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Raising women’s voices



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 in the hands of male bishops and priests. When it comes to leadership and decision-making, the inequality is not ‘perceived,’ it is stark.

The marginalisation of Catholic women sits in flagrant contrast to the radical reforms promised by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) Social Justice Sunday Statement released in 2000, more than 20 years ago. The statement followed ground-breaking research on the participation and experiences of women in the Catholic Church commissioned by the ACBC and published in Woman and Man: One in Christ Jesus.

The breakthrough statement outlined several barriers for Catholic women, including a failure to address gender equality, the lack of women involved in decision-making and governance and the visibility of female role models. The ACBC made specific recommendations for reform. Among them was a commitment to establish guidelines to assist with the interpretation and implementation of Canons 766 and 767, concerning lay preaching. Here, a potential door might have opened for women’s voices to be heard. Yet, two decades later, few of the ACBC reforms from its Social Justice Sunday Statement 2000 have been implemented and there is now no clear agenda for tackling the challenges raised.

In a speech given in Rome on International Women’s Day 2018, Mary McAleese claimed the ‘Failure to include women as equals has deprived the Church of fresh and innovative discernment … It has kept Christ out and bigotry in. It has left the Church flapping about awkwardly on one wing when God gave it two.’ 

Nowhere is the absence of the experiences, perspectives and voices of women more stated than during the Sunday celebration of Eucharist. Even though women are well-represented in congregations, the liturgy is dominated by the leadership and theology of male clergy. The homily, as part of the liturgy, is reserved to a priest or deacon.

Bishop of Parramatta, Vincent Long writes, ‘The Church cannot have a better future if it does not listen to women’s voices, wisdom and insight. So long as we continue to make women invisible and inferior in the Church’s language, liturgy, theology and law, we impoverish ourselves.’

In Australia, each generation of Catholic women is less likely than the preceding one to attend Mass and participate in Church life. Unless the balance shifts, and we are open to the gifts, charisms and contributions of women as equal partners in all aspects of our Church’s life, mission and evangelisation will continue to wither on the vine.

The lack of visibility and inclusion of women does not reflect a loss of faith or saliency. Globally Catholic women are joining together and speaking out regarding the equality and inclusion of women in the Church. In Germany, the grassroots movement Maria 2.0 is calling for women’s ordination, a gender equitable Church and a re-examination of the scandal of clerical abuse.


'Catholic women who are disillusioned and frustrated with the inability of the institutional Church to change must look outside rigid ecclesiastical structures where women’s voices can be heard.'


The group Voices of Faith have created the #sisterwhatdoyousay campaign to celebrate and empower women in religious life and draw attention to their experiences of struggle within Church structures. In Australia, two groups with a long history of encouraging Christian women, WATAC (Women in the Australian Church) and the Grail in Australia are attracting younger generations of Catholic women who are looking outside traditional ecclesial structures to find community and spaces where their voices are heard.

During Ms Respresented, when former Deputy Prime Minister Julie Bishop was asked about the difference it made to have other women in ‘her line of sight’ when they too were promoted to cabinet, Bishop replied, ‘There was a sense that this is how it should be, there should be many more female voices around the table, exchanging views and ideas, a different life experience, different background, different perspective. It added to the richness of the debate.’

Many Christian denominations in Australia have long embraced the giftedness of women; women regularly preach with their faith communities each week. And many women feel a vocational call to preach. But for Catholic women who are disillusioned and frustrated with the inability of the institutional church to change, they must look outside the rigid ecclesiastical structures where women’s voices can be heard. This includes the Australian Women Preach podcast, where a group of Catholic women from WATAC and the Grail provide an opportunity for women to have a voice and share their gifts.

Almost four years ago, the final report of the Child Abuse Royal Commission highlighted the marginalisation of women in the Catholic Church and made recommendations that church leaders review governance and management structures, and develop measures to increase women’s standing and participation in the church. The Plenary Council presents the Catholic Church with another chance to listen and raise up women’s voices, wisdom and insight.

Is the Catholic Church in Australian finally prepared to listen? Women are ready to claim their place at the table and are determined be heard.


 Tracy McEwan is a PhD student in theology at the University of Newcastle. Her research explores the identity and participation of Gen X Catholic women in Australia. Tracy is the current vice president of WATAC (Women and the Australian Church) and serves on the executive committee of the global Catholic Women’s Council.

Patricia Gemmell is a semi-retired teacher of Latin, French and Italian, who in 2014 graduated with a Masters (Theology) from the University of Newcastle. She currently serves on the National Team of the Grail in Australia and is the coordinator of the Grail’s International Spirituality Network.

Tracy and Patricia are part of the organising team for Australian Women Preach, a podcast which celebrates the diverse talents of woman preachers in Australia, and is a project of WATAC (Women and the Australian Church) and the Grail in Australia

Main image: Girl looking up in front of a stained glass window. (Getty Images)

Topic tags: Tracy McEwan and Patricia Gemmell, women's voices, gender equality, church, plenary council



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Existing comments

In the spirit of constructive criticism, I would like to take issue with you on a number of issues in this excellent article, the spirit of which I am in agreement with. In a parallel jurisdiction, Australian Women's Soccer, Lisa Da Vanna has raised a number of issues about women and their treatment, which are similar to some of yours and from which the relevant leaders of her sporting body are running for cover. Sound familiar? Depressingly so. Mary McAleese, if you read her history, has not always been treated with the respect she deserves in all instances by the Vatican. I have advocated for a long time that women be created Deacons in the Catholic Church because there is no arguable doctrinal bar to it. My suggestion has been treated similarly to that of someone advocating black members be admitted to the Johannesburg Club in Apartheid South Africa: with stunning silence. The diaconate will open up things for and empower women. Watch for nothing to happen. I am reminded of the old WW 1 song 'It's a long, long way to Tipperary.' My grandfather probably sang it. I am not singing. Will the Holy Spirit be present at the forthcoming Plenary Council? I pray so but am not holding my breath.

Edward Fido | 07 October 2021  

Thank you Tracey and Patricia for expressing what many of us feel - the deep pain and disillusionment that follows from years of being silenced, ignored, dismissed. It isn't a healthy environment for anyone.
The issue of female role-models is terribly important. Where are the Catholic women with authority that my daughters can get to know and respect? Truly that would give us a great deal of new life.
I, too, saw the series "Ms Represented" and saw the parallels with our Catholic Church. Except that we are far behind and have much to learn. I'm glad you mentioned the other Christian traditions - a truly global and synodal Church will learn from our sisters and brothers. We have an ecclesial tradition of journeying, learning, failing and renewing... may God give us the courage to take some great steps forward.

Elissa Roper | 07 October 2021  

Women don't need empowering. They have been dominating the blokes since time began as in the metaphorical account of domestic life in the Garden of Eden.

john frawley | 07 October 2021  
Show Responses

Then, it’s time you fought back, and told them you will no longer do their bidding to describe the Garden as metaphorical.

roy chen yee | 08 October 2021  

The blokes who wrote Genesis certainly thought so, John. Whether the were right or not is another matter!

Joan Seymour | 09 October 2021  

The existence of something called ontological difference means that what comes from the pulpit should be the inspired thinking of the (usually one) person at the Mass who is ontologically different from the rest. This places a burden on him to live up to his privilege and produce homilies which truly expound Scripture and Tradition. This may explain why there is a move to excise the concept of ontological difference from the body of Tradition as if it were some kind of cancer. When done, it will mean that, like social media, the pulpit is open to anyone with an opinion, or, at least, anyone who can wave a certificate to show that the opinion is an educated intersectional one. If leadership in the Church were meant to be intersectional, there would not be one pope (or one bishop per diocese) but, as in classical Rome, two consuls, or, as in Switzerland, a council of elders with a rotating ceremonial chairperson. Authority in the Church is meant, at various stages, to be reposed in a ‘one’, who, in being wise and discerning, will be aware of intersectionality and its many just claims. The pulpit is only licensed to The Ontologically Different Guy who may, in discernment, sublet the platform, from time to time, to someone whom he thinks may have something useful to say. But those are one-time subleases only.

roy chen yee | 09 October 2021  

As a man I would really like some of the intelligent, feisty women who opine on ES, such as Jo Dallimore, Joan Seymour, Pam et sim to be saying this. I have no doubt the Catholic Church has and historically had a problem with women. Mary, the mother of Jesus, had real guts and spirit. How else would she, as a teenager, have had the guts to bear Jesus? You can imagine the gossip. St Joseph also had guts, discrimination and grace to back her up. They worked together to bring Jesus up. Orthodox Tradition tells us Joseph was an old widower with children from his previous marriage. Hence Jesus' 'brothers'. Jesus was raised in a loving family. He got his good attitude to women from there. Women were amongst his strongest supporters and never deserted him. They were the first to the empty tomb. What does the Church do? Well, Pope St Gregory the Great, on no evidence whatever, turns St Mary Magdalene into a prostitute. The medieval division of women was, either sanctified virgins or whores at both ends of the scale and those 'pesky' married or unmarried women in the middle. Tracy and Patricia: you are 'pesky'. Please continue: you are vitally needed to wake the sleep walking hierarchy into some real action.

Edward Fido | 08 October 2021  
Show Responses

Thanks, Edward. It can be challenging reading Scripture, especially in the OT (which I love passionately), when depictions of unfaithfulness, moral indecency and idolatry have a feminine aspect when it is the whole population which has gone astray. Jesus' treatment of, and interaction with, women was always compassionate and loving even as he was forthright in his assessments. It will take continued determination and trust by women to seek their rightful place in a Church which must value diversity. Women have great role models in the bible: Mary, Ruth, Esther, Mary Magdalene and so many others. Their great faith and tenacity will keep us on course.

Pam | 09 October 2021  

‘Orthodox Tradition tells us Joseph was an old widower with children from his previous marriage. Hence Jesus' 'brothers'. Jesus was raised in a loving family. He got his good attitude to women from there.’ Is there a story fit for publishing here, Perry White? If I were Lois Lane, I’d get Superman to time travel me back there. Headline: ‘Messiah leaves mother in the care of disciples! Stepchildren nowhere to be seen! Deceased father dishonored by children!’ Read all about it. Pictures by Jimmy Olsen. (US spelling for 'dishonoured', of course.)

roy chen yee | 10 October 2021  

Tracey and Patricia you are absolutely right. I agree with your objectives and conclusions.
The problem lies with the ACBC hierarchy and with the Bishops tenuous grip on church power and authority. Their insistence on paying lip service to the Vatican line and their fear of being smeared with the cover up child abuse scandals and involvement in long overdue church social reform. However it is not only women who have no souls in this pathetic house of cards, it is also the laity.
If there is one thing Christ stood for in his ministry above all else it was justice. In the parable of the adulterous woman, bringing the woman to Jesus, the Pharisees' motive was political entrapment.
Jesus silenced his critics because he saw though their hierarchical hypocrisy and demonstrated grace, mercy, and forgiveness.
This parable highlights the sin of self-righteousness, a tendency in all of us. As with the story of the good Samaritan, where the priest and Levite crossed the road eschewing their responsibility.
Australian Bishops predominately suffer from road crossing and despite the headshaking denials of leadership, it is "business as usual". Would that a true leader like Joan Chittister emerged here and showed true courage.

Francis Armstrong | 08 October 2021  

Bishop of Parramatta, Vincent Long writes, ‘The Church cannot have a better future if it does not listen to women’s voices, wisdom and insight. So long as we continue to make women invisible and inferior in the Church’s language, liturgy, theology and law, we impoverish ourselves.’

A true word. But an even greater sign of hope is the identity of the person who spoke it -male, ordained Bishop who feels the freedom as well as the power to do so.

Joan Seymour | 09 October 2021  

Very early on the Western Church made three very serious mistakes which have impacted adversely on the status of women for centuries. The first was confuting sex with Original Sin and thus making it 'evil'. Jesus' presence at the marriage feast at Cana in Galilee proves this to be utter nonsense. The second and third follow on from this. Sacred virgins were a takeaway from pagan practice. Nuns, who may be very good people, have no special religious status, like religious brothers, they are essentially laypersons. The third was the enforcement of mandatory celibacy on clergy since the 5th Century, thereby losing the example of decent married life and the role models there as exemplified by the Eastern Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant Churches. I speak with some feeling on this, being the descendant of married Church of England clergy. I do not think my married clerical ancestors, nor their wives, were in any whit morally inferior to supposedly 'celibate' Catholic clergy. This sort of tripe still around in Catholic quarters makes me seriously think of returning to the Anglican fold.

Edward Fido | 10 October 2021  
Show Responses

Be careful what you wish for Edward. One of my sisters did exactly that. However many Anglicans believe that Catholics are not even Christians.
Historically after Cromwell's conquest, this may be a hangover of the 600 year rule of Britain over Ireland which generated significant taxation revenue for the crown. The British regarded the Irish as pigs and subhuman whereas Britain had a worldwide empire of serfs and vassals.

Francis Armstrong | 10 October 2021  

Well, don’t forget to wave to the Ordinariates as they pass you by, in the opposite direction, towards what you, in another post, call the ‘Truth’, which, of course, begs the question….

roy chen yee | 10 October 2021  

‘I speak with some feeling on this, being the descendant of married Church of England clergy. I do not think my married clerical ancestors, nor their wives, were in any whit morally inferior to supposedly 'celibate' Catholic clergy.’ Pshaw! A feeling is a choice. Everybody comes from a long line of animists. When was the last time anyone wanted to prance around Stonehenge? Or cuddle with a Pachamama? Looking backwards from the higher plane is for Mrs. Lot.

roy chen yee | 10 October 2021  

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