In a 1965 speech to the National Union of Townswomen’s Guild Conference, Margaret Thatcher quipped, “If you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman.”
Though she was speaking about politics, it’s safe to say that many pastors across the country can sympathize, since women have traditionally taken the lead in the work of parish ministries and religious education.
But this might not be the case in the future. In a recent survey conducted by America Media in collaboration with the Center for the Applied Research in the Apostolate, more than 67 percent of all the Catholic women who were surveyed reported that they have never participated in parish ministry.
And while most women said that receiving the Eucharist and serving the poor are the two things that shape their sense of what is means to be Catholic, they aren’t regularly doing either. Seventeen percent of millennial women (born 1982 or later) reported attending Mass weekly or more; only 18 percent of women in the “post Vatican II” generation (born 1961-81) do the same.
Given this trajectory, church officials would be wise to consider the behavior, outlook and experience of young, female Catholics. This consideration should drive at least a few of the listening sessions at the upcoming synod on “Young people, faith and vocational discernment.”
Some other findings in the survey might be helpful in shaping the conversation. About 38 percent of women reported that their ideas about being a woman of faith were primarily shaped by other women in their lives, including grandmothers, mothers and members of their extended family.
This jibes well with Pope Francis’ view that women have an indispensable role in transmitting the faith to new generations. Faith, the Holy Father has preached, “is a beautiful work of mothers and grandmothers, the fine work of the women who play those roles.”
But the real conundrum is that mothers and grandmothers of millennials are sending mixed messages about what practicing the faith looks like. What’s the answer?
While it considers how to better support and attract young adults, the church should simultaneously invest in their parents through intentional adult faith formation. As stated in the preparatory document for the synod:
“The role of credible adults and their cooperation is basic in the course of human development and vocational discernment. This requires authoritative believers with a clear human identity, a strong sense of belonging to the church, a visible spiritual character, a strong passion for education and a great capacity for discernment.”
Another starting point might be to rethink the vocabulary we use when speaking about the moral life. According to the CARA study, 33 percent of women say religious educators and catechists shape their views on being women of faith.
It’s telling that of all the church’s teachings, those on abortion and care for the environment are most important to them. Those teachings were closely followed by the church’s stance on the death penalty, physician-assisted suicide, and migration and refugees.
Perhaps this means using language that moves beyond the “liberal vs. conservative” framework and better speaks to the lived integral witness that Catholic women intuitively embrace.
In my estimation, Pope Francis’ example is imperative to follow. When speaking to young adults on his apostolic visits and during World Youth Days, he consistently speaks of the “throwaway culture” and insists that the young, with their zeal and vigor, should care for all living things that are subject to violence, objectification or disregard.
He says in “Laudato Si'”: “Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties?” (No. 120).
As the church prepares to listen to its young adults this year, it would be wise to pay particular attention to the minds and hearts of its young women. If tradition teaches us anything, investing in them means investing in our future.
Italiano is the founding executive director of The Given Institute.
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