Australian bishops' report on women: majority supports orthodoxy

Australian bishops' report on women: majority supports orthodoxy

Michael Gilchrist

The major finding of the recently launched 496-page summary report on the participation of women in the Catholic Church in Australia - Woman and Man: One in Christ Jesus - was that a substantial majority of Mass-goers (most of them women) support orthodoxy and the status quo.

Woman and Man was launched on 18 August at the National Press Club, Canberra, and televised 'live' nationally by the ABC. Cardinal Edward Clancy, President of the Australian Episcopal Conference, who spoke at the launch and answered questions, drew attention to the report's finding that a "silent majority" of practising Catholics supported Church authority and saw no barriers to women's participation in the Church.

About three years ago, the Australian bishops agreed to commission the ambitious research project, apparently undeterred by the failure of a similar US enterprise between 1983-1992, and by the fact that the project's main instigators - notably the Australian Conference of Leaders of Religious Institutes (ACLRI) - had publicly dissented from the Pope's 1994 Apostolic Letter confirming the Church's 2,000-year-old teaching on a male-only ordained priesthood.


Whether the ambitious, costly project could ever justify itself remained open to question. For most regular churchgoers, the 'issue' of women's participation might have seemed irrelevant, given that, wherever one looked, women seemed already to be playing increasingly prominent roles at most levels in the Church.

The research findings eventually embodied in Woman and Man were based on 2,555 written submissions received in the second half of 1996, 500 presentations made at hearings conducted around Australia between May-July 1997, the views of spokesmen for certain "targeted groups" (e.g., aborigines, migrants and the disabled) and results from the Catholic Church Life Survey (CCLS).

The CCLS was conducted in November 1996, involving 281 parishes from around Australia and 101,000 people aged 15 or over. To cover a wide range of topics, twenty different questionnaires were distributed at random to congregations. One of these, Questionnaire H, included the four key questions underpinning the women's participation project:

1. What are ways in which women participate in the Catholic Church in Australia?

2. What assistance and support are currently offered to women to participate in the Church?

3. What are barriers to women's participation in the Church?

4. What are some ways in which women's participation can be increased?

Although only 4,457 respondents filled out Questionnaire H, their demographic characteristics (e.g., age, marital status, etc) were essentially identical to the those of all 101,000 involved in the CCLS. In other words, they represented a statistically valid sampling of all Catholic Mass attenders.

The CCLS revealed that 84.7 percent of those who filled in Questionnaire H indicated they accepted the Church's teaching authority (with no/some/great difficulty), while only 8.8 percent of respondents said they did not. While 67.2 percent variously supported Church teaching on women's ordination, only 26.8 percent clearly rejected it. 88 percent indicated that in the past 5 years they had never felt unwelcome - with only 1 percent saying they felt unwelcome because of their gender. 76 percent said they had never experienced or observed any barriers to women's participation in the Church because of gender, while only 2-3 percent thought there was a need for more "gender inclusive language."

Yet analysis of these telling CCLS statistics occupies just 35 of the 300 pages of Woman and Man devoted to analysis of the findings of the project's various research approaches. The balance of these pages is given over mostly to numerous quotations from the submissions, presentations and "targeted groups". These typically call for the Church to "update," to "read the signs of the times" and to allow more inclusive language. There are familiar criticisms of "patriarchy," "sexism" and the "institutional Church" with constant talk of alienation, marginalisation and hurt.

The authors of Woman and Man describe those written submissions supporting the current level of participation of women as "a small minority" (p. 105). They also note this in the case of the hearings presentations: "A small minority of the presenters were of the opinion that there are no barriers to the participation of women in the Church" (p. 185).


If anything this "small minority" is more indicative of the practical difficulties for the Church's "silent majority" of Mass-attending, home-based wives and mothers in attending hearings or making written submissions.

Woman and Man concludes (p. 375): "The dominant feeling of participants in the written submissions, public hearings and targeted groups was one of pain and alienation ... Pain, alienation and often anger resulted from a strong sense of women's marginalisation, struggle, disenfranchisement, powerlessness, irrelevance and lack of acknowledgement within the Church."

But, in truth, the report is simply inflating the views of a self-selected, unrepresentative minority. The statistical evidence of an opposite "silent majority" should have been put in far stronger perspective.

Most practising Catholics no doubt hope the bishops will heed the majority, and shelve the report at their November annual conference. They can then confront the far more urgent challenge of how best to implement the Statement of Conclusions.

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