How the Catholic Church Sabotages Women Leaders

Photo: The Sun

Photo: The Sun

We can make a very good argument that the world is such a mess, and in such danger, because women have been excluded from the world’s biggest decisions. To these decisions men bring their viewpoints and their priorities, along with their representation of just one half of humanity. Women are left out of critical decisions like Should we go to war? Should we spend more on the needy? Should we shift more wealth to the wealthy? Should we ignore climate change? Should we provide health care for all?

Even today, when we like to think women have made great progress, the number of women at top levels in governments and global corporations, where decisions of global impact are made, is minuscule. And in the Catholic church’s hierarchy, not one single woman occupies a position of power and authority. Not one. Priests, bishops, cardinals, the pope - all men.

While we might assume that as a religion, the Catholic church doesn’t have the same impact as governments and global corporations, that would be a mistaken assumption. The number of Catholics on the planet is 1.2 billion – nearly four times the population of the US (323 million), nearly ten times the population of Russia (144 million). And the Catholic belief system is shared by the other Christian religions, which largely still teach children through Bible stories and Christian catechism that God created men for authority and leadership, and women for childbearing and service.

Our world is looking down the barrel of very serious troubles, from the coming devastation of climate change to the ongoing extinction of species, from the increasing number and scope of local wars to the mass suffering and growing numbers of refugees fleeing those wars – and fleeing the effects of climate change. Aside from the fact that we are half the human population, and so have the absolute right to proportional representation in human leadership, it’s also clear that women’s leadership is needed more than ever. Why? Because our current leadership – with its perspective of only half of humanity – has done such a poor job of avoiding crises that are avoidable, and adequately managing crises that are not.

Yet even as it is obvious that women’s leadership is needed, here we are, living in a world still run largely by men.

The key factor underlying the current state of the world is not that so many men were taught that only they are qualified to hold the highest positions of leadership and authority. If this were the case, women would have resisted. We would have fought, and we would continue to fight, until we forced a more equitable distribution of power.

What has had so much more impact than what men believe is what we believe about ourselves. Women raised in the Catholic belief system were, and are, implanted with the belief that we have no right to authority and no aptitude for leadership, because these belong only to men.


The problem of ego

Those who occupy the highest levels of leadership generally satisfy three criteria: they’re male, they’re capable, and they have very strong egos. While there is some wiggle room in the first two (there are a very small number of global and corporate leaders who are women, and perhaps more than a few who lack capability), there is no latitude whatsoever when it comes to ego. There are no leaders of countries or global corporations – or for that matter, any large organization - who do not firmly believe that because of their abilities, they are the best person to occupy their position.

But for women raised Catholic, it’s unnatural to believe we are the best people to lead. We are subject to what feminist theologian Mary Daly called “the very subtle conditioning” that happens to every girl when “[s]he sees that, first of all, the Mass is being said by a priest… When she goes to confession, she confesses her sins to a man. When she receives Confirmation, a man does this. The Pope is a man. And the angels are called he. Christ is male. God is called He... She is conditioned to think in terms of specific inferiority because of this.” (1)

Being conditioned to think in terms of one’s inferiority makes the development of a strong ego very difficult. And so, when Catholic girls become women, we find it’s easier to do important and necessary work at the ground level. Or at mid-level, where we don’t have to challenge authority too often. Stepping forward as leaders, climbing the corporate or government ladder and competing with men for high-level positions is difficult, even as we know we are desperately needed in those positions. We have capability, but we also have a lack of belief in our right to leadership and our ability to lead.

Women raised in the Catholic tradition, wrote Daly, “have been conditioned to see any act that affirms the worth of the female ego as blameworthy.” (2) If we do something well, and have feelings of pride, that pride feels natural and normal when our accomplishment is related to our sanctioned roles. We are great at feeling proud of being good mothers and raising strong, resilient children. It feels right to be proud of taking care of our parents, our spouses, and those in need. We hear a little voice in our minds, telling us, “This is right. This is what God made you to do.”

But when we imagine ourselves sitting as leaders alongside men, and making critical decisions that affect large swaths of the world, it doesn’t feel right, and it doesn't feel normal. Instead it feels grasping and selfish. It  feels shameful to even consider the possibility. That little voice whispers, “Who do you think you are? You don’t belong there.”

This is not to say that all women were born with the ability and talent to run governments and corporations. All men weren’t born with these attributes either. But if you look at the entire pool of human beings, some have these attributes, and of those, some are men and some are women. For those women who were raised with the Catholic belief system, their implanted beliefs have robbed them of the ego necessary to achieve what they were born to achieve, and what the world so desperately needs.

But wait, you might say. Mary Daly wrote, and spoke, nearly 50 years ago. The world has changed a great deal since then. Today women have a much wider range of role models and far more career options. The Catholic church has even acknowledged that it needs to do more to make Catholic women feel more included. Surely the problem of damaged female egos is on its way out?

If only that were true. Unfortunately, despite its nascent (and minor) efforts to make women feel included, the Catholic church’s archaic belief system and the damage it perpetuates haven’t changed at all. Children are still taught that men were created for authority and leadership, and women were created for service and reproduction. Girls are still taught to aspire to be like Mary – silent, asexual, compliant Mary.

For all the suffering that is occurring and will occur in the world because of our lack of women leaders, the Catholic church still bears direct responsibility.




(1) Maron, Edward. Mary Daly and the Second Sex. US Catholic, September 1968.

(2) Daly, Mary. Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women's Liberation, p. 54. Boston: Beacon Press, 1968.