What is the Role of Women in the Church?

I think we were all heartened by the news of new sanctions on “women’s ordination” in the Vatican’s newly revised canon law. We have no way of knowing whether Pope Francis shares our revulsion for those posing as liturgical ladies, but it’s comforting to know that “going to the peripheries” has its limits. Of course, the revision also authorizes female altar servers, liturgical readers, and eucharistic ministers, confirming a long-standing liberalization. But to those uncomfortable with such official roles for women at Mass, I would ask: What are women supposed do at church, besides sit in the pews?

It’s not an easy question—at least not to modern Catholics, who have no memory of women’s traditional roles in the parish.

I guarantee: good Catholic laywomen are waiting in the wings to play an active role in their parishes. They’re not called to the consecrated life. Many are married with kids. They don’t care to take on these pretend-priest roles like Eucharistic ministers. But they want to help, to draw near to the center of their faith. Aside from putting on an alb, what are women to do?

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The French theologian Yves Congar, who spent a career pondering the role of lay people in the Church, reflected on this question in his book The Meaning of Tradition. “We may even discern a feminine and maternal touch in the vital aspect of tradition,” he mused. “A woman expresses instinctively and vitally what a man expresses logically. The man is the logos, the external agent. The woman is the recipient, the matrix and fashioner of life. She creates the surroundings in which life will retain its warmth; one thinks of the maternal breast, of tenderness, of the home. She is fidelity.”

In other words, women are designed for hospitality and community. We have a unique ability to make God’s house into a home.

A few years ago, my family moved to a new town in a new state. Our parish was now full of strangers. Who were they? Could they be future friends? There was barely any opportunity to find out. When Mass ended, people headed for the parking lot—just as I had done my entire life, since childhood. It’s the experience of most Catholics across America and probably the entire western world. It never struck me until I was the new person, hoping to make a connection.

In most parishes, there is no easy way to go from “new family” to “familiar face.” And taking familiarity to the next level—true friendship—is harder still.

Suddenly, just when I was losing any hope of building a friend group at church, the lockdowns brought the wholesale cancellation of all Catholic ministries and community events—even in our small town, where secular social life remained largely unhampered. But the end of official church programming turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Faced with houses full of kids and no Catholic social life, the young women of the parish stepped up. It began with play dates, violating the stay-at-home orders on behalf of our socially-starved children, and it built momentum through solidarity with our fellow “outlaw moms.” The group blossomed into the strongest, most organic Catholic community I have ever encountered: cultivating, as Congar put it, the “surroundings in which life will retain its warmth.”

Now we celebrate community twice a month through prayer potlucks that combine two of Catholics’ most powerful weapons: the Rosary and the crockpot. Dozens of friendly faces, young and old, married and single, come to pray for our town, our Church, our country, and each other. None of us is rich or has a church hall or meeting venue. With God’s grace and Our Lady’s housekeeping skills, you can pack an incredible number of potlucking Catholics into even the humblest space.

Putting that many faithful Catholics of all ages and interests together necessarily facilitates an organic community. Families are beginning to find old, half-forgotten Catholic traditions and feasts for the domestic sphere and share them together. There are now regular meet-ups and subgroups of various interests, so much so that we had to start coordinating on Slack to harness this massive energy. We’ve attracted out-of-town visitors who explained they’d heard of our group and wanted to consider moving to our town.

This vital Christian culture is beneficial to my children, who now find Christianity constantly reinforced, not only on Sundays, or by mom and dad, but whenever they see their friends. They associate their faith and their friends as closely connected parts of a whole, not simply as two separate facets of their lives. Several of us moms try to meet up for picnics and other get-togethers after Mass during the week—further associating the liturgy with fellowship and community. It has been essential for me, renewing my hope in the resilience of the Church against the assaults of the enemy.

With utmost respect to the men in the group and the part they play, none of this would have ever happened without us women.

Does that begin to answer what is the proper role of women in the Church? The reward of this uniquely women’s work is not a salary, or parish power and influence with an official title and office space. The Church offers women something better: a chance to tend to the spiritual home life of God’s people.

The Church needs its women to rediscover their feminine, maternal roles and ensure that parish life is family life. For us, that’s far better than the tit-for-tat, “anything you can do I can do better” of liturgical officiousness. And, it turns out, it’s much better for the parish, too.

[Photo Credit: Lisa Johnston for CNA]

  • Mary Cuff

    Mary Cuff is an independent scholar, wife, and homeschooling mother. She holds a PhD in American literature from the Catholic University of America and has published in the Southern Literary Journal, Five Points, Mississippi Quarterly, and Modern Age. She teaches online high school classical rhetoric courses at Homeschool Connections.

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