Center for American Progress

Selection of New Pope Underscores a Shortcoming of Church Rules

Selection of New Pope Underscores a Shortcoming of Church Rules

A leadership devoid of women seriously undermines the Catholic Church’s mission and future.

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Sister Simone Campbell, right, speaks to supporters during a stop on the first day of the
Sister Simone Campbell, right, speaks to supporters during a stop on the first day of the "Nuns on the Bus" tour, Monday, June 18, 2012, in Ames, Iowa. (AP/Charlie Neibergall)

Last week I took on the quixotic task of promoting a nun for pope by covering my office door with stickers: “Vote for hope, justice, joy!”, and “Yes, she can!”

These homemade feisty signs boost the impossible election of Sister Simone Campbell to be head of the Catholic Church worldwide. For those unfamiliar with Sister Simone, she created and led the “Nuns on the Bus” tour last summer, where she and fellow nuns grabbed headlines and drew huge crowds for defending faith-based charities that would’ve been devastated by the harsh cuts proposed in Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) House Republican budget. Last September Sister Simone gave a primetime address at the Democratic National Convention and received a standing ovation. For more than 40 years, she has devoted her life to helping those who are poor and disenfranchised, aiming to emulate the gospel message of lifting up “the least of these.”

But Sister Simone is a woman, which disqualifies her—and tens of millions of other Catholic women—from any ordained leadership positions in the church. This blocked path is both misguided and ironic, given the fact that the labor and leadership of nuns, along with lay women, has been crucial in building the church and its charitable arms over the centuries.

Dorothy Day, a social activist, journalist, and devout Catholic convert, founded the Catholic Worker Movement in the 1930s, and its social-justice mission continues today. As for nuns, the first one arrived on our shores from France in 1727, decades before we were a nation. Since then nuns have served as nurses, teachers, lawyers, social workers, administrators, and pioneers. They have run hospitals, social service agencies, churches, schools, universities, and old-age homes. An upcoming book, Called to Serve: A History of Nuns in America by Margaret M. McGuinness, says that although bishops usually get the credit for building Catholic institutions, “they simply couldn’t have operated without nuns.”

Most other faith traditions no longer prohibit women’s ordination. Even so, the number of women in their leadership ranks is low. Only 10 percent of senior pastors in Protestant churches are women—and that’s double what it was in the 1990s. One reason that the 2006 election of Katharine Jefforts Schori to be presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in America was such a big deal is because she was the first woman to lead the church in the Anglican Communion worldwide.

Are women doing better in the business and corporate world? Hardly. Only 20 of the Fortune 500 companies—a measly 4 percent—have female CEOs, which means you can count these female corporate heads on your fingers and toes. The picture isn’t much better in the political arena either, as women comprise a mere 18 percent of Congress and 10 percent of governors.

In politics and business, only 1 in 10 leaders is female, which makes them a rare breed. When you consider that women make up 50.8 percent of the U.S. population, their virtual invisibility in the top ranks is seriously wrong.

First of all, having more women leaders strengthens business and the economy. In a review of 100 U.S. companies, McKinsey and Company found that those with at least three women in top positions ranked higher than their counterparts on nine traits linked to “well-functioning organizations.” What’s more, when the McKinsey Women Matter team asked global executives to rate the most important leadership traits for success, the top four qualities they listed—intellectual stimulation, inspiration, participatory decision making, and setting expectations/rewards—were more likely to be found in women leaders than men. To top it off, a study by Catalyst, a nonprofit that focuses on women’s leadership in business, found that Fortune 500 companies with women on their boards performed better financially than those without female board members.

These statistics are certainly impressive. But they shouldn’t lead us to conclude that only female superstars get to be leaders. A woman shouldn’t have to be twice as good as a man to get the same job. Simple fairness says that being equally qualified is good enough.

Back to Catholics and their search for a new leader. Common sense says that the skills and talents needed for spiritual leadership are possessed by Catholic women as well as men. And given the dire shortage of priests in the United States and worldwide, it seems foolish to ignore such a rich—and greatly needed—talent pool. American Catholics agree. In a recent New York Times/CBS poll, 7 in 10 American Catholic voters said that women should be ordained as priests and priests should be able to marry.

Soon after Pope Benedict XVI resigned, Sister Simone Campbell got calls from reporters asking her views on the selection of a new pope. She spoke of qualities she hoped he would have, including the capacity to deal with the modern world and a devotion to justice. More than one reporter asked if she were going to Rome to be part of the voting conclave. After all, she was a national figure of importance in the church. “No,” she had to tell them. “I’m a woman and none of us gets to vote.”

She’s right—at least for now. But a church can’t hold off the modern world forever and keep its flock. Here’s hoping the next pope grasps that eternal truth.

Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Steenland, a best-selling author, former newspaper columnist, and teacher, explores the role of religion and values in the public sphere.

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Sally Steenland

Former Director, Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative

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