Why Catholic Women Could Transform America and The Church

WRN Interviewed Kerry Weber, the executive editor of America Magazine, on a startling new survey of Catholic women and its implication for America

Whenever we are presented with new information we have two options. First, we can ignore it and continue with that status quo. Second, we can use it to change how we view the world and how we will change it. Kerry Weber, the executive editor of America Magazine, is a large part of a new survey that asks a simple, but powerful question “what do Catholic women think?” The results of the survey provide a wealth of information that have ramifications for politics, religion, Catholicism, and America.

WRN was able to chat with Kerry Weber about the survey, the reaction to them and what steps individuals and organizations should take next.

WRN: Could give some background on the study?

Kerry Weber: We had made a commitment a couple of years back in 2013 to make sure to feature in the pages of our magazine had a diverse range of voices, especially from women. And following that, I was writing an editorial for the magazine about women in the church and I started to include some sort of a thought about “oh, Catholic women think this.” And then I realized I don’t actually know if that is true, that is just my opinion. Then I looked for a stat about this topic. I ended up calling the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University who is sort of the gold standard for Catholic statistics and said, “Hey, do you have these stats, X, Y, and Z on Catholic women?” And they said no.

I said, “does anyone have a set of stats on women?” And they said not in a comprehensive way that we know of them. So, I went back to our editor-in-chief Father Matt Malone, and I said, “Can we be the people to ask these questions?” And he said, “sure, that sounds great.” I just went from there.

“Does anyone have a set of stats on women? And they said not in a comprehensive way.”

WRN: What did you find the most surprising results?

KW: I think for me, one of the surprising things was that 82% of women had never considered leaving the Catholic church, but there were still low levels of engagement in many levels among those Catholic women. So, there was a sense of Catholic identity among women. There’s a sense of wanting to remain a part of the faith, but the sort of practical ways one, live that out very widely among Catholic women. And so, digging that look at that and saying, “well, what is it that keeps people connected to the faith, even if it seems to be in name only? What can we do to help people become more involved and help express that faith in more concrete ways” is a real opportunity for us as a church.

WRN: Yes. The report indicated that 9 out of 10 women liked their parish priest, yet numbers of engaged parishioners continue to drop. Why is that?

KW: I think part of it is that generally speaking, the people who do attend mass and go more often tend to find that they have had a positive experience with it.

So, the women who attend a mass more often are more likely to say that there are women helping to make decisions at the leadership level in their parish. But the numbers are sort of counterbalanced by the people who maybe had a negative experience and now are less involved or perceive the church to be, sort of offering a negative opinion or experience in some way. And so are sort of turned off by that.

WRN: The study mentions it is a “wake up call.” What do you think is that wakeup call and what do you think is the result you think that should occur?

KW: I think there’s a huge population of Catholic women in the United States who value the things that the church says that it values. They value serving poor, they value the Eucharist, they value the environment, they value immigration and refugees and just policies around that. They value pro-life stances.

There’s a real opportunity to help people translate the values that they hold into a more active participation in the Catholic community, which I think will strengthen hopefully their faith and the community as a whole. There’s a real chance to say, “these things you believe we express them as well and we have ways of expressing them together that can be really powerful.” Whether that’s through the mass or through activism, through Catholic charities, or various justice organizations. There’s a lot of opportunities to help bring women into more fully into the church in terms of their participation by engaging around these issues.

“There’s a real opportunity to help people translate the values that they hold into a more active participation in the Catholic community, which I think will strengthen hopefully their faith and the community as a whole.”

WRN: Is there an example, either contemporary or historical, of that sort of support occurring?

KW: Sure. Catholic women have been involved in activism since the start of the church and they are absolutely vital to a lot of these causes both in the secular world and within the church. The key is that a lot of people see these issues as sort of separate from their faith that sort of justice issues or political issues and the church has an opportunity here to say there are also issues of faith. They can be integrated into what we believe as a faith community and we might even be more powerful taking action on these as a group, then as an individual.

WRN: After the results have come out, have different organizations reach out to you? Have you seen a positive feedback from this?

KW: Yeah, we have a received quite a few reactions. There’s a group that works with women and leadership that reached out to say, “actually that say these are great issues for us to work together and to rally around” and that’s been really positive and really encouraging.

I’ve heard from a number of people, they were just really heartened to see the stories of Catholic women being told in a concrete way. Both in terms of statistics and then in terms of stories because we tried to include in our magazine coverage the topic stories of Catholic women who are the faces behind these statistics

Sometimes you see a little pushback on social media or Twitter have people saying “well, only the statistics that are around women who attend mass weekly are the ones that matter because those are the real Catholics.” And we have responded to that as well. I wrote a piece for the magazine saying this is not about, you know who are the “real Catholics.” If we start to discount one group over another, we lose any opportunity to engage with them.

“If we start to discount one group over another, we lose any opportunity to engage with them.”

