What is the Role of Women in the Church Today?

A Historical Perspective

Women in Early Christianity

The land in which Jesus was born, the Roman province of Judaea, was part of the Roman Empire ruled by the emperor Tiberius. It was in this historical setting that the first communities of Christians had to find their way.

 In the society of Jesus’s time to be born female was a disadvantage. Women, like children, did not count. Jesus stood out among the people of his time as someone who gave women exactly the same value and dignity as men. In the Gospels we see Jesus listening to and learning from the Syrophoenician woman, being guided by his mother Mary at Cana, and after his resurrection, he chose Mary Magdalen to be the first believer entrusted with his mission. She is still called “the apostle to the apostles”.

Jesus gathered around himself a group known as “The Twelve” (Mark 3: 14; Luke 9: 1). Although they were all male, biblical scholars today say this was simply a symbolic way of showing that Jesus had come to restore the twelve tribes of Israel, descended from the patriarch Jacob and his twelve sons (Genesis ch. 49).  After Jesus departed, they went out on preaching missions and were not replaced.

We know from St Paul’s letters that all members of the Christian community had received the gifts of the spirit; therefore, there was equality in and through the spirit in early Christian communities. We have an ancient formula, probably used in early baptisms, which says that all, whether Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, are one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3: 28).

In the early Christian scriptures, there are found examples of women such as Prisca who is described as a missionary, teacher and co-founder of a house church (Acts 18: 26; 1 Cor 16: 19), Phoebe who is described as a “deacon” (Rom 16: 1), and Junia who is named as “apostle” (Rom 16: 7). 

But we can already see the cultural pressures that were on the early Christian communities to conform to the world around them, for example in the letters to Timothy. Women were counselled to be submissive to their husbands, to remain silent and to cover their heads while praying. 1 Corinthians describes the husband as head of his wife and Christ as the head of every man. However, we know that apostles on missionary journeys included women colleagues who often served as fellow ministers to women.

There are also many examples in the scriptures and early Christian tradition which show that feminine imagery for God was customary for the early followers of Jesus. In Genesis, for example, we are told that both women and men are created in the image of God.

The prophet Isaiah describes God as a woman in labour and a mother comforting her children.

Clement, the bishop of Alexandria (150-215 A.D), states: “In God’s ineffable essence he is father; in his compassion to us God became mother. The father by loving becomes feminine.”[1]

In other words, limiting God to masculine pronouns and imagery and excluding women from leadership positions limits our human religious experiences of God.

Women in the Church in the Middle Ages

The organisation of the Jesus movement changed dramatically when the Roman Emperor Constantine (272-337 AD), converted to Christianity in the fourth century and made Christianity the state religion.  Bishops got political power and the church began to adapt to the hierarchical structures of Empire and to the patriarchal cultures of the surrounding Greco-Roman society. There was a growing emphasis on the power of the pope.

By the twelfth century the church had taken on a structure which placed many limitations on women’s role and participation.  Although some women of the Middle Ages, such as Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) and Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), and some aristocratic women and abbesses, were able to go beyond the limitations placed on them by the society of the time, they were not in any way typical of women of their age.

During this time theological developments were also taking place which would support these changes in church structure. An important influence was the theology developed by Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) who elaborated on ideas from the pre-Christian philosopher Aristotle (384-430 BCE) and was also influenced by the thinking of St Augustine (354-430 CE).

Augustine argued that only a male person is created in the image of God. Woman becomes an image of God when she is joined to her husband.

Aquinas builds on Augustine’s thought and asserts that the male possesses the image of God in a different and superior way to that of woman. He says that a woman’s essence is her sexuality and, using the mind-body dualism inherited from Greek philosophy, argues that she has a weaker and more imperfect body which then affects her mind and intelligence.

Following Aristotle, Aquinas describes the female as a defective human being since she is conceived because of an “accident” to the male sperm, possibly due to a south wind or the presence of a full moon.[2] This is the reason that Aquinas gives when he teaches that for a woman to be ordained or to preach would not only be illegitimate (against God’s law), it would also be invalid (that is, it would not “work”) on biological grounds. This theology has excluded women from roles of governance and maintained their subordination within the church community right up to the present time.

Although Thomas Aquinas was a brilliant thirteenth century theologian who contributed to the Church a huge body of wonderful theological insights, he was a man of his own time and these ancient philosophical theories are no longer sufficient to explain important modern understandings in biology, evolution and quantum physics that have taken place in human knowledge and experience since the Middle Ages.

In Aquinas’s thought concerning women, there is a tension with Christian doctrine which affirms the full equality of all human beings as created by God as described in Genesis chapters 1 and 2. He tries to overcome this tension by affirming the ‘complementary’ roles of men and women in which women are ‘naturally’ subject to men in the ‘order of creation’ while at the same time women and men are said to be equal in the ‘order of salvation’.

In 1879 Pope Leo XIII, (in his encyclical Aeterni Patris), made Thomas Aquinas’s theology and his Aristotelian framework the official theology of the Catholic Church.

Although the Church’s understanding of many aspects of the world has developed along with the rest of society in the light of modern scientific knowledge – e.g. the Church no longer teaches that the earth is flat or that the sun revolves around the earth – it has not been willing to update its understanding of the human person in the light of modern sciences of psychology, biology and sociology.

This can lead to violence against women when women claim the same human rights and dignity which is given to male citizens. A Church which has adopted the hierarchical and patriarchal structures of its society is in a very poor position to challenge the human rights abuses and injustices of that society, especially as they affect women.

Women in the Church in Modern Times

It may appear that in just over 50 years women have come a long way in the Church since the Second Vatican Council. In our own time, we see women participating in Church ministries that would have been unimaginable at the beginning of the 1960s – as pastoral workers, as eucharistic ministers and readers (although not of the Gospel), as members of parish and diocesan pastoral councils, as chancellors of dioceses and in Curia positions in the Vatican. But although it is readily acknowledged that women perform more than half the work of the church in their local communities, there are still large gaps in some areas of church life where women are not present at all or are hugely under-represented.

The Second Vatican Council which took place in four sessions between 1962 and 1965 was attended by 2,500 bishops. No women took part in the first two sessions. But in the third and fourth sessions in 1964 and 1965, twenty-three women were invited as auditors which meant they could only listen, and not speak. However, by creating opportunities to mix socially with the bishops, they managed to have input into some of the later documents of Vatican II such as Gaudium et Spes (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World – GS) and Apostolicam Actuositatem (Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People – AA).

Canadian theologian Catherine Clifford[3] describes the approach of the Council as “inclusive” of women to the extent that it chose to define the “laity” not by gender roles but rather as equal participants sharing in the mystery of Christ through baptism. She draws attention to the fact that all the women at the Council wanted was to be recognised as full human persons, and so they understood themselves to be included each time the Council referred to members of the baptised faithful.

When women first arrived at the Council, some of the bishops addressed them as pulcherrimae auditrices (“most beautiful female auditors”) and referred to them as “flowers” in the Church. The women made it clear that they wanted to be treated as ordinary human beings on an equal basis.

Rosemary Goldie, an Australian auditor, is reported as saying:

“You can omit all those gratuitous flowery adjectives, the pedestals and incense, from your sentence. All women ask for is that they be recognized as the full human persons they are, and treated accordingly.” [4]

The influence of the women who participated in the discussion and amendments of Gaudium et Spes can also be clearly seen in texts such as:  

With respect to the fundamental rights of the person, every type of discrimination, whether social or cultural, whether based on sex, race, colour, social condition, language or religion, is to be overcome and eradicated as contrary to God’s intent. (GS, n 29).

Goldie worked with bishops to get the following statement included:

“Since in our days women are taking an increasingly active share in the whole life of society, it is important that their participation in the various fields of the Church’s apostolate should likewise develop” (Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People (AA, n 9).

However, in her book From a Roman Window, Rosemary Goldie expressed her shock when Pope Paul VI, in his 1972 Apostolic Letter Ministeria Quaedam, opened the ministries of acolyte and lector to the laity – “but to laymen only”. She called it a “scandal”, lacking any theological basis.[5] This has only been rectified recently by Pope Francis.

In August 1996 the Catholic Bishops of Australia commissioned a four-year research project known as Woman and Man: One in Christ Jesus on the participation of women in the Catholic Church in Australia.[6] When it was published in 1999 it listed nine Decisions and thirty-one Proposals for implementation at diocesan level, all of which were compatible with the current Code of Canon Law. However, very few of these have been effectively carried out.

During the long papacy of Pope John Paul II, a whole new vocabulary seems to have been constructed to protect a hierarchical and patriarchal power structure that reserves governing and teaching authority to men alone.

