think deeply and originally… to take appropriate risks for the sake of promoting good…”. In that same spirit, Malhotra created WHIMM and through it a space for Catholics, who “want to renew the Church by experiencing a new model of ordained ministry.”
Malhotra’s creative responsibility is not unlike the prophetic obedience (another term coined by Malhotra’s aunt) followed by the women priests from Maryland’s Living Water Community: “Going towards the higher calling of conscience, towards the greater good, towards inclusive and divine justice and the dignity of all God’s creation, even if it means going against the rule of an institution.”
In December 2018, a group of Washington-area Catholics attended the first WHIMM Mass led by a woman priest at a home in Bethesda. In October 2019, the first public Mass was offered — “Mass on Mass” — in addition to ten home masses that year. By 2020, WHIMM Masses were celebrated in Arlington and Bethesda and continued remotely online during the pandemic.
At first, WHIMM started with about 15 Catholics. Then, Masses in private homes began collecting about 30 Catholics. Eventually, the Fulton Street public Mass gathered about 70 Catholics (“despite the rain”). Now, with an email list in the hundreds, a news crew filmed the Georgetown service, capturing attendees which WHIMM says exemplify a “growing community of Catholics seeking to live into the radical vision that Jesus calls us to, in unity with all God’s creation.”
So what is a WHIMM Mass like? Who was there? And what, if anything, was uniquely Georgetown about it?
At first, I felt like I was walking into a picnic (which perhaps, in its casual nature, isn’t too far from the Last Supper). A cardboard sign was taped to a tree to direct us where to walk to find the garden. A cheerful table was set up with mums for doughnut hour, complete with hot coffee and gluten-free pumpkin spice muffins from Trader Joe’s. The most notable culinary offering was actually the communion wine, a bottle of red with Snoop Dog’s face on it, which the label calls perfect for “rule breakers” and which the vintner calls “defiant by nature” and “bold in character.”
Everybody was lovely. The chairs were organized. The altar was recognizably set. The program was passed out. The readings, the psalm, the homily and the eucharist all played out like clockwork. But on this clock, there were some new features. There was no “Lord,” just “God” and “The Creator” (which sometimes took a feminine pronoun). The “Our Father” acknowledged both parents, beginning with “Our Father/Mother in heaven, hallowed be your name…”
Also, there was no unworthiness. Right about as we were to receive communion, instead of calling ourselves “unworthy,” we prayed a reminder that with Jesus we are worthy and that with his words we are healed. Though revised, the liturgy made perfect sense. It was as refreshing as it was heart-opening in a completely enlightened and still authentically Catholic way.
I could tell you that it was very Georgetown because of the Cartier watches, pearl necklaces, Celtic cross pendants, pinky rings, diamond earrings, Nantucket reds and chats about summer travel. (To be sure, the expected Tevas were there, too). But that wasn’t what made it Georgetonian. I thought back to how a 53 year-old John Carroll started building his school before he even officially owned the land. And it made me remember that it was a can-do, self-starting, proactive and hardworking American spirit that built a new country and which also originally defined the community living in Georgetown.
Perhaps, when I was presented with a torn piece of a gluten-free English muffin (instead of a cross-stamped wafer), and heard “the body of Christ” and said “Amen,” I had a hard time believing it really was the body of Christ. Maybe I was confused that there was no man in a robe initiating transubstantiation. But, do I need a man to tell me I am a part of the body of Christ? No. Indeed, I had no doubt that — in the group gathered around me — we were all a new (if a little unfamiliar) part of the body of Christ. And to my right, the older Catholic woman pinched up every crumb left in her palm and ate every morsel so as to not let any part of Jesus fall to the ground.
Flemish Roman Catholic bishops on Tuesday issued a document effectively allowing the blessing of same-sex unions, in direct defiance of a ruling against such practices by the Vatican’s doctrinal office.
The document published on the website of the Bishops’ Conference of Belgium suggested a ritual that included a prayer and a benediction for stable same-sex unions. But it stressed that it was not “what the Church understands by a sacramental marriage”.
It said the Church wanted to be “pastorally close to homosexual persons” and be a “welcoming Church that excludes no one.”
The ritual would start with prayers and includes a commitment by the two people in front of family and friends to be faithful to each other. It would end with more prayer and what the document called a “benediction”.
A Vatican spokesman had no immediate comment.
In March 2021, in response to formal questions from a number of Roman Catholic dioceses on whether the practice of blessing same-sex unions was allowed, the Vatican’s doctrinal office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), ruled that it was not. read more
At the time, the CDF said its ruling was “not intended to be a form of unjust discrimination, but rather a reminder of the truth of the liturgical rite” of the sacrament of marriage and the blessing associated with it.
In response to that ruling, Bishop John Bonny of Antwerp said he felt “shame for my Church” and apologised to those he said had been hurt by the “painful and incomprehensible” decision.
POPE SUPPORTS CIVIL UNIONS BUT NOT MARRIAGE
Pope Francis has said he is opposed to same-sex marriage in the Church but supports civil union legislation to give same-sex couples legal protection and rights such as inheritance and shared health care.
A spokesman for the bishops, Geert De Kerpel, said their intention was not to defy the Vatican ruling.
“This is first and foremost a positive message,” he told Reuters, adding that it conformed with the pope’s calls for a more inclusive Church.
The Flemish bishops document said that some Catholic gays remained celibate and that the Church appreciated it. The Church teaches that while homosexual orientation is not sinful, homosexual acts are.
But the document added that “some prefer to live as a couple, in lasting and faithful union with a partner” and that such a relationship “can also be a source of peace and shared happiness”.
The bishops denounced “homophobic violence,” and said they wanted to “structurally anchor their pastoral commitment to homosexual persons.
They announced the appointment of Willy Bombeek, a gay Catholic, as an additional staff member to their department for pastoral care of families to oversee care of gay Catholics.
One with similar duties would be appointed to each diocese in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium.
“I’m proud to belong to the Flemish Church,” Bombeek told Reuters. “I hope that religious people in other countries will also get to experience this, and hopefully, this is only the beginning”.
Francis DeBernardo, executive director of U.S.-based Catholic LGBTQ group New Ways Ministry, said the move would be a blessing for both the couple and for the Church.
“These prelates recognise that love is love. Love is more important than sexual behaviour, and love is something that the Church should always bless,” he said in a statement.