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Panel considers role of women in the Church

| Friday, April 4, 2014

The 2013-14 Notre Dame Forum on Women in Leadership brought a panel of experts to discuss the role of women in the life of the Catholic Church on Thursday night.

The panel, moderated by NBC News chief environmental correspondent Anne Thompson, featured Kathleen Sprows Cummings, director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism; Fr. Matt Malone, editor-in-chief of ‘America;’ Kerry Alys Robinson, executive director of the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management; Annie Selak, lay minister and rector of Walsh Hall and Sister Ann Astell, professor of theology.

This year, the annual forum series focused on women in leadership roles throughout a variety of institutions. A discussion of the role of women in the Church, in particular, is one that is incredibly crucial and timely, especially in light of recent comments made by Pope Francis on the issue, University President Fr. John Jenkins said.

“[Pope Francis] has spoken on a number of occasions about the distinctive role of women in the life of the Church in various forms of witness, ministry and leadership,” Jenkins said. “While not envisioning the ordination of women, he has called for greater study of and reflection on women’s role in the Church, and particularly in the exercise of authority in the Church.”

Robinson affirmed the openness of both Pope Francis and Pope Benedict to providing women a greater role in Church leadership. The church suffers when women, particularly American women, see they cannot hold strong leadership roles, she said.

“When a young, Catholic woman, especially from the West, looks out at the landscape of her professional life, she knows that she can attain the highest levels of leadership in any sector or industry,” she said. “And when that same woman discerns the vocation of service to the Church she loves, often she is met with limitations on bringing the full complement of her skills and abilities.

“And frequently that intuition and instinct leads her to spend her professional life … in the secular world. The church is impoverished when that happens.”

Providing women with these roles will not only serve the Church’s women, but the Church itself, Selak said.

“I think it would really revolutionize not just women’s roles in the Church, but men’s roles, and we’d really come to regard the universal call to holiness in an entirely new light,” she said

Cummings said this change in women’s leadership roles in the Catholic Church does not have to start in Vatican City; it can start with the actions of women in their own parishes.

“There are many ways that women can exercise leadership at every level of the Church government,” she said. “…Women are already exercising leadership.”

Malone affirmed the role of women in the Church is an important one. He said solely discussing the ordination of women ignores the work that can be done to strengthen roles that women already hold in the Church or that women can hold without ordination.

“A lot of people perceive that the reason why the Holy Orders is restricted to men is a product of patriarchy and sexism, and I think that it would be a lot easier for a lot of people to believe that that weren’t true if … every other office that doesn’t require ordination employed women,” he said.

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