This site uses cookies...
Cookies are small text files that help us make your web experience better. By using any part of the site you consent to the use of cookies. More information about our cookies policy can be found on the Terms of Use.

Women in the Church: a canonical perspective

“Co-responsibility demands a change in mind set especially concerning the role of lay people in the Church. They should not be regarded as ‘collaborators’ of the clergy, but, rather, as people who are really ‘co-responsible’ for the Church’s being and acting. It is therefore important that a mature and committed laity be consolidated, which can make its own specific contribution to the ecclesial mission with respect for the ministries and tasks that each one has in the life of the Church and always in cordial communion with the bishops”.

Pope Benedict xvi expresses the challenge the Church is meeting with regard to the interaction of clergy and laity. The laity are not only collaborators of the clergy: they hold a co-responsibility for the edification and mission of the Church. What holds for the laity as such applies equally to laywomen.

the celebration of the closure of the Second Vatican Council

The Pope’s statement is rooted in the doctrine of Vatican ii. The Council affirms that through Baptism all faithful participate in the threefold ministry of Christ. From this flows: “Though they differ from one another in essence and not only in degree, the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood are nonetheless interrelated (ad invincem tamen ordinetur): each of them in its own special way is a participation in the one priesthood of Christ”. (LG 10) They are ordered towards each other. Vatican ii teaches “Holy Church, by divine institution, is ordered and directed with wonderful variety: ‘As in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another’ (Rom 12:4-5)” (LG 32). On the basis of Baptism there is a common dignity of the members and thus, “no inequality in Christ and in the Church, with regard to race or nation, social condition or sex” (LG 32). The equality and the “being ordered towards each other” are related as well to the doctrine that the Holy Spirit distributes special charisms “By which he renders them fit and ready to undertake the various tasks and offices which help the renewal and the building of the Church according to the word ‘that each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good’ (1 Cor 12:7)” (LG 12). This understanding explains why a diocese is a section (portio) of the people of God entrusted to the pastoral care of a bishop (CD 11). The bishop is not ordained for his personal sanctity but for service to a specific local Church. Governing the diocese implies promoting and protecting all the charisms given to the people entrusted to his care. Hence, a bishop cannot exercise his ministry on his own, but indeed would want to listen, take advice and consult with all the faithful, women included.

The doctrine needs to be complemented by canonical norms that assist the community in implementing it: norms have a facilitating role. How do the current canonical norms facilitate the exercise of a co-responsibility of women?

The law in force just before Vatican ii permitted laymen to hold some offices, roles and functions that were not open to laywomen. The current law did receive Vatican ii to a large extent: it hardly differentiates between lay men and lay women. The fundamental exception is that only baptised men can be ordained (c. 1024). This is not canonical, but doctrinal in nature.

Antonio del Pollaiolo, “Allegory of Justice (1470)

Canon Law confirms that through Baptism all Christian faithful (thus including the clergy) “participate in the threefold ministry of Christ in their own manner and that therefore they are called to exercise the mission which God has entrusted to the Church to fulfil in the world, in accord with the condition proper to each” (cf. c. 204). This norm is the opening canon on Book ii of the Code of Canon Law entitled “People of God”, in which the whole structure of the Church is regulated. The Code, like the Council, begins with what is common to all baptized, before it differentiates. As such the norm functions as lenses for interpreting all successive norms. This perspective is affirmed in the section on obligations and rights common to all faithful, be they clergy or laity, men or women. The first canon in that section reads: “In virtue of their rebirth in Christ there exists among all the Christian faithful a true equality with regard to dignity and the activity whereby (qua cuncti) all cooperate in the building of the Body of Christ in accord with each one’s own condition and function” (c. 208/CIC). These norms express that because of Baptism all cooperate but each according to his or her condition and function.

