Catholic women call for far-reaching church reforms in a new international survey

Catholic women around the world are calling for a wide range of church reforms, according to the results of our poll of more than 17,000 Catholic women from more than 100 countries, released this month.

A sizeable majority were concerned about the spread of abuse, racism and sexism in church contexts, and many raised issues related to transparency and accountability in church leadership and administration.

The International Survey of Catholic Women is one of the largest surveys of Catholic women ever conducted, and its findings should lead to lasting and real change in the Catholic Church.

Why we did this survey

The poll was initiated by Catholic Women Speak in response to Pope Francis’ invitation for the Catholic Church to engage in a process of “synodling” for the 2021-2023 Synod of Bishops. The synod will examine how the church comes together and is considered to be of great relevance to important issues facing the church.

The aim of the survey was to collect feedback on the experiences of Catholic women. It offers insights into the complex realities of Catholic women’s lives, the ways they express their faith and their relationships with the institutional church. We designed and conducted the survey together with Professor Tina Beattie from the University of Roehampton, London.

Read more: What is the Synod of Bishops? A Catholic priest and theologian explains

The large number of responses clearly shows the desire of Catholic women to share their hopes and frustrations and to share with the Synod their views on the situation of women in the Catholic Church.

Respondents identified as women from all walks of life – single, married, divorced, LGBTIQ and religious. While the results do not claim to be representative of all Catholic women, they do articulate the diverse hopes and struggles of women in the global church.

Catholic women’s views reflect the cultural and community contexts in which their faith is experienced and practiced. This diversity is rarely represented in Church documents or theology, and many women find it difficult to see the relevance of Church teachings to the complex realities of their lives.

Many women “quarreled” with the Catholic Church

The survey found that even when women have significant problems with Catholic institutions, nearly 90% said their Catholic identity is important to them. Many continue to practice their faith despite ongoing difficulties with the institutional church.

Several respondents used words such as “frustrated,” “hurt,” “angry,” and “conflicted” when describing their relationship with the church.

Most respondents said they would welcome reforms in the Catholic Church, particularly – but not exclusively – in relation to the role and representation of women.

One woman from Australia remarked, “We take the line of being valuable members of society but lacking a voice in many elements of the church.” Another from Nicaragua said: “Stop making women invisible”.

Respondents commented on the following topics:

A minority of respondents expressed a preference for church reform based on a pre-Vatican II model of authority, priesthood, and liturgy. The Second Vatican Council was an important meeting of all Catholic bishops, held in Rome between 1962 and 1965, which made progressive decisions about the future of the worldwide Church.

Read more: The Catholic Church resists change – but Vatican II shows it can be done

Abuse remains a key problem

Respondents consistently identified the sexual, physical, and emotional abuse of women, children, and other vulnerable people as a key concern for the church.

Some respondents reported experiences of abuse and harassment, while others expressed disappointment at the lack of effective responses to the sexual abuse crisis.

A woman from Canada wrote:

They have a long way to go to clean up and cover up the scandal. I know that first hand. I feel just as betrayed by institutional betrayal as by my perpetrator […] This comes from a dedicated lifelong Catholic who has never left the Church.

Many respondents expressed deep concern about transparency and accountability in church leadership and administration. There was agreement that a less hierarchical and authoritarian church model was urgently needed, with greater collaboration and sharing of authority between clergy and laity (lay people).

A significant majority of respondents indicated that clericalism has a negative impact on church life. Clericalism is the idealization of male clerics and subsequent abuse of power.

A Panamanian respondent remarked, “I wish women had more say and we weren’t abused by clericalism that excludes us and robs us of our dignity.”

Most respondents linked their Catholic identity to social justice and wanted church leaders to address poverty and exclusion. Several raised the issue of economic justice in church affairs, including the lack of adequate pay for women church employees, both lay and religious.

The challenge for the synod is to show that the many concerns raised by respondents in the survey are being carefully listened to and addressed.

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