Reform groups challenge U.S. bishops to create 'a church for our daughters'

 |  Grace on the Margins

"Missing: The Next Generation of Catholic Women."

So warns the website of A Church for Our Daughters, a new campaign sponsored by thirty Catholic reform organizations, including FutureChurch, Call to Action, the Women's Ordination Conference, DignityUSA, and the 8th Day Center for Justice.

The website invites its readers to "Imagine a Church without women -- our daughters, granddaughters, nieces, Goddaughters, neighbors."

While some might suggest that this campaign's imagination has run wild, recent studies and statistics on women and the church indicate a credible cause for concern.

In mid-May, a new Pew Research Center analysis of General Social Survey data found a significant decline in the number of women in the U.S. who attend church weekly.

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The study, which focused on the gender gap in religious service attendance, found that "between 1972 and 1974, an average of 36% of women and 26% of men reported attending religious services at least once a week -- a 10-percentage-point gap."

Though in the late 1980s through the 1990s weekly attendance declined among all Americans, Pew found that there was a greater drop among women. As the years went by, women's disinterest in religious services continued to outpace men's. Pew reports that since the early 2010s the gender gap has narrowed to 6 percentage points, with 28 percent of women and 22 percent of men saying they attend religious services at least weekly.

What makes this data particularly striking is the fact that men's attendance patterns have stabilized over time, while women's continued to decline. "If anything," Pew's David McClendon writes, "affiliated men have recently become more likely to say they attend services weekly."

The study adds empirical weight to one of the key concern of A Church for Our Daughters: that the Roman Catholic hierarchy's doctrine on gender and sexuality is leading to an exodus of young women from the church.

The campaign will have its formal launch later this month during the meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Huntington Beach, Calif. Members will lead a witness and march for equality outside the bishops' meeting on June 14.

"A Church for Our Daughters is a clarion call to our U.S. bishops to wake up to the reality they have created over the past several decades -- a church who no longer dreams God's dream for her people or has the courage to try," said Deborah Rose-Milavec, executive director of FutureChurch.

A grandmother of 12 and mother of six, Rose-Milavec says that her daughters "have sharp minds, enormous hearts and the wisdom to know where to find models of authentic love. Right now, the church is not one of those places."

A Church for our Daughters was initially inspired by another set of alarming statistics. According to an earlier Pew General Social Survey, Millennial Catholic women are more likely than their male counterparts to report that they never attend Mass. They are also more likely to leave the Catholic church than men in their age group.

As part of their witness and march for equality, members will also deliver a petition to the bishops' conference during their meeting in Huntington Beach.

The petition, which is being maintained on the Groundswell website, calls on the bishops "to work with us to build a Church that strikes down every oppressive practice, teaching, and law that assigns women and girls to a subordinate status. We call on our leaders to create a Church that is truly inclusive and alive with the gifts, spirit, and potential of all its members."

Among its 15 recommendations, the petition calls for the bishops to transform the church into a place that welcomes all of those who feel called to the priesthood or the diaconate, to honor women's moral agency in respect to their decisions about their own health and family, and to reflect on its own participation in the oppression of women.

For Erin Saiz Hanna, co-director of the Women's Ordination Conference, the cause became personal recently when she learned that she is pregnant with a baby girl.

She says that the happy news also led her to reflect on whether she could raise her daughter in a religious tradition that refuses to recognize that she is entitled to participate in the church in a way that is equal to men.

"How could I tell her she can be anything she wants to be when she grows up knowing that encouragement falls short when it comes to our religion?" Saiz Hanna asked.

Regina Bannan, chair of the action group for A Church for Our Daughters says that the campaign forces the bishops to look towards the future and confront the question, "Where are young American women?"

She believes that many young Catholic women are doing social justice work or praying alone or in small groups. "We can bring them into church as well," Bannan argues, if the bishops can find a way to support even a few of the elements of the A Church for Our Daughters declaration.

Jennifer O'Malley, a Roman Catholic Womanpriest and a local organizer for the march and witness, says that the group's upcoming action should be seen as an attempt to dialogue with the bishops. They are asking the bishops to think about these issues honestly, not defensively, she says.

O'Malley's hope is that young women who are called to be priests will be able to "share that dream without the worry of being told their dream isn't valid simply because of their gender."

Though the recent Pew studies have demonstrated a decline in young women's interest in attending church, there has been an uptick in young women who identify as "very spiritual."

For the organizers of A Church for our Daughters, this is a promising sign that should be harnessed for its potential religious energy.

"It is still possible to build a Church for our Daughters," the campaign says. Millennial Catholic women are not "opposed to religion, but seek authenticity."

The heart of this campaign, the organizers say, is to foster a church that reflects the compassion, integrity and justice of the Gospel and of Catholic social teaching.

"We are working to build a church for our daughters, because our daughters, like all of us, need communities where we can endeavor to be the body of Christ and be challenged to live the Gospel's radical notions of love," Rose-Milavec said.

[Jamie L. Manson is NCR books editor. She received her Master of Divinity degree from Yale Divinity School, where she studied Catholic theology and sexual ethics. Her email address is jmanson@ncronline.org.]

Editor's note: We can send you an email alert every time Jamie Manson's column, "Grace on the Margins," is posted to NCRonline.org. Go to this page and follow directions: Email alert sign-up.

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June 16-29, 2017

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