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Night Out With Meaning Reflection: The role of women in religion

Updated: Apr 16

By Teresa Araco Rodgers

Perhaps you are like me - I grew up in a faith passed to me by my parents.  I was educated in that faith and received the sacraments of that faith. I started to raise my children in that faith until very real issues for me personally prevented me from blindly practicing my faith within the walls of the Roman Catholic Church – the institution – issues impacting women, youth, and the LGBTQ+ community. 


A few months ago, I sat down with Maureen O’Connell, Professor of Christian Ethics at La Salle University and Director of Synod and Higher Education Engagement at Discerning Deacons. Maureen shared that there are urgent conversations happening right now about “women in the life and mission of the Catholic Church” – conversations that include women for the first time in the Church’s History and they are yielding encouraging results. Her organization, Discerning Deacons, is engaging Catholics in the active discernment of the Church about women in the diaconate. 


When I spoke with Maureen, what she shared, particularly related to the role of women in the Catholic Church, made me pause and think deeper about leaving versus staying. Maureen has asked important questions like – Can the Roman Catholic Church - one of the oldest institutions in human history, riddled with crises and yet still a global source of charity and justice - change its position on women?Will we see Catholic women become preachers, ordained ministers, and decision-makers in our lifetime?


I want to pause on this question – will we see Catholic women become decision-makers in our lifetime? 


One of our early storytellers was Marjorie Margolies who shared the story of the founding of Women’s Campaign International. The organization is built with the purpose of getting women elected in emerging democracies because when women are at the table, issues related to health, the environment, our children, and education get raised and prioritized. Similarly, I am involved with an organization called Represent PA which works to get women elected in Harrisburg and throughout the State. So, when Maureen shared her story about her work with women in the church, I had to ask myself the question: why did I not think about the role of women in leadership within the Catholic Church to address the issues that I care about?


When conversations make me pause and reflect, I know that it makes for a good dialogue among our Night Out With Meaning community and I was excited that Maureen agreed to step up to the Podium.


Maureen was raised in the Catholic faith. She shared how, despite a lifetime of Catholic education, she did not encounter stories of women’s leadership in the Church until she reached her Doctoral Program in Theological Ethics at Boston College. Maureen set out to change the system from within. After receiving her PhD, she returned to higher education as a Professor of Christian Ethics and began to tell these important stories to a new generation.    


In 2013, Maureen was overjoyed to hear Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the first Jesuit Pope, chose the papal name Francis in honor of Saint Francis of Assisi. Inspired by his choice, Maureen issued a challenge to Pope Francis through a National Editorial in the Washington Post to model his namesake and to not overlook the contribution of Saint Francis’ partner, Clare, the founder of The Poor Clares.  Maureen urged Pope Francis to use his power to bring women into leadership roles. 


Pope Francis met Maureen’s expectations. He established a commission to restore and renew the ministry of the Church in 2016. Specifically, Pope Francis asked the commission to examine the topic of opening the diaconate to women. In 2020, a Synod of Bishops voted in favor of ordaining women as deacons. As a direct result of this Synod, Discerning Deacons was established, and, in 2022, Maureen was invited to work for the organization as the Director of Synod and Higher Education.


In 2023, for the first time in the history of the church, Pope Francis invited women and laypeople to participate as voting members of a Synod. Maureen recognized this invitation, which allowed all members of the Catholic Church to have a voice in the future of the church, as a major shift. She was even more excited that Julia Oseka, a Physics and Theology major at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, was selected to participate as a voting delegate from North America.  In addition to women’s issues, the Synod ignited conversations on marriage in the priesthood, recognition of same sex unions, and divorce in the church


Maureen shared an inspiring story of perseverance within an institution that has been historically resistant to change.  In the face of hardship, instead of leaving, she relied on her faith and continued to raise her voice from the inside. Now, the work of Discerning Deacons is forging a pathway for women and marginalized communities at one of the most powerful institutions in the world. Regardless of faith, one should recognize this work as a step forward for women globally. We are grateful to Maureen for sharing her story and the story of the tenacious women and young people seeking to make a difference.


More information about Discerning Deacons can be found on their website. You can also join the conversation virtually on April 29, 2024 at 4:00 pm at the Discerning Diakonia.    

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