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Raising women’s voices

  • 06 October 2021
Annabel Crabb’s ABC TV documentary series Ms Represented had us gasping, laughing and raging all at once. The series struck an achingly familiar chord as women from different political parties and generations voiced their common experience of sexism and misogyny in Australia’s parliament, elucidating just how hard it is for women to have a voice at the table in Australian institutions of power.

The marginalisation of women doesn’t only happen in politics. For too long in Australian churches, and the Catholic tradition in particular, the rich and diverse theological insight of women has been diminished, silenced or ignored.

Yet, unlike the Australian parliament, women make up more than half of all Australian Catholics. So why, in a Church that teaches the equal dignity of women and men, are women’s voices still unheard?  

Recent research has shown that the visibility of, and exposure to, women leaders of faith can play an important role in fostering self-esteem and self-efficacy in girls and young women, which carries on into adulthood. The emerging generation of women in the Catholic Church, however, see a structure, theology and way of being that is dominated and controlled by male voices. Women are pushed to the margins, their voices unheard. They are not even allowed to preach.

The Catholic Church in Australia is currently gathering for the first assembly of its Plenary Council. In the six Discernment Papers written for the Council, all but one make strong statements about the importance of changing church culture to give women a much greater role. The papers identify the gifts that women could bring to areas of governance, leadership and decision-making, as well as pastoral and liturgical ministry. Regrettably, neither Continuing the Journey, the Council’s instrumentum laboris (working document), or the questions that make up the agenda, reflect these strong statements.

Just two paragraphs in Continuing the Journey specifically address the contribution of women. Paragraph 55 states, ‘the perceived underrepresentation of women in formal leadership and decision-making roles is a challenging issue for many in Australia’ (our emphasis).

'The marginalisation of Catholic women sits in flagrant contrast to the radical reforms promised by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference Social Justice Sunday Statement released over 20 years ago.'

Undeniably there is a large presence of women among those who do the groundwork in the Catholic Church, including consecrated religious, employees in Catholic organisations and people carrying out church-related acts of service and works.

Absolute authority, however, always rests