Terms such as “a new feminism”, “feminine genius”, the “Petrine” and “Marian” aspects of the Church, and the “Theology of the Body” with its particular application of the term “complementary”, became the new lingua franca of forums attended by young adults. They seemed aimed to obscure the continuing subordination of women in the Church.

Pope John Paul’s teachings as they affect women are problematic. He continued the papal tendency to idealise women and spoke constantly of the “dignity” of women. But issues such as rape and violence against women were not addressed. Nor did he address the contextual issues around women’s social and economic disadvantage, including women’s lack of voice and agency within the Church.

As a Catholic mother, Catherine Cavanagh[7] alerts us to how people absorb what the Church teaches about women and men, how children internalise messages, reinforced and lived out in the very fabric of Church structures.

She considers a number of teachings of the Church and their consequences:

  • Only men can be priests, in persona Christi – In general God must think boys are more important than girls.
  • Only men can read the Gospel at Mass – Men must be more worthy of being heard.
  • In the parish, someone is ‘Father’. There is no corresponding ‘Mother’. There is no tangible role in the Church for women alongside that of the priest. Nor are the feminine traits of God given the weight of ‘God the Father’. Therefore, men are perceived as self-sufficient (independent of women) and fathers are more important that mothers. Men do not need women.  


But perhaps there is some glimmer of recognition that change needs to occur in order to recognise the full Christian vocation of women in the Catholic Church.

Pope John Paul II, in his 1995 Letter to Women states:

Unfortunately, we are heirs to a history which has conditioned us to a remarkable extent. In every time and place, this conditioning has been an obstacle to the progress of women . . . And if objective blame, especially in particular historical contexts, has belonged to not just a few members of the Church, for this I am truly sorry. May this regret be transformed, on the part of the whole Church, into a renewed commitment of fidelity to the Gospel vision.

This was echoed by Cardinal Edward Clancy, at the launch of the Woman and Man project in 1996 when he said:

We know that (women’s) contribution over the centuries and today has been (and is) enormous, even if not fully recognised and valued . . . that the Church’s history has often been characterised by mistaken attitudes and actions in this as in other areas; and that (this) is an appropriate time for us to acknowledge, repent for, and begin to remedy those mistakes of the past.[8]

Let us pray for the work of the Continental Assemblies to be completed in March 2023 and, in particular, the Synod on Synodality which will occur in two parts from October 2023 to October 2024: that we might be given more profound faith, greater courage, deeper spirituality and the ability to discern where the Holy Spirit is leading us in this historical journey.

[1] Ante-Nicene Fathers (Vol. 2). Translated by William Wilson. Eds Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885).

[2] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I. q. 92, a. 1, reply 1.

[3] Catherine E. Clifford, Decoding Vatican II: Interpretation and Ongoing Reception (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2014), 73-74.

[4] Mary Luke Tobin, “Women in the Church since Vatican II”, America, November 1, 1986.

[5] Rosemary Goldie, From a Roman Window. Five decades: The World, The Church and the Catholic Laity (Blackburn, Victoria: HarperCollinsReligious, 1998), 116.

[6] Research Management Group, Woman and Man: One in Christ Jesus, Report on the Participation of Women in the Catholic Church in Australia (HarperCollinsReligious, 1999).

[7] Catherine Cavanagh, “On Elephants, Angels, and Trust: The Structure of the Church and Catholic Families” in Catholic Women Speak, ed. Catholic Women Speak Network(Paulist Press, 2015),180.

[8] Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, Social Justice Sunday Statement 2000.


  • Dr Patricia Madigan OP

    Trish Madigan is a member of the Congregation of Dominican Sisters of Eastern Australia and the Solomon Islands who has ministered for many years in the Catholic Church in Australia in ecumenical and interfaith relations. Her publications include Women and Fundamentalism in Islam and Catholicism: Negotiating Modernity in a Globalised World (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2011) and Iraqi Women of Three Generations (co-authored with Martha Ann Kirk CCVI; San Antonio, TX: PeaceCenter Books, 2013). She was a member of the Council for Australian Catholic Women from 2015 to 2019 and its chair from 2018 to 2019. She is currently a sessional lecturer in church history in the Diploma in Pastoral Ministry program at Divine Word University, Papua New Guinea.

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