March 8 a day to thank exceptional women leaders in the Church

The Leadership for Mission program for young Catholic women is one local initiative to help support the role of women in the Church.

The chairman of the Bishops Commission that supports women’s participation in Catholic life says the Church should celebrate its many outstanding female leaders on International Women’s Day.

Archbishop Christopher Prowse, who leads the Bishops Commission for Evangelisation, Laity and Ministry, said March 8 will be a day to particularly recognise the irreplaceable role of women in the Church.

“We know that across the Church, almost 80 per cent of those employed are women in important areas like education, social services, parish ministry and health and aged care,” he said.

“What we are seeing more evidently today than a couple of decades ago is women at the top echelons of the Church’s ministries. The Bishops Conference’s largest agencies are Caritas, the National Catholic Education Commission and Catholic Social Services Australia – and all three are led by women.

“The key full-time advisors to the episcopal commissions, the Conference’s executive secretaries, are all women. More women than men are on the bishops’ various advisory councils. Many of our school systems and most of our schools are led by women, not to mention women’s leadership in health and social services.

“Frankly, without women steering the Church in those and many more areas, we would be in an enormous amount of difficulty.”

Debra Sayce, the executive director of Catholic Education Western Australia and its 162 schools, said there can be a perception that women don’t have a seat at the leadership table within the Church.

“I think that underestimates the exceptional skills of the many talented women across the country and across the breadth of the Church’s ministries who work alongside bishops, priests, consecrated women and men, and other lay women and men,” Dr Sayce said.

“Compared with a number of other parts of our community, the trust that is placed in women leaders within the Church would be the envy of many organisations.”

Dr Sayce added: “There is still a journey to continue in seeking to ensure that women are at the agenda-setting and decision-making table across Church organisations.”

Trudy Dantis, the director of the National Centre for Pastoral Research, said while there are many ways to define “leadership” within the Church, surveys consistently show that women have more ministry and leadership roles in parishes than men.

“Looking purely at the data, we know women statistically dominate most Catholic categories, including affiliation, participation and employment,” Dr Dantis said.

“That skewing of the data towards women has increased in recent years and has been reflected in key leadership roles within some areas of the Church in Australia and overseas.”

Archbishop Prowse acknowledged that the closure of the Office for the Participation of Women at the end of 2019, along with a number of other Bishops Conference offices and ministries, was concerning for many women and men.

“The bishops, working with significant financial constraints, had to make some difficult decisions in terms of staffing and structures, and that was painful for all involved,” he said.

“But just as the closure of the Office for Youth and for Clergy Life and Ministry didn’t mean the bishops were less committed to those parts of the Church, the Office for the Participation of Women closing doesn’t diminish our resolve to support and promote Catholic women.”

Archbishop Prowse said the many International Women’s Day events within Church settings across the country would be a good way to honour the increasing role and voice of Catholic women.

“This clearly shouldn’t be something that only happens on March 8 each year, but I encourage the faithful to use International Women’s Day to thank the women around us for what they bring to the Catholic community in Australia,” he said.