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Females As Religious Leaders In The Catholic Church

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The future of religion is one that includes an ever growing number of female leaders. Being deeply grounded in traditional beliefs and practices, it is difficult for one to consider that leadership roles within certain religions will also grow to have more representation of females. But, that is not to say it hasn’t already happened. Females within the religion of Catholicism have already begun to defy traditional norms. There has been multiple instances where women have obtained leadership status. But, do bear in mind that after conducting research, it is important to understand that the ordination of women, does not mean they have the same full clergy rights as ordained male priests.

As for why this shift in our society is necessary, specifically pertaining to the Catholic beliefs, females who are ordained have greatly impacted the institutional lives of their church and other churches, they also hold a significant amount of influential power in fighting for social change. ​1 ​There is research that discusses how some priests, surprisingly support the ordination of females. This goes to show how the power of this movement can alter the mindset of those who are seen to most likely reject the approval of it. Furthermore, it is crucial for one to explore, analyze, and understand this in order for a more equal society to exist. Niemelä notes that in the mid 19th century, the first women were ordained in different denominations within the Catholic Church. ​2​ More specifically, the years which the first few ordinations of women took place were 1853, 1863, 1865, and 1866. ​3​ Outside of the US, females were not ordained into clergy until the late 1900s.​4​ Even later in Finland, where the first female Bishop was not ordained until 2010.​5 ​Fast forward to the 2000s, where “7.9% of congregations in the United States had a female leader (in 2006/2007).” ​6​ To date, there are 204 female priests worldwide, 145 in the US.​7 ​Though there were many cases of female clergy in early years, it is extremely important to consider that they were, and still are not seen as equal as other male clergy. Meaning, the female clergy does not hold the same power as male clergy when it came to decision making and policy.​8 ​In addition, in other parts of our society, women experience discrimination in the work field, the same thing applies within the church.

Niemelä reported that the vast majority of females decide to go through the process of being ordained because of a direct calling from God.​9​ With this in mind, one must ask themselves, ​if a woman is receiving a calling from God to devote themselves to the church, why is it challenged when a man experiencing the same thing is not?​ In an interview conducted for an article published by ​Vogue​, a female priest in Long Beach, California said, “I have stayed because being Catholic is part of who I am. Leaving would be abandoning who I am, my call to the priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church, and my call to be a voice for gender justice in our world.”​10​ Now more than ever before, women are defying all odds and are fighting for their place in all parts of society. The article reported that the same female priest, along with many others have founded their own churches, which has resulted in the creation of communities that support the ordination of females into priesthood.​11​ This article focused a lot on women supporting women, the other side to that is men supporting women in this up and coming wave of change.

In another article, researchers focused on studying the shifts in mindsets of male priests in regards to the ordination of females. Harvey noted that the opinion of male priests about female clergy depends on the time of when they were ordained. For example, Harvey stated, “...the younger and oldest priests are more likely to be conservative, while those ordained between Vatican II and 1985 are more liberal.”​12 ​The timely context of when male priests are ordained weighs in on why they initially hold certain opinions, but why is it that they continue to hold those opinions? During interviews with male priests, Harvey asked why they do not support the ordination of women. He found that their responses were always along the lines of that all of the apostles were male and that Jesus was male, thus disagreeing with anything different.​13​ When asked about gender roles in the church, one male priest argued that, “men and women are equal in dignity and status but we don’t believe they are equal in function, which makes us quite counter-cultural . . . and that being male and female is not just a matter of cultural conditioning, that it is ingrained, hardwired into who we are, and that is, I think, very enriching and very true basically.”​14​ This priest argues that we are born with a specific purpose depending on if we are born male or female. What we are worth and how we should be respected, may seem equal in his eyes, but if we are limited to and restricted from serving in certain parts of society, then we are not truly equal in dignity. Contrary to what was previously mentioned is the population of male priests who support allowing women to become ordained. During another round of interviews, one priest stated the following in response to others who argue that the apostles were all male, “I have ​no ​objection to women priests. I don’t see it. People say Jesus didn’t choose women to be his apostles. Well, there was a reason for that: it would’ve been socially impossible for a woman to be respected as a priest [at that period in history].”​15​ This priest acknowledges the difference in time periods, which allows him to see the oppression of women. It is clear to the reader that because he understands times have changed, he has consciously shifted his opinions to validate the equality of women. Another priest mentioned how those (other male priests) who are conservative, are that way because they do not open their mind to anything different than what is taught by the Catholic church.​16​ For example, reading articles written in favor of Catholic teachings does not leave one with any new information. If educating oneself is gone about in this way, then there is no room for growth. Thus, leaving those in the same mindset, with the same opinions for years and years to come.

