When Catholic women were asked, “Do you feel the Catholic Church should allow women, ages 35 and older, to be ordained as permanent deacons?”, 60% of respondents said “Yes.” While that may not be realized any time soon (if ever) in the American church, a new book “Catholic Women Preach: Raising Voices, Renewing the Church” (2022, Orbis Books) is highlighting Catholic women's voices now.
When one describes a faithful Catholic, they may include one actively participating in the faith through attending Mass, receiving the Eucharist, praying, going to confession, and being involved in parish life. However, according to the 2018 Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) study “Catholic Women in the United States,” the majority of Catholic women no longer fit this description. Only 24% of American Catholic women attend Mass once a week or more, only 3% attend confession once a month or more, and 67% have not served a parish in any ministry roles.
There are many different theories for why so many Catholics have either left the church or stopped regularly practicing their faith, including the large fallout from the sex abuse crisis. However, when it comes to women in particular, they may no longer feel that the Church meets their spiritual needs or represents their beliefs.
This is particularly true with Black Catholics. According to a 2022 Pew Research study, Black Catholics in the United States are leaving the faith at the highest rates among their peers. Roughly half of Black American adults who were raised Catholic still identify as Catholic (54%), compared with 61% of White adults and 68% of Hispanic adults.
For many Black Catholics, the leadership of the US Catholic Church as well as the white or mixed-race parishes they attend are not addressing the issues they care about. For example, 77% of Black American Catholics believe that opposing racism is essential to their faith, 71% say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, 86% say they believe that immigrants strengthen society, and 78% believe homosexuality should be accepted by society.
The new book “Catholic Women Preach” is a collection of content that was previously published on the Catholic Women Preach website, a project of FutureChurch. The collection is a much-needed resource for all Catholics, and especially Black Catholics, longing to hear issues they care about addressed and to know their Catholic faith is still relevant and important today. It is also a way to bring Catholic women's voices to people who do not hear them in the pews.
Of the 64 contributors to this first of three volumes, 8 are Black women—including the esteemed womanist and Black Catholic theologian Dr. M. Shawn Copeland; Sr Anita Baird, DHM, the founding director of the Office for Racial Justice in the Archdiocese of Chicago; and Sr Jamie Phelps, OP, a founding member of the National Black Sisters’ Conference. The book also features international Black women like the lay theologian and gender justice activist Dr. Nontando Hadebe, from South Africa.
The cover art, “Mary Magdalene Proclaims Resurrection!”, is by Laura James, an African- and Caribbean-American artist, who recently included the piece as a part of her “Black is Blessed” exhibit for the Archdiocese of New York. James, who was raised Protestant, employs the ancient Ethiopian Christian art form when making sacred icons.
There are also at least a dozen millennial preachers included in the volume, who represent younger Catholic voices. Many reflections raise challenging questions about the role of women in the Church and the presence of misogyny and patriarchy in our current practice and structures. One such example is Hadebe, who preached for the Feast of Mary Magdala. Hadebe states,
We as women, we trace our apostolic tradition to speak, to preach, and to have authority to Mary Magdalene because that was given to her in the garden out of the mouth of Jesus. She was commissioned to speak. What we see in the life of Mary Magdalene, we also see in the life of Christ. She was commissioned to speak, and then she was silenced by history. She was vilified. In other words she was crucified. She was turned into a sex worker or a prostitute, so that her witness would be silenced… We are going to trace our calling to preach, to speak, and to have authority to our apostle, Mary Magdalene. She is going to establish a tradition for women so that we too can participate in the building of the church.
Sr Phelps also preached on celebrating diversity, which Black Catholics bring to the faith.
Diversity is to be celebrated because it reflects the complexity of the God of Jesus Christ who we say we follow. We are called to be one, as God is one. The terms of that oneness is that universal, unconditional love. Only when we love, only when we see God in one another can we really be called the family of God. We are called to stay awake to the truth of who we are and whose we are.
FutureChurch is hosting a celebratory virtual book launch event today, October 25 at 8pm ET. This event is free and all are welcome, but registration is required and can be completed on the FutureChurch website.
An additional, in-person event is also being developed for the Catholic Theological Union’s Bernardin Center on Wednesday, December 7. Registration details are to be determined.
Catholic Women Preach: Raising Voices, Renewing the Church
Edited by Elizabeth Donnelly and Russ Petrus
Alessandra Harris is author of three novels and is a wife, mother of four, and co-founder of BCM. She earned degrees in Comparative Religious studies and Middle East Studies and currently studies in the Diocese of San Jose's Institute for Leadership in Ministry. She has also contributed to publications such as America Magazine, Grotto Network, and US Catholic. Her first nonfiction book is forthcoming from Orbis Books in 2023.