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Study reveals women’s decision-making roles in church


Following four years of research, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious has released a study showing that Catholic women -- married, single and religious sisters -- are participating in the administration of the church by making high-level decisions in many areas of church life.

The group was scheduled to release the results of the first academic study of women’s experience in Catholic church leadership roles at a news conference March 8, International Women’s Day.

According to an executive summary, the leadership conference study provides empirical proof that Catholic women are participating in the administration of the church by making high-level executive decisions affecting church personnel, property and policy.

The conference is the national organization that represents over 1,000 elected leaders of U.S. Catholic women religious.

The conference “chose to release the Women and Jurisdiction study on International Women’s Day to acknowledge women and the ways in which their professional contribution to church administration enriches the Catholic church,” said the conference president, Sister of St. Joseph Kathleen Pruitt.

The full title of the study is “Women and Jurisdiction: An Unfolding Reality -- The LCWR Study of Selected Church Leadership Roles.” The study task force designed a two-phase study focusing on the experience of women in six roles within the church: chancellor, tribunal judge, diocesan finance director, director of Catholic charities, vicar/delegate for religious and pastoral director of a parish.

Phase One conducted focused interviews with 25 women from 24 dioceses and 23 states. Phase Two was a survey of all women occupying these roles in the U.S. Catholic church and had a return rate of 76.7 percent.

The task force was headed by Sister Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Anne Munley, a sociologist, former conference president and current president of her order. Other task force members included specialists in pertinent fields to this study: Sister of Charity Rosemary Smith (canon law); Sister of Charity Mary Helen Maher Garvey (pastoral planning); Holy Names Sr. Lois MacGillivray (sociology); and Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary Sr. Mary Milligan (theology).

The study showed, for example, that women in church administration participated in almost all categories of decision-making affecting church property, yet their role in policy decisions was more focused on areas affecting people.

More than seven of 10 respondents said they were responsible for evaluating and hiring personnel.

More than 74 percent who responded said they had been the first woman to be a chancellor in their diocese; 69 percent, the first finance officers; 66.7 percent, the first tribunal judges; 55.6 percent, the first director of Catholic Charities, 52.8 percent the first pastoral directors; and 36.4 percent the first vicar/delegate for religious.

The study task force said that the research results “serve to demystify the concept of jurisdiction, demonstrate the dimensions already in practice and identify possibilities for enhancing the contributions of nonordained persons in church governance. They are offered as a way of continuing and expanding dialogue.”

National Catholic Reporter, March 15, 2002