When will women be given a voice in the Catholic Church?

When will women be given a voice in the Catholic Church?

At mass, women can be heard reading biblical texts, but never commenting on them. Are developments possible, while the aspiration to create more places for women in the Catholic Church is affirmed?

1. The homily, reserved for ordained men

Since one Sunday morning around the year 30, in Jerusalem, women close to Jesus announced his resurrection to his other disciples, Christians have gathered every Sunday. However, in Catholic Sunday assemblies, it is men who announce the Good News: only priests or deacons can proclaim the Gospel and deliver the homily (the “sermon”). They update the teaching of Scripture there, whether they are good at it… or not.

Many Catholics do not understand, or no longer understand, why, and they made it known in 2021-2022: “An expansion of preaching during the Eucharist to the laity, and specifically to female voices, is a recurring request”, noted the national synthesis, in France, of the consultation of the faithful for the Synod of Bishops on synodality. In fact, experiments have shown the benefit of broadening access to preaching.

“I find it a shame not to hear a homily given by women,” regrets Élisabeth, 63 years old. This coach and trainer enjoyed for around ten years celebrations where lay people regularly gave homilies, at the Saint-Bernard chapel, Montparnasse station, in Paris: “I was around twenty years old and never found myself not in the Church. At Saint-Bernard, women and men could comment on the Gospel, making their various roots in life heard in their words. It allowed me to stay. »

Other experiments took place, including in parishes. Between 1992 and 2004, Guy Herbulot, second bishop of Évry (Essonne), appointed three lay “ministers of the Word” to the pastoral sector of Yvette, including a woman, Betty Roussel, authorizing them to preach during the mass. A positive experience, remembers Roland Poirier, one of the preachers: “Betty Roussel had more impact than us, because there are more women in the assembly and, as a woman, she was closer to the realities of life daily. »

And today? This timid opening seems to have fizzled out. Certainly, women often preach at funerals without mass: they form the bulk of the battalions of lay people engaged in this service and organize celebrations. But the Sunday churchgoer will never hear a woman’s preaching.


“Preaching can be defined as the action of announcing the Word in an up-to-date manner: “Today this passage of Scripture is fulfilled in your ears” (cf. Gospel according to Saint Luke, 4, 21). »

Source: eglise.catholique.fr


“Lay people may be admitted to preach in a church or an oratory (…) Among the forms of preaching, the homily, which is part of the liturgy itself, is reserved for the priest or deacon. »

Source: Code of Canon Law, 766 and 777, § 1.

2. The primary training requirement

Unless… The spiritual quest of Nathalie, 70 years old, Catholic, led her to enter a parish of the United Protestant Church of France (Epudf) near her home in Paris. When she first heard a woman preach in a congregation four years ago, she shuddered: “A powerful emotion seized me! This preaching by a woman trained in theology expressed the bond that unites women and men to God. I was delighted,” she remembers.

Since then, she has regularly visited this community. The Epudf is very attentive to the training of pastors and non-pastors preachers. And if one day lay Catholics preach regularly, whether at Mass, or in Sunday assemblies without the Eucharist, they will have to perform well.

Agnès Desmazières, historian and theologian, points out a paradox: “Today, women trained in theology must listen to the homilies of deacons less trained than them, or of priests trained in other cultural contexts. This generates frustration. Quality preaching is based on good training of the preacher – not only in theology and exegesis, but also in history –, on his ability to take his audience into account, and, finally, on the coherence of his life with his words. »

3. The well-locked door of official texts

But official texts bar access to the homily for lay people, men and women: preaching in churches is possible, but not during mass, states the Code of Canon Law established in 1983 (nos. 766 and 767 § 1). And Rome has hit the nail on the head over the years with no less than four texts between 1997 and 2014*.

Why such insistence? The justification for the current doctrine can be summed up in a few words: the Mass includes two parts, the “liturgy of the Word” – biblical readings, proclamation of the Gospel, homily – and the Eucharistic liturgy. However, it is the priest, the only one authorized to preside over the Eucharist, who makes the link between these two parts: “The priest gives the homily not because he is more capable, but because he is in the entire Eucharistic assembly the sign of Christ”, recalls Brother Patrick Prétot, monk of La Pierre-qui-Vire and professor at the Higher Institute of Liturgy of the Catholic Institute of Paris.