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Aside from what has already been discussed, the Catholic church is an organization, which means there are many moving parts, both internally and externally that either supports the approval or rejection of female priests. Mark Chaves conducted research that addresses such factors. Internally is centralization and autonomous women’s missions.​17 ​Denominations within the Catholic church that are centralized means they are restricted in decision making. Those who are decentralized will have more freedom in what they wish to alter, or keep the same because of denomination wide rules. ​18​ Chaves explains how if one woman were to desire to become ordained, then all she would need to do is seek one congregation that supports the ordination of females.​19 ​Then, more women and congregations would be able to see the possibilities of such an event. From there on, it is like a domino effect. Within decentralized denominations, more gender norms can be challenged and erased. Autonomous women’s missions are missions started by females in any given congregation. Women within a mission decide which societal issue(s) they wish to spend their time and resources on. Such missions raise funding for either their program, or the congregation they are directly affiliated with.​20​ It seems as though that if they are raising the money for solely their mission, then they have more control over which issues they can focus on. If they are raising money for the congregation, then such chosen issues are limited.

The missions that have complete control over the money would be able to freely take on the ordination of female clergy as a societal issue. Consequently pushing the bar for approval across all congregations and denominations. Upon analysis, the autonomous women’s missions will only be able to support the ordination of female clergy if all denominations and congregations are decentralized. The outside factors may have more influence than the opinions of male clergy on whether or not women can obtain leadership status. Chaves mentioned that the following has already affected and will continue to affect the clearance of ordained female clergy: clergy shortages, members’ preferences.​21​ In regards to clergy shortages, Chaves said, “denominations grant equality to women to meet internal needs of the organization, then we might expect the existence of a clergy shortage to hasten the advent of women's ordination.”​22​ Denominations that are experiencing a shortage of clergy, will have no choice other than to begin to ordain females.

Though that is not the most correct reason to ordain women, it would force churches to expose their communities to leadership of women, hopefully changing mindsets for the best. Members’ preferences will depend on the congregations location.​23​ The members that make up congregations in southern states, as opposed to members of congregations in California would most likely strictly oppose the ordination of female clergy. Whatever the majority of the members desire is what they are going to receive. Because if not, then they would stop attending and supporting ceremonies. Chaves declared women’s movement as an external factor, but one could argue that it is both internal and external. Internal because a certain part of any congregation will be comprised of female members, who have views that may differ from those of their church. Externally because the second wave of feminism has called for many changes in our society, so why would that stop changes from being made within the Catholic church? All of these internal and external organizational factors, if handled unbiasedly, could play in favor to ordain females, ultimately defying the views of the male priests who strictly oppose such from happening.

Through all of this research, it is evident that the future of female clergy is on the horizon. The next step in this entire process is defining the terms within the ordination of female clergy. Meaning, the power female clergy holds must be made clear and concise. More importantly, the power must be equal to the power of male clergy. If that is not the case, then the ordination of females would be at a stand still, similar to how it is now. The point to ordain women is to provide not only more clergy within churches, but to also broaden the views of the church’s members. New ideas would be brought forward, hopefully influencing the members to fight for societal issues, both already existing and emerging. The Catholic church must not underestimate the influence women hold on the overall population. Movements of similar nature are happening all over the world, in all organizations, it won’t be long before the same happens within the walls of the Catholic church.


  1. Bobb, B. “Keeping the Faith.” ​Vogue​, May 4, 2018.
  2. Chaves, Mark. 'Ordaining Women: The Diffusion of an Organizational Innovation.' ​American Journal of Sociology​ 101, no. 4 (1996): 840-73. ​​.
  3. Harvey, Peter. “It’s a Total Way of Life?: Catholic Priests, Women’s Ordination, and Identity Work.” ​Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion​ 57.3 (2018) 547-566.​.
  4. Niemelä, Kati. “Female Clergy as Agents of Religious Change?”​ Religions ​2.3 (2011). 358-371. doi: 10.3390/rel2030358. ​
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Females As Religious Leaders In The Catholic Church. (2022, February 18). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 5, 2023, from
“Females As Religious Leaders In The Catholic Church.” Edubirdie, 18 Feb. 2022,
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