Last week, Tricia Bruce and Bridget Deegan-Krause presented an NACC webinar, “Contribution amid Constraint: A Sociological Look at Women’s Work in Catholic Spaces.” The presentation, and the following article, was based on Tricia’s 2021 report “Called to Contribute: Findings from an In-Depth Interview Study of Catholic Women and the Diaconate.” Next week, we will share how the findings resonated with Bridget’s experience in ministry.
By Tricia Bruce
Women comprise the majority of U.S. Catholics and the majority of lay ministers in the U.S. Catholic Church. While the ordained diaconate remains the exclusive realm of men, women engage in expansive service that overlaps core diaconal functions in word, liturgy, and charity. Many women feel specifically called to be deacons or express an openness to discerning such a call should the vocational path become available to them.
Deacons are ordained ministers called to preach, teach, and proclaim the Gospel. They perform baptisms, lead prayers, and witness marriages; they preside over funeral and burial services; and they bring the support and resources of the Church to meet needs and respond to injustices in their local communities.
At present, the Roman Catholic diaconate is the exclusive realm of men. But without a pathway to the diaconate, how do lay women minister? What does their service and loyalty signify about who women are, who the Church is, and what both mean for the future of Catholicism?
Changes to canon law introduced by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009 reinforced the distinction between deacons and the ordained priesthood. A 2019 Amazon Synod of Bishops reasserted the “urgent” matter of women’s ministry in regions underserved by priests. Pope Francis appointed a commission on the question of women and the diaconate in 2020.
Largely absent from these conversations, however, are systematic examinations of Catholic women who feel called to the diaconate or who are currently involved in diaconal ministry. Therefore, in 2021, I led a sociological study of women whose ministry in the U.S. Catholic Church approaches that of ordained, exclusively male deacons. However, opportunities to live out their call fully are constrained without ordination. The 40 women whom we interviewed in depth are diverse in age, race/ethnicity, marital status, parental status, region, language, and length and type of ministry involvement. Interviews lasted 75 minutes on average and were recorded, transcribed, translated into English when necessary, coded, and analyzed.
Major findings of our report, “Called to Contribute,” are as follows:
1. Catholic women feel called to the diaconate – or would discern such a call, if the diaconate were open to them.
Interviewees describe how gender barriers inhibit their imaginations for how they might serve the Church and restrict their subsequent realities. Some women feel an explicit call to ordination (often kept hidden), noting in particular gifts in preaching, accompaniment, and serving marginalized peoples. Most reconcile themselves to available vocational paths, but long for opportunities to discern different roles for themselves.
2. Catholic women feel constrained in how they use their gifts, respond to ministry needs, and live out their calls as Catholics in the U.S. Church.
Interviewees navigate their vocation within the context of constraint. Specifically, women describe how their calls lead to repudiation, how contingency dictates their access to ministry functions, and how the lack of title, recognition, and authority conferred through ordination results in ambiguity.
3. Catholic women adapt to live out their call by operating as “de facto deacons,” engaging in strategic deference, strategic dissent, and emotional management.
Interviewees approach their ministry through a “do it anyway” mentality, many of them functioning as “de facto deacons” with neither title nor Holy Orders. To do so, women strategically defer to priests and bishops, strategically dissent using tactics such as code-switching, and habitually manage their own and others’ emotions (e.g., mitigating disappointment and discordance as well as assuaging those who feel “uncomfortable” around women in leadership positions).
4. Catholic women contribute substantially to the U.S. Church through service that is noticed and needed, while biding for roles that better align with their calls, increase their legitimacy, and portend the long-term vitality of the Catholic Church.
Women’s labor fills Catholic ministry needs that are exacerbated by the shortage of ordained priests and deacons. Lay Catholics respond to women ministers as capable, qualified, and gifted in serving the Church. But even as women serve willingly, most are biding: (im)patiently waiting, uncertain, and cautiously wondering when and whether women will be welcomed to the ordained diaconate. Most feel it is unlikely in their own lifetimes but retain hope for the future.
Lay Catholic women are an invisible linchpin in Catholic ministry, but an inherently precarious one. Women willingly commit themselves to “deacon-like” service, but the Catholic Church does not guarantee circumstances to fulfill that call. Inevitable disconnects between gifts and opportunities mean that women shoulder a high emotional, professional, and financial burden as a cost of entry.
Over time, this leads a substantial portion of women to reorient or pull back from ministry commitments, to question whether the Catholic Church is able to use their gifts, and to dissuade young women from embarking along a similar path. The end result is a U.S. Catholic Church that is inherently fragile and rife with inefficiencies. But it still has an opportunity to respond to the realities of diaconal ministry.
Tricia C. Bruce, PhD, is a sociologist of religion with the University of Notre Dame’s Center for the Study of Religion and Society.