This link between the presidency of the Eucharist and the homily is not, however, fixed, since the General Presentation of the Roman Missal specifies: “The homily must usually be given by the celebrating priest himself (…) or sometimes also , if expedient, by a deacon.”

4. Secularists want to be heard

Can this “liturgical lock” be broken? Other reflections advance the capacity of the non-ordained baptized to also be “signs of Christ” in the assembly. And the demand to hear their voice becomes insistent. Thus, at the closing mass of the gathering of the Ignacian family, in Marseille in 2021, the organizers suggested to Cardinal Aveline, who presided over the celebration, to give the floor to Sister Christine Danel, then superior general of La Xavière. The cardinal acquiesced… while keeping up appearances: he delivered a homily before handing over the microphone to Sister Christine to “suggest some avenues of meditation”.

Two years later, participating in the Roman assembly of the Synod on synodality as an expert, Sister Christine observed “a broad movement to really take into account the role of women in the mission of the Church”. However, the possibility of their access to the diaconate – which would be a means of giving them access to the homily – divided the assembly, according to the summary document of the synodal assembly in the fall of 2023: some saw in this perspective an “unacceptable development in discontinuity with Tradition”; others, on the contrary, an “appropriate and necessary response to the signs of the times, faithful to Tradition and likely to find an echo in the hearts of many people”.

In the meantime, in the name of a certain tradition, women prohibit themselves from speaking, according to Sister Christine: “Because the ordained ministry is reserved for men, women have internalized a powerful prejudice about the value of their word. Now we have received the same baptism, which gives us equal dignity. There is a lot of training work to be done. »

Other voices, including female ones, however, do not consider the extension of female voice a priority. For Sister Anne de Jésus, superior of the Béatitudes community of Sables-d’Olonne (Vendée), “women are in listening and welcoming life, more specifically than men”. That women remain, at mass, in a listening posture, seems to him to be consistent with Christian anthropology.

5. Towards a female diaconate and a ministry of the Word?

What if women deacons – deaconesses – provided the homily service, like permanent deacons do? They existed for a millennium, while the male diaconate had disappeared. However, the Second Vatican Council restored the male diaconate – by profoundly modifying it: deacons in Antiquity did not deliver homilies. Why not do the same with the female diaconate? So where is the problem? First and foremost in the fear of some that the diaconal ordination of women opens the door to their ordination to the priesthood, since the diaconate is understood today as the first degree of the sacrament of order.

Since 2016, two commissions of historians and theologians, men and women, have worked on the issue, and the data from Tradition, now well known, allow for various interpretations. But do we want to move forward? On February 16, American Cardinal Robert McElroy revealed a path which would consist of no longer considering the diaconate as a step towards the priesthood. This proposal, consistent with the ancient concept of the diaconate, would rule out the question of women’s access to the priesthood, contrary to Tradition. As we can see, the hypothesis of a female diaconate involves a heavy theological argument.

The path of a ministry of lay preaching which would be carried out at mass, already experienced, seems easier to implement. In 2021, Pope Francis opened the ancient ministry of “reader” to women. Beyond its symbolic aspect – women have been reading at mass for a long time, this is not new – could this provision imply a future ministry of preaching for the laity? Yes, “in appropriate contexts”, agreed the fathers and mothers of the Synod on synodality, in the fall of 2023. A vague formula which can as easily drown out the fish of the homily entrusted to lay people, as leave open the ‘future. An appointment has been made for the second synodal assembly, in October 2024.

* Instruction On some questions concerning the collaboration of the lay faithful in the ministry of priests (1997); revision of the General Presentation of the Roman Missal (2002); instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum (2004); Directory on the homily (2014).

Online meeting: The place of women in the Church

THE Wednesday March 20 at 6:30 p.m., Pilgrim invites you to come and discuss the place of women in the Church with the two authors of the survey, Samuel Lieven, editorial director, Marie-Yvonne Buss, editor-in-chief, and Thérèse Thibon, journalist in charge of reader relations . To register: bit.ly/ femmeseteglise

Women in the Church: To go further

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