Posted December 12, 2005
Despite disagreements, Catholic women said to be committed to church
By Nancy Frazier O'Brien
Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Despite what she called a "limited opportunity
structure" for women in the Catholic Church and widespread disagreement by
both sexes with some church teachings, Catholic women remain deeply
committed to the church, a sociology professor said Dec. 7.
Michele Dillon, a professor at the University of New Hampshire, spoke at The
Catholic University of America on "Catholic Women in a Changing Church."
Citing studies over the past several decades, Dillon said Americans continue
to value religion and a majority of U.S. Catholics consistently say that
their Catholicism is very important to their identity, in spite of huge
changes in U.S. society.
"This contradicts the theory that religion will wither away," she said. "And
it is at odds with data showing that Catholics are disaffected and at odds
with church teachings."
But Dillon said polls show many Catholics disagree with church teachings on
birth control, divorce, abortion, the ordination of women to the priesthood
and priestly celibacy. But those who remain Catholic consider those stands
"ultimately irrelevant" to their identity as Catholics, she said.
Citing her own survey in the mid-1990s of members of the Women's Ordination
Conference, which works to change church teaching on the ordination of women
as priests, Dillon said most argue in favor of women's ordination "as
Catholics, not as Americans."
She found that 88 percent approached the matter using arguments from
Catholic doctrine, while only 4 percent called for women's ordination from
an "individual rights" perspective.
"They use the church's own language to critique church doctrine and
practices," thus affirming their belief that "tradition matters," Dillon
Pope John Paul II in 1994 declared the church had no authority to ordain
women as priests and the issue was not open to debate among Catholics, but
"pro-change Catholics believe that the church can change," and they "use
their doctrinal voice to refashion" the discussion, she said.
Similarly, polls of members of Voice of the Faithful -- a lay organization
founded after the clergy sex abuse crisis began in 2002 -- show that they
are strongly committed to the church, Dillon said. The group works to give
lay people greater decision-making powers in church matters.
Women make up 59 percent of the membership of Voice of the Faithful, she
They also hold many key lay leadership positions in Catholic parishes
nationwide, Dillon said, and she suggested that those posts might pave the
way toward greater acceptance of and dialogue on the possibility of women
Through their leadership in worship, preaching and Catholic education, for
example, women "can be at the forefront of developing new ways to revitalize
the intergenerational transmission of the faith," she said.
Women also make up the majority of lay ecclesial ministers who are parish
life coordinators in the United States, Dillon said.
"By their very presence, they are preparing the church for the concept" of
women priests, she added.
Three Catholic University professors responded to Dillon's talk, with one
offering a divergent viewpoint on women's roles in the future of the
Father D. Paul Sullins, a married former Anglican priest who is an assistant
professor of sociology at Catholic University, predicted that the Catholic
Church will not become more open to ministry by women but will instead
become more orthodox in its adherence to tradition.
He said groups such as the Women's Ordination Conference, Voice of the
Faithful and Catholics for a Free Choice, which seek change in the church,
"represent an aging constituency in the church."
Young Catholics who support women's ordination will not have the same
problems with leaving the church that their elders have, Father Sullins
added, and will "feel free to leave."
As members of the groups that want changes die off and younger change-minded
Catholics leave, those who remain will be more and more likely to be
orthodox, he said.