In relation to the different charisms, canon law determines that lay people are capable of exercising true ecclesiastical offices and functions (c. 228 §1) and that indeed they can cooperate in the power of governance (c.129). The norms thus express that laypeople and therefore women can share in the teaching, sanctifying and governing tasks (munera) of the Church. Hence, they hold a fundamental right as well as duty to spread the divine message of salvation in the world (c. 211 and 225). For the good of the Church they have the right to make their needs known and share their concerns with the pastors and other faithful (c. 212). They enjoy the right to sustain the apostolate by their own undertakings (c. 216). They can be appointed as administrator of a parish (c. 517 §2), as missionary (c. 784), as catechist (c. 785), as minister of Holy Communion, lector and acolyte (although not on a stable basis - c. 230), preside over liturgical prayers including funeral services, be appointed as ministers of Baptism (c. 861 §2), be delegated to assist at weddings (c. 1112), be minister of the word which allows for preaching – but not giving a homily (c. 766-767), be appointed as a teacher of religion (804-805), as censor (c. 830), lecturer or professor in theological disciplines, or as dean in theological faculties or as rector of a Catholic or ecclesiastical university (c. 810-812). They can be (vice-) secretary general of an episcopal conference, staff member of the different commissions of the conference. They can serve as experts or consultors either for matters within the Church or as delegates on behalf of the Church, e.g. in ecumenical or interreligious dialogues or on other subjects and to organizations or bodies for which task they hold a specific expertise (c. 218). They can be appointed as chancellor or notary (c. 483 § 2), as finance officer of a diocese (c. 494 § 1) or of a religious institute (c. 636), as a member of the finance council of a diocese (c. 492), of a parish (c. 537) or of any other public juridic person (c. 1280). They can represent a juridic person (c. 118). A woman can be a judge in a diocesan tribunal or appeal court (1421 §2), as well as an assessor (c. 1424), an auditor (c. 1428), a ponens (1429), a defender of the bond or a promotor of justice (1435), a procurator or advocate (c. 1483), a guardian or curator (c. 1478). Laypersons can be appointed as consultors, senior administrators or officials at the offices of the Roman Curia (Apostolic Constitution, Pastor Bonus, Art. 3 §2 & art. 8-9). In causes for canonization and beatification women can exercise the function of postulator. Women can be members of diocesan and parish pastoral councils (c. 512 and 536), as well as of particular councils, whether they are for an ecclesiastical province or for the territory of an episcopal conference (c. 443§ 5-6). Women can be invited to participate in Roman synods of bishops. Yet a remark must be made: In some of these institutions laywomen, like laymen, have no vote but only a voice. Hence, they can speak, but cannot decide. The differentiation lies with ordination, not with the fact that the layperson is a man or a woman.

The list can be expanded: women hold positions that are not foreseen in the law, but that are also not contrary to the law. They are directors of Catholic schools, hospitals, or other health-care facilities. Traditionally women religious have held such positions. They might employ more than 10,000 people and administer budgets that exceed many diocesan ones. Some own health-care facilities in many countries making them “directors of multinational operations”.

Some diocesan bishops employ women to do the work that traditionally episcopal vicars have exercised: they are the “episcopal delegate”, e.g. for caritas, education, religious life, or canonical affairs and participate in the diocesan curia (c. 469). They are head of the personnel department: besides a “vicar for clergy” who is a priest, the woman is the “episcopal delegate” and carries responsibility for lay ecclesial ministers. Bishops employ women who hold a doctorate in theology or canon law to assistant them in preparing their homilies, articles and lectures. Indeed the positions women hold also relate to the theological education they have received.

The many possibilities also leave some theological questions open. The most difficult one concerns the nature of the participation of laity in the exercise of the sacra potestas of a bishop. What does it mean theologically when a bishop delegates a layperson to act in the name of the Church, for example, when she receives a missio canonica to preach and teach, is delegated to lead a parish (c. 517 §2), to grant dispensations (c. 135), or is appointed to act as judge (c. 1425)? Does the delegation by a bishop change the nature of the action performed by the lay person? What does it mean when such a delegation implies that the layperson acts in the name of the Church?

The list with possibilities for women to participate in the Church is impressive: laymen and laywomen basically enjoy the same right and obligations, as well as the same opportunities to engage in the work of the Church. Nevertheless, many of them are not used. A change of mind set is necessary, as Pope Benedict xvi said. Three steps must be taken: first, become aware that the participation of laywomen (as well as laymen) does not originate in some societal developments about the equality of men and women, but is rooted in the ecclesiological implications of Baptism. Second, the participation of laywomen and men is not a threat, but an enrichment because it allows the Church to benefit from the work of the Holy Spirit in the different members. Third, because Vatican ii made clear that while respecting their condition the different members of the faithful are ordered towards each other, the collaboration is to be practised as a co-responsibility. Pope Francis expresses the same reality by referring to synodality: being Church implies “journeying together”: “A synodal Church is a Church which listens… It is a mutual listening in which everyone has something to learn … all listening to the Holy Spirit, the “Spirit of truth” (Jn 14:17), in order to know what he “says to the churches” (Rev. 2:7)”. He continues: “Synodality as a constitutive element of the Church, offers us the most appropriate interpretive framework for understanding the hierarchical ministry itself”. Such an understanding which Pope Benedict xvi expresses with “co-responsibility” and Pope Francis with “synodality” requires that women be granted opportunities to exercise their co-responsibility in response to their Baptism The current law allows for many possibilities. Theological reasons recommend that they be implemented for the edification and mission of the Church.

Myriam Wijlens




St. Peter’s Square

Oct. 15, 2019