March 8, 2001
volume 12, no. 67

Diocesan leaders report on what helps, hinders women in church

By Nancy Frazier O'Brien , Catholic News Service

    WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Women in diocesan leadership positions in the United States say their participation in church decision-making is sometimes hindered by sexist attitudes, church structures or the strident voices of women themselves, according to a new survey.

    The results were compiled by the Life Cycle Institute of The Catholic University of America in Washington from questionnaires sent to 378 women in 128 dioceses who had been identified by their bishops as diocesan leaders.

    The aim of the survey, which was released Feb. 27, was to ``examine how women's voices are heard in church decision-making,'' said Archbishop John G. Vlazny of Portland, Ore., chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Women in Society and in the Church, in a letter sent to bishops with the survey results.

    Those receiving the questionnaire were asked to identify ``the personal characteristics and church structures that help and hinder'' the role of women in church decision-making and to describe their own ``positive and negative experiences as a woman in diocesan leadership,'' the archbishop said.

    Nearly one-third (31 percent) of the 233 women who returned surveys said ``diocesan leadership structures do not allow women's voices to be heard,'' while 30 percent said ``diocesan leaders or priests have sexist attitudes or don't understand women.''

    But more than one-fourth (27 percent) said women's voices are muted when ``the woman is overly militant, combative, single-minded or insubordinate.''

    The Life Cycle Institute's report on the survey results also included selected comments from the respondents, although none was identified by name or diocese.

    ``The very fact that a woman must prove her credibility is a hindrance,'' said one. ``But a woman will not be heard if she is defensive, aggressive and refuses to respect the authority and structure of the organization.''

    Asked what helps women's voices to be heard:

  • 37 percent said a woman who ``has earned trust by loyalty and respectfulness, or by years of service.''
  • 34 percent cited a woman's competence and ``excellent skills, knowledge or credentials.''
  • 30 percent said it helped when ``the bishop and other diocesan leaders are open-minded toward women.''

        Women are heard, one respondent said, ``if they are well-prepared, self-assured, respectful and respectable, have an appropriate sense of humor, and continue to familiarize themselves with the `territory.'''

        But 87 percent of the women rated as good (63 percent) or excellent (24 percent) the quality of collaboration among clergy, religious and lay people within the diocese. Only 2 percent said it was poor.

        ``My greatest frustration is the lack of consistency in experiences of collaboration,'' said one respondent. ``Some (but not enough) issues are addressed in a very collaborative manner. Some issues are addressed in an informative manner under the guise of collaboration. Other issues are simply decided and decisions are announced in the form of a memo.''

        But another said her bishop, ``using his leadership, has given an example to priests and pastors that women must be recognized for their contributions.''

        Forty percent of those responding to the survey were in religious life, 36 percent were married, 17 percent single, 5 percent divorced or separated, and 2 percent widowed.

        Nearly half (48 percent) were between the ages of 51 and 60, while another 25 percent were 61-70 years old and 19 percent were 41-50.

        More than 80 percent of the women diocesan leaders were white, 5 percent were African-American, 6 percent were Hispanic, 2 percent were Asian-American and 1 percent were Native American. The remaining 3 percent said they were from another race or ethnic group, or more than one.

        Asked what position they held in the diocese, 30 of the respondents said they were chancellor, a position which has only recently become available to women under canon law.

        Among the other positions held by the women were newspaper editor or communications director; director of finance, stewardship or business; director of human resources; tribunal director or member; educational administrator; and social service administrator.

        The survey was conducted for the bishops' Committee on Women in Society and in the Church in anticipation of the committee's March 11-13 consultation in Chicago with more than 100 female diocesan leaders.

        ``It should stimulate our conversation in Chicago and also back home with the women who collaborate with us in church leadership,'' said Archbishop Vlazny. ``They are performing an invaluable service and deserve our respect, support and understanding.''

    March 8, 2001
    volume 12, no. 67
    USA News
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