So, it’s really important that we look at the statistics as a whole and we look at the statistics for the 24% of women who attend mass weekly or more and the 76% of women who attend mass less than that because all of them are identifying as Catholic and all of them are saying this is a factor in their life and we need to understand what is motivating them in order for us to help make the church a healthier place for everyone.

WRN: Are there any particular organizations or individuals that you thought were a good ally or a good first step?

KW: Well, one group I know that we have been sort of talking with even before the study came out a little bit is the and Ann Welsh Mcnulty Institute for Women’s Leadership Institute at Villanova University. I don’t want to overstate, we’re talking with them about possibly doing an event around this and engaging people around these topics. I wouldn’t say there’s an event planned, but I’m sure they wouldn’t mind saying that we have a shared interest in these topics.

WRN: What questions are still left, unanswered? What is the next step?

KW: I think one of the things we hope to do and we hope other journalists will do is to really take the time now to delve into individual aspects of this survey. We gave a picture of what it’s like to be a Catholic woman today as, as a kind of overview and we hope that as you look more closely at each question and that the questions that those questions prompt that there’ll be opportunities for additional articles, a digital content or digital conversations around these topics in a way that will sort of further this conversation that will allow us to more fully understand what it’s like to be a woman in the Catholic Church today and more fully give voice to the women who are living that experience.

WRN: It seemed like the majority of women liked the idea of being a permanent deacon, but a significant minority that they wanted to learn more. Why was that important?

KW: Yeah, so right now there is a commission called by Pope Francis studying the question of whether the Catholic church is able to ordain women as deacons in the Catholic church. There is a known history of women early in the church serving in this role, but what that means and what that meant then and what that means for us now is what is to be explored by the commission and so it is a kind of a topic of conversation in the Church today and we were interested to know where.

Where did generally modern women weigh in on the question and six out of 10 basically said that they were in favor of it and I think the part that said they would need to do a little more research probably reflects that it’s not a topic of conversation for everybody today and there’s a certain thing of the church who were probably introduced to this idea through this question.

And so, they said that that could be an interesting idea, but I would definitely like to do a little more research on it, which I think is good. It’s good that people were very thoughtful about these answers. I think it shows that a woman took the questions seriously and didn’t just kind of give any answers just because they could.

WRN: Was there optimism about the ability of the Catholic Church do adapt to bring in new ideas to kind of follow through with some of these requests that were made?

KW: One of the church historians that I spoke to said we are at a crisis point in the church because historically women have been the people relied upon to pass on the faith to their children and if we’re seeing declining interest or engagement among women, it’s less likely that the faith is going to be passed on to kids, but she was not without hope.

“One of the church historians that I spoke to said we are at a crisis point in the church.”

Most of the women I spoke to had a lot of really good ideas or we’re living out those ideas of, of how to engage more people as a church. How to ask people the kinds of questions that get to the kind of answers that we need to grow. And to grow as a church and to continue to understand what people’s needs are. And I think that if we are a church who’s going to be ministering to people and we need to know what people’s needs are. Data sets help us to figure that out.

I think that the vast majority of Catholics would say that there is, in fact, hope because Catholics consider ourselves people of hope. We follow this gospel message of Jesus who died for our sins but was resurrected and who’s with us still in so many ways. And because of that we always have hope in Christ and in each other. And because of that we’re always motivated to find new ways of expressing that hope and expressing love and expressing our faith to each other. It might take a little while to figure out what those new ways are. But we have people throughout the church, throughout the world working on that. Both in their personal lives and in the ministerial basis. Because of that, I have a lot of hope as we go forward

WRN: For that connection is it a top-down approach or a bottom-up approach? Should one be prioritized?

KW: Yeah, I think it’s interesting because the church is both a global community and a local community and we have both. The pope, who is in charge of the whole thing, and parishioners who are in charge of being the church on the ground. And so, any approach to church growth or growing as a more faithful community, I think has to come from both in order for it to be effective.

Pope Francis who sets a certain tone, which a lot of people have found really helpful and encouraging. Then you have on a day-to-day basis, the people that Catholics are most likely to encounter. Other Catholics in the pews or other Catholics in their community and those people for most of us, the people we meet on an everyday basis are the face of the church to us.

“The people we meet on an everyday basis are the face of the church to us.”

So, it matters very much how we treat each other at the parish level, at the community level. Because that’s how we’re living our faith. And that’s the community that we know.

I think people who have had a bad experience at the parish level or the local level tend to tend to have a harder time feeling welcome in the church. Even though the community is much larger than that one parish it can feel like the whole community has been not welcoming because one parish or one group or one person has behaved in that way.

So, I think it’s really important to remember that as individuals because we are the church to each other as well. The study found that most of Catholic women found their role models of how to be a Catholic woman and what that meant in their friends and family and people that they knew. So, most of us are role models to other Catholic women, whether you know or like it or not.

“Most of us are role models to other Catholic women, whether you know or like it or not.”

WRN: You mentioned Catholic women support care for immigrants, the environment, and pro-life. There is no singