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The changing role of women in society is spilling over into Church life

A T-shirt produced in the United States of America (US) carries the words, “A woman’s place is in the house” emblazoned across it. It was illustrated against a picture of the residence of the US president in Washington DC, the White House.

No woman has ever had the opportunity to live there except as the spouse of a president or a member of staff, but it is probably only a matter of time before the world sees a female president of the US.

That will be big news in the west, where woman leaders are still rare when compared with Asia. The recent election of Yingluck Shinawatra as prime minister of Thailand is just the latest of many examples of women being chosen to lead Asian nations.

While that has not yet occurred in the more Confucian-influenced places such as China, Japan, Korea or Singapore, it is only a matter of time before some of those countries are led by women. In fact, that might happen in China or Japan before it does in the US.

That is ironic, given westerners’ ill-informed prejudice that they lead the world in recognising and giving scope to women’s rights and talents. Generally, women as political leaders have shown themselves as being neither any more, nor any less capable, honest, peaceable, intelligent or effective than men. 

Women are clearly the equals of men where governing is concerned. Whether that is good news or bad depends upon the leaders’ record. Gender makes no difference.

Even in the Church, women are beginning to take on leadership roles. I experienced that personally when I worked in a department of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Japan and my boss was a woman.

Occasionally, someone would be surprised that I, the priest, was not in charge, but most people did not consider it unusual. My superior had seniority, experience and talents that suited her to the job, qualifications that I lacked.

In Rome, Pope Benedict XVI has placed women in unprecedented levels of curial authority. Given that it was only in 1917 that ordination became a requirement to be a cardinal, might we one day see further changes that bring women into that level of service in the Church?

There is certainly nothing inherent in the office of cardinal that requires being a man and women certainly will not look any stranger in scarlet silk and frilly lace than the men who currently wear them.

These thoughts were provoked by a report that the rector of a cathedral in the US has announced that henceforth only boys will be allowed to be altar servers. Those girls, who have been serving, will be retrained as sacristans: liturgical housekeepers.

The priest thinks that altar serving is one of the steps towards ordination and that removing girls from that ministry will increase young men’s willingness to enter the seminary. 

The article I read did not say if he intends to eventually limit the ministries of lector, extraordinary minister of the Eucharist and musician to males, but those steps would, of course, be logical extensions of his decision. In fact, several popes have forbidden women to sing in choirs, most recently, Pius X, in 1910.

At a parish meeting in Tokyo, one of the participants wondered if the fact that the majority of the altar servers and all the server leaders were girls might keep boys from joining the ministry.

The conclusion was unanimous that once upon a time that might have been true, but boys today are increasingly used to seeing girls as at least their equals, and certainly as colleagues. The American priest’s decision will probably mystify and alienate both the girls and boys in his parish, not to mention the adults.

The role of women in the world is changing, perhaps most dramatically in Asia. Those changes are bringing about changes in the attitudes and lives of men. They will also continue to bring about changes in the life of the Church.



Father William Grimm mm is the publisher of UCA News