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With Papacy In Flux, A Look At The Role Of Women


We just heard Sylvia outline some of the issues facing the Catholic Church during this leadership transition, including the role and status of women within the church. This past week, I spoke with Sister Pat Farrell, the former president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. It's the most influential group of Catholic nuns in the United States. Last spring, the Vatican publically reprimanded the group for promoting, quote, "radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic Church."

I asked Farrell about the role of women and what she describes as a critical moment for the Catholic Church.

SISTER PAT FARRELL: Well, I think there are many issues in the Catholic Church right now that could leave the faithful somewhat demoralized. And I think that the climate of scandal and abuse is one piece of that. The declining membership is another piece. The great and deep spiritual hunger of our time is another issue. And I think all of that, put together, creates a really significant moment right now in the church.

MARTIN: What do you see as the role of women in the modern Catholic Church? Here we are in 2013, what is women's place when it comes to leadership in the church right now?

FARRELL: Well, I think it's very important for the church to make expanding room for leadership of women. The church is greatly impoverished if the ideas of women and the presence of women do not have effect in the future direction of the church. There are a great many laywomen who have advanced degrees in theology, and it's very important for them to have a place for that.

MARTIN: Would you go as far as to support women's ordination? Or is that something you think is too far?

FARRELL: I think that women's voice and leadership need to be felt and experienced at every level in the church. But I think that before we can talk about ordination, there needs to be a whole lot greater valuing of women and the voice of women.

MARTIN: It's worth noting, here in this very momentous chapter of the church - the papal conclave - of course the cardinals taking part in the conclave are all men. I wonder, is that frustrating to be a woman who has dedicated her life so much to this church, yet women are excluded from the most important decisions at that level.

FARRELL: I think all women in the church are aware that the church needs us. That has always been the case. And the fact that today there are actually more young women leaving the church, or not participating in church, than young men is a real reversal. And that should sound an alarm.

In other parts of society, the roles for women have expanded. So the places where young women today can experience greater leadership typically are not within the Catholic Church.

MARTIN: Why is that? I know that's a big question but why is that?

FARRELL: I wish I knew.

MARTIN: I'd like to talk about the sex abuse crisis. What has been the role of your sisters, of nuns, around North America in that crisis?

FARRELL: Whenever we have a chance to talk to any victims of sex abuse, or to interact with people in pain because of that, I think all of us really try to respond to that opportunity with the deepest sense of truthfulness and compassion that we can muster. And then I would always also say that our own congregations have taken very seriously the important task of making sure that there are policies and procedures in place for us to deal well with any possible abuse situation that could arise among our own sisters.

MARTIN: Do you think Catholic women and nuns in particular - has the dissent then mostly been behind closed doors? Because we really haven't seen over the last decade that this has been such a prominent issue here in the United States. You haven't seen a lot of Catholic women, in particular nuns, talking about this. Or am I mistaken?

FARRELL: I think women religious have spoken about that as much as laypersons or anyone else. It's something that pains all and something we all want to take the greatest care to rectify.

MARTIN: It must've been heartbreaking though to have watched the sex abuse crisis unfold.

FARRELL: Oh, for all of us. For all of us. For the world. It's a deeply painful, deeply shameful thing.

MARTIN: What specifically would you like to hear from the new pope on that issue?

FARRELL: I think what would help with the healing is, first of all, deeply honest acknowledgment of the truth, with no semblance of cover-up or defensiveness, and asking of pardon and a gathering of all the energies on every level of the church to protect and respect and honor all persons.

MARTIN: But I guess, Sister, there will be people out there who are not Catholics who may not even be religious, who would listen to this interview and say: She has just articulated some big issues that she has with her church, in terms of women's roles and sexual abuse, inclusivity. Can you explain why you stay, why being a Catholic is as important as being a Christian?

FARRELL: Well, the church is against part of my identity, the Catholic Church is. It is my spiritual home. And, of course, there are problems. But I am absolutely committed to continuing to open spaces within my own tradition where all people can feel welcome.

MARTIN: Sister Pat Farrell, she is a past president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an umbrella organization for American nuns. She joined us from WUWM in Milwaukee.

Sister Farrell, thanks so much for taking your time and sharing your thoughts with us.

FARRELL: Thank you.


MARTIN: And we invite you to join us on Facebook where we're talking about what this moment means for the Catholic Church, its future and its faithful. Were at


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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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