Despite terror that women are staging a coup de church, the numbers just don’t add up.
Just when you thought it was safe to go back to church, a new menace has arisen that threatens to radically alter the face of your parish—with lipstick. That’s right, women have begun an inexorable takeover of church leadership, and, worse, they are driving men away in droves. To use the phrase coined by those who—hopefully just in time—have recognized this growing trend, the church is rapidly becoming “feminized.”
Wait a second, doubters will be quick to point out, what about that all-male priesthood thing? Doesn’t that guarantee a thoroughly masculine church, safe for rowdy sports, dirty jokes, and other mainstays of male culture?
Not necessarily, warn some influential commentators, who point to the ever-growing number of “lay ecclesial ministers” (LEMs), a catch-all term coined by the United States bishops to cover the 31,000 or so laypeople involved in paid church ministry in this country.
These LEMs, John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter points out, already outnumber the 29,000 diocesan priests, and 80 percent of them—around 25,000—are female. With another 18,000 currently in training (six times the number of seminarians), Allen fears that “the predominantly female composition of the church’s ministerial workforce could be seen as another chapter in the exclusion of men.” The net effect, suggests Allen, is that men will be even less comfortable at church, where they already make up only 37 percent of the Sunday assembly.
Allen is not alone in his concern for the church’s males. Leon J. Podles in 1999 had already foreseen the XX takeover in his sensationally titled The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity (Spence), in which he warned of a flaccid, sissified church unless the robust XYs among the baptized were encouraged to return. Rather than put the focus on women’s recent gains in professional ministry, however, Podles sees the ecclesial girling-up starting 1,000 years ago, when church leaders encouraged the faithful to start “falling in love with Jesus.” “Yuck!” men exclaimed, and started heading for the door.
While women do outnumber men on Sunday (and have for decades) and have certainly made strides in ministry, I think there is something a little overwrought in this analysis. Twenty-five thousand women in professional ministry may seem like a lot, but when you compare it to the 29,000 (male) diocesan priests, and the further 14,000 (male) religious priests, and then add the 6,000 male LEMs, you still get a “healthy” 50,000 boys to 25,000 girls. And that’s not counting the more than 15,000 (male) permanent deacons.
Add to it the fact that the ordained still make all the big decisions, and we hardly have revolution. In fact, since women have been doing much of the dirty work since well before Vatican II—think religious education (nuns), church decoration and upkeep (altar societies), parish administration (secretaries)—it doesn’t look like much has changed.
The problem with the 80-percent female LEM stat is that the category of lay ecclesial minister by definition skews the sample by removing the ordained. A far more useful category would include all the folks who do comparable church work whether they are ordained or not, and that category would still be dominated by men more than 2 to 1.
That still leaves the question of why men are opting out of church. Once you stop pointing the finger at women, the only people left are men. If a male-dominated institution is failing to attract men, it stands to reason that there is a disconnect between the all-male leadership and all the males who are leaving. Identifying the problem is an important task, but going for the fallback answer to male problems—blaming women—is probably not going to give us the right solution.
In fact, if an all-male clerical culture is driving away the rest of male Catholicism, might the appearance of women in church leadership bring them back? Who knows? But I doubt that having more women at the helm will make the church a merely soft and frilly presence in the world. Considering the women I know in ministry, the effect is likely to be quite the opposite.
Bryan Cones is associate editor of U.S. Catholic. This article appeared in the January 2008 (Volume 73, Number 1; page 8) issue of U.S. Catholic.