Conversation on the potential for women’s participation in the Catholic Church in Australia.

Let’s start by recalling some of what was said at the time of Vatican II and which gives us a context for this conversation today on the potential for women’s participation in the Catholic Church in Australia.

“In Christ and in the Church there is, then, no inequality arising from race or nationality, social condition or sex.” Lumen Gentium, n 3

“All men are endowed with a rational soul and are created in God’s image; they have the same nature and origin and, being redeemed by Christ, they enjoy the same divine calling and destiny…But forms of social or cultural discrimination in basic personal rights on the grounds of sex, race, colour, social conditions, language or religion must be curbed and eradicated as incompatible with God’s design.” Gaudiem et Spes, n 29

“Women are gaining an increasing awareness of their natural dignity. Far from being content with a purely passive role of allowing themselves to be regarded as a kind of instrument, they are demanding both in domestic and public life the rights and duties that belong to them as human persons.” Pacem in Terris, n.41

Vatican II offered us the promise of a new way of being church, a new way of being in relationship with one another and with God. The movement for greater participation of women in the church is one sign of this and although for many it is a prolonged and sometimes painful process, I expect that most of us can tell stories of some local initiatives which are working or which are an attempt at increasing the contribution of women in various aspects of the life of the church.

And it’s helpful to remind ourselves of some of the concerted action that has happened nationally in the intervening years and which has brought us to the point of having what we could call a pastoral plan, contained in the Social Justice Statement 2000, for the church in Australia:

In 1977 the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace published the Social Justice Sunday Statement, Towards a More Whole Church, addressing a range of gender issues in the Church.

During the latter part of the twentieth century the Bishops received many suggestions and representations from a broad range of people and groups that the issues concerning the role and status of women were a high priority social justice concern to the community.

In October 1992, Sr Anne Lane pbvm, on behalf of the Sub-Committee on Women’s Issues Catholics in Coalition for Justice and Peace, presented to Bishop William Brennan, Chairman of the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council, a letter with the following proposal: “That the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council recommend to the Bishops’ Committee for Justice, Development and Peace that they, on behalf of the Australian Bishops’ Conference, authorise and finance an independent study researching ‘Sexism in the Catholic Church in Australia’.”

By the end of 1993, Bishop Brennan and Bishop Manning reported to the Bishops’ Committee for Justice, Development and Peace that there was a recognised need to study the actual position of women in the Church in Australia.

In June 1994 the first meeting of the Working Party which designed the research project took place. The Working Party agreed that the general objective of the proposed study would be to gather data by a variety of methods on the participation of women in the Catholic Church in Australia.

In August 1996, the Research Project on the Participation of Women in the Catholic Church in Australia was launched by Cardinal Edward Clancy.

In April 1999, the Report on the Participation of Women in the Catholic Church in Australia, Woman and Man: One in Christ Jesus was presented to the Australia Catholic Bishops Conference.

The Bishops Response to the Report was published as the Social Justice Sunday Statement for 2000 in September of that year.

Their Response contained 9 decisions of national significance and 31 proposals for implementation in dioceses regarding the participation of women in the Catholic Church in Australia.

Decision 8 called for the establishment of a commission for women under the auspices of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference. Nine members from across Australia were appointed in December 2000 and the Commission held its first meeting in February 2001. An Executive Officer was appointed in July 2001.

The role of the Commission is to:

promote and facilitate the decisions and proposals contained in the Social Justice Statement

available at

to facilitate the ongoing dialogue regarding the participation of women in the Catholic Church in Australia

So what’s happened since the Commission came into being – has its existence helped draw the church in Australia further along the path of developing an harmonious balance of women and men involved in the life of the Church, enabling the experience and gifts of women to be shared across the many layers of the life and mission of the Church?

The following are some initiatives which have happened or are under way:

The Commission has invited every Diocese to nominate a person who will be a contact between the Commission and the Diocese. This is one step towards facilitating the implementation of the Social Justice Statement at the local level and for the Commission and people across diocese to have contact with each other and to share news and insights regarding women’s participation.

Most Dioceses responded to the request for a contact and a process of formation and information sharing for those who were nominated was held in four centres across Australia at the beginning of this year. A number of those selected had little or no knowledge of the Research and/or the Social Justice Statement.

The Commission hopes that this network will enable the church at the local level to be part of guiding and shaping the whole process from their experience, needs and hopes.

Some dioceses are now in the process of establishing or have established, a commission or committee to coordinate and oversee the implementation of the proposals and other related initiatives.

At the national level the Commission is working towards making recommendations to the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference regarding processes to enable a better balance and harmony of women and men, clergy, religious and lay, in appointments to councils, agencies, advisory bodies, leadership appointments and professional roles.

The Commission is in the process of developing various teams and establishing advisory bodies to assist the Commission with the ongoing development of strategies and action. One of these is the formation of a media response group in order to raise the voice and insights of Catholic women on issues of social concern.

The ongoing development of the website continues as a space for informed discussion and for sharing of information on topics related to Catholic women and the Church.

The development of networks has been a major focus for the Commission, liasing with number of key individuals, parish communities and organisations eg National Council of Priests, CWL, ACLRI, Australian Catholic Theological Association, WATAC, Parliamentarians, Office of the Status of Women, various diocesan based groups and agencies etc.

The Commission holds its quarterly meetings in various locations across Australia in order to provide an opportunity to meet with people from that place and to promote the ongoing dialogue.

The Commission reports through the Bishops’ Committee for Laity and once a year the Chair reports direct to the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference.

So what kind of transformation were we invited into with Vatican II and what might the church look like if we are to pursue the vision of Vatican II – and the spirit of the Social Justice Statement – with renewed vigour? And what sustains us in this time of working together to bring about new ways of being?

Sometimes I feel a bit daunted about the task and yet I am sustained knowing that we’re all in it together. And while I hope for a transformation that is as cataclysmic and as sudden as the tumbling of the Berlin Wall, I recognise that it will happen in God’s time and that our role meantime is to leave the campsite in a more harmonious condition than we found it.

I also draw on my own journey as a woman involved in the institutional church, initially from the experience of being a member of the Diocesan Pastoral Team (DPT) in the Archdiocese of Adelaide for 5 years and currently as Coordinator of St Paul’s City Ministry. These experiences offer some insights as to what we could look like as we move to enable women more and more to share in the life of the church.

The DPT was established in 1986, following extensive consultation in the Archdiocese of Adelaide. The role of the DPT was to share with Archbishop Faulkner the governance of the Archdiocese of Adelaide – namely the pastoral care of the people and administration of the diocese. It carried out these responsibilities by holding and developing, with others, the diocesan vision (Community for the World) and it defined its role as:

Being attentive to the voice of the people, their hopes and concerns as we face together the complexity of our world in all its complexity and chaos;

Fostering conversations, which enhance each person’s call to contribute to the shaping of our church and our world – making a difference, wherever we are.

Encouraging and empowering each person to accept responsibility at all levels;

Inviting a fresh reading of the Signs of the Times in the light of the Gospel;

Enabling development and implementation of policy.

The Team met regularly for prayer and conversation, sharing the good stories and the concerns about what was happening – or not happening – in each of our areas of responsibility. Over the months and years we developed trust and respect for each other. Whatever we did, we tried to be faithful to modelling collaboration and consultation. Incrementally, the model of leadership made an impact – sometimes a negligible impact – on decisions, processes, systems and structures in the Adelaide Church.

For example, the Visitation program which had traditionally been carried out by the Archbishop, with interim Visitation by the Vicar General, became a process in which of all 4 of us became involved and two teams of two visited the various parishes and cultural communities across the diocese, spending time listening to many groups and individuals, sharing insights and meals, and spending time with those who were sick or suffering in some way.

Other examples of this modelling included attending the monthly meetings of the Council of Priests and, on occasion, meetings with the College of Consultors. These sorts of occasions, while very difficult in many ways, gave an opportunity for the insights that had been gleaned by the women on the Team, following Visitation and from carrying out the various other responsibilities, to be shared with the priests as they made recommendations to the Archbishop regarding appointments to Parishes and various other pastoral matters. We recognised that while this was a step along the way, the systems and structures limited the opportunities for true collaboration and dialogue. This was in spite of the fact that there was a large number of Pastoral Associates working in Parishes across the diocese and a need to consider how the work of parish communities in developing pastoral plans for their community could intersect meaningfully with the work of the Consultors.

The women on the Team often reflected that working in the institutional church was like doing two jobs – one was the work that had to be done because of the role, and the other was the naming of and challenging the contradictions and paradoxes. At the same time, the men on the Team had to be open to hearing the tensions and to considering new ways of carrying out their responsibilities.

The people we met in parishes, in particular, often fed back that the modelling gave them encouragement, not just in terms of church but for the whole of life – in marriage, at work, in families and in neighbourhoods. The style of leadership symbolised the richness and dignity of relationships on the one hand and at the same time illumined the corresponding asceticism associated with making a commitment to sharing space and responsibilities with one another.

However, it is through my next role at St Paul’s City Ministry that I have gained even more hope for the church in this post Vatican II time. Those who use the service we offer through St Paul’s have found it to be a valuable ministry which offers them, as decision makers in government, business and the various professions, a safe space to explore the ethical challenges facing them in the workplace. From our point of view it’s about meeting people on their ground and on their issues and we see our role as accompanying them as they search for and help create peace, balance and integrity in the workplace and to be all they can be.

I have found this role, which is ecumenical, to be one of liberation as we are able to draw on what are traditionally women’s strengths of listening and of often just staying with the issue and with the people, with more emphasis on processes than arriving at quick outcomes or solutions. We draw also on the richness of the various Christian traditions. We are not bound by the usual structures, and the inward looking approach that seems to be prevalent in many Christian communities is absent. Our energies are spent on the people and on modelling the values we find in the person of Jesus in the Gospel stories.

I feel energised by the possibilities for us as church to be this kind of listening, companioning, collaborative Christian community, where all people and their hopes and struggles are the focus, and where the institution can be more fully the place of wisdom, reflection and spiritual nourishment, where God’s story informs and encourages and builds up the people of God to be all they can be, for themselves and for one another.

Some people would say that the absence of women in shaping the systems and structures, development and proclamation of the church teachings has led us to be less effective in bringing about this kind of church, the promise of which was contained in Vatican II. Until we make space for women to contribute their gifts and experience – through formation and education, participation in decision making and reflection on current systems and structures and so on – the life and mission of the church, as well as the whole of society, will continue to be diminished. And communities of families, workplaces and neighbourhoods will keep searching to find other channels for nourishment of the spirit to sustain them as they face the complexities of living and dying in 21st century.

As women continue to play a more active role in the world, a new language and new relationships need to be developed if the church is to be able to be a faithful companion to people in the world as described by Paul VI:

“Their own field of evangelising activity is the vast and complicated world of politics, society and economics, but also the world of culture, of the sciences and the arts, of international life, of the mass media. It also includes other realities which are open to evangelisation, such as human love, the family, the education of children and adolescents, professional work, suffering. The more Gospel-inspired lay people there are engaged in these realities, clearly involved in them, competent to promote them and conscious that they must exercise to the full their Christian powers which are often buried and suffocated, the more these realities will be at the service of the kingdom of God and therefore of salvation of Jesus Christ, without in any way losing or sacrificing their human content but rather pointing to a transcendent dimension which is often disregarded.”

Evangelii nuntiandi n.70

There is therefore much in the way of challenge to the Commission for Australian Catholic Women and, therefore, for the entire church across Australia.

Recently in The Catholic Weekly, Monsignor Vince Redden, priest and chaplain to CWL, is reported as having said, “For all its care and insight, the Commission for Australian Catholic Women will only be truly successful if its efforts reach deep into the roots of the local church. The challenge lies in changing deeply rooted patriarchal ways of acting. When we see women widely represented on diocesan committees and boards, when we see them in significant chancery appointments, when we see them actively recruited for local community committees, being recognised for their real pastoral and evangelising skills, then we might just start to see significant cracks in the stained glass ceiling.” Reaching deep into the roots of the local church is, I believe, a key challenge for the Commission for Australian Catholic Women.

As we open up the conversation now to listen to your insights and hopes and dreams for women’s participation in the church, I’m conscious we haven’t heard any quotes from women. Since we’re reflecting on Vatican II, we know that the reported voices were men’s, but since we’re in post Vatican II and as a sign of hope and of possibilities ahead, I conclude with the voice – contained in only two words – of a young woman whose life is deep in the roots of the local church. It’s a story that perhaps will underpin all that we are trying to be and do as we share the struggle and joys of being church today.

Our parish holds a welcoming ceremony for parents and their children in the weeks leading up to Baptism. One Sunday, a young mother presented her baby for the ceremony and when she was asked what name she had given her child, she responded “Natasha”. When asked by the Celebrant, what do you ask of God’s Church for Natasha, the mother smiled, gazed at the baby held secure in her arms, and replied, not baptism which was the expected answer, but the word that was truly in her heart, and that was “Happiness”.

What then is your dream of happiness for women as baptised members of the Catholic Church?

Geraldine Hawkes

Commission for Australian Catholic Women Phone: 0417 803 258

(Geraldine Hawkes is the Coordinator of St Paul’s City Mission (Adelaide), the Chair of the Bishops Commission for Australian Catholic Women and a member of the Catholic Bishops’ Advisory Board for Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations.)