Pope Francis made news last month when he told a group of women visiting the Vatican that women should become more involved in the Catholic Church.
“I hope that more spaces are widened for a feminine presence in the Church that is more widespread and inclusive,” he said to members of the Centro Italiano Femminile, a women’s group founded to promote democracy.
Although Pope Francis also said he was “pleased to see many women sharing some pastoral duties with priests,” he didn’t amend his earlier statement that the priesthood would remain reserved to men. Some critics continue to view this belief as sexist, discriminatory and proof that women are powerless in the Catholic Church.
In reality, those criticisms couldn’t be further from the truth.
Women have always held influential roles in the Catholic Church, and since the earliest days of Christ’s ministry many women – mothers, missionaries and sometimes martyrs – have spread the Gospel.
For instance, the Catholic Church accords the title “Doctor of the Church” to saints whose works have contributed significantly to the formulation of Christian teaching. It’s an exclusive club; while there have been 266 popes, there are only 35 Doctors of the Church. Of the 12 named in the last 100-years, four were women.
When Pope Benedict XVI conferred the honor on Saint Hildegard of Bingen, a nun who died in 1179, the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano published a special insert devoted to the female doctors. It noted that they each “knew how to love and understand, how to stimulate renewal and the development of doctrine, invent forms of expressions of the faith, to build and not only guard tradition.”
Catholic women don’t have to look as far back as 12th century Germany for inspiration, though. They can look to Alabama, right now, which is home to the most influential living Catholic leader besides the pope – Mother Angelica.
Her story is amazing. In late 1981, without experience, without money and without church support, she started the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) in the garage of the Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in a suburb of Birmingham. The network grew and now, according to its website, it’s “the largest religious media network in the world, transmitting programming 24-hours a day to more than 148 million homes in 144 countries and territories.”
EWTN’s success didn’t happen easily or overnight. It took leadership; leadership that came from a woman.
In his New York Times bestselling biography, “Mother Angelica: The Remarkable Story of a Nun, Her Nerve, and a Network of Miracles,” television host and author Raymond Arroyo recounts how she overcame a mountain of obstacles to create and preserve EWTN. The book details how from the beginning, Mother Angelica’s efforts were opposed by many influential bishops. Some progressives in the ecclesiastic power structure disliked her orthodox views, and some feared her influence was a direct challenge to their authority.
A competing network run by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops discouraged guests from appearing on her shows. (Their network eventually failed).
Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, a hero to progressive Catholics, relentlessly demanded that Mother Angelica publicly apologize for criticizing something he wrote. (She refused, and the Vatican declined to intervene on behalf of the cardinal).
When Birmingham’s bishop convinced the Vatican to investigate her monastery and network, Mother Angelica sensed a plot to take over EWTN and appoint a progressive successor. (She quickly resigned and gave the network to its board of directors, severing any chance the bishops could ever control its programming).
Since then, the little network that began in a garage has grown to become even more influential, with award-winning programming that teaches, inspires and brings comfort to millions of Catholics throughout the world. And it all started with one woman with a big idea, and millions of Catholics followed her lead.
She was opposed, as all great leaders are, but she triumphed. Mother Angelica, the Doctors of the Church, and the hundreds of women officially recognized as saints are proven examples that women have, and will continue to have, an influential role in the life of the Catholic Church. Let’s hope Pope Francis’s encouragement to women will help build upon that rich history.