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Message from a little girl’s collage


A practicing Catholic all my life, I never consciously thought about the absence of women in leadership positions within the church hierarchy. Priests and deacons are men. Cardinals and bishops are men. The acceleration of opportunities for women in all segments of society and the scattered voices of protest concerning the church and gender issues have failed to budge the ordination blockade against females. The single gender leadership structure has been and remains a constant. The male-dominated hierarchy has existed for so long that Catholics barely notice, avoid the topic or have given up on challenging this historical mandate.

It took a simple exchange with my daughter who is in second grade to stir up in me a haunting restlessness. Shelby, our oldest, bounded happily out of her summer catechism class with a project in hand. She showed me a three-tiered collage consisting of photocopied pictures of Pope John Paul II, two diocesan bishops and our three parish priests. The pictures were arranged in hierarchical order with the pope on top, the bishops in the middle and the parish priests on the bottom. The cutout words at the bottom of the collage read: “All of these people proclaim and teach the good news of God.”

When I asked her what was talked about in class that day, Shelby explained that she learned about the church.

The pope, bishops and priests depicted in the collage are all deeply spiritual individuals who serve others and strive to make a corner of the world a more humane and loving place.

So what is the problem? As Shelby and I walked to the car, I wondered what a 7-year-old girl thought about the church after the catechism session and collage activity. A young girl might assume that there is no one like her who has an important job in the Catholic church. Most likely nothing so profound is bothering her. My anxiety centered on the fact that as Shelby and our youngest daughter, Allison, grow up, attend Mass and go through the sacraments, they will slowly realize that women do not have a visible leadership presence. I would be more confident about my daughters’ future allegiance to the church if at least one of those six individuals had been a woman.

Scripture and tradition are the usual rationales provided by church officials. It is stated that since Jesus was a man, only a man can represent him during the Eucharist. The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that Jesus chose 12 men to be his disciples. Eventually, those disciples chose men to replace them, and the pattern has perpetuated itself through church history. In 1994, Pope John Paul II firmly stated that God has determined that only men can be priests, and nothing can overturn this divine dictate. In other words, the issue of women being ordained as priests or deacons is not open for discussion.

In stark contrast to the church, women have rapidly assumed leadership roles in corporate and nonprofit organizations. Opportunities for professional women to move from middle management to the CEO level are increasing. Current leadership literature extols the virtues of female executives. A recent essay in U.S. News and World Report titled “Are women better leaders?” discussed how changing cultural and societal factors have made the feminine leadership approach more effective and increasingly sought after. The ability to build relationships, a strong suit for many female executives, is a highly valued leadership characteristic given today’s information-based economy and the complex nature of flatter, more streamlined organizations.

Though capable of insensitivity and male shortsightedness, my evolving enlightenment about gender issues has been shaped by the women around me. My mother earned a degree from Marquette University back in the 1950s when it was rare for women to even attend college. Though she chose to work in the home and raise her four children, she had an arsenal of skills that would have allowed her to pursue other options.

My two sisters are professionals in the health care and counseling fields. In her role as a university administrator, my wife has significant responsibilities. As an educator, I work in a predominantly female work force. My administrative colleagues are primarily female, including a boss who is the most talented professional I know.

It is concern for my daughters though that provides me with the greatest motivation to push the envelope on gender equality in the church. My desire for Shelby and Allison is that they have the same opportunities afforded men to use their talents, pursue their interests and make their contributions to society. My advice to them, assuming they will ask at some point, will be to seek employment with organizations that emphasize meaningful work, equal pay for equal work, performance and merit, a positive work environment, family friendly policies, opportunities for advancement and a diversified workforce. Women today can rise to the top of any profession.

During my daughters’ lifetimes, the opportunities to ascend to great heights will expand significantly. The one exception will be the Catholic church.

Being Catholic has been a tremendously life-giving experience for me. Of course, I am a male. My hope is for my daughters to view the church in the same positive light. My fear is that they will not fully invest themselves in the church because they do not feel like equal partners.

If Jesus’ ministry began today instead of 2,000 years ago, what would the gender composition of his 12 apostles be? Would all of them be men? It is readily conceivable that a loving, just and inclusive Jesus would establish an inner core of disciples comprised equally of men and women.

If Jesus were with us today and we posed the question to him about whether women should be able to become priests, what do you think he would say?

Brad Rieger is assistant superintendent of the Springfield Local Schools, Holland, Ohio.

National Catholic Reporter, March 22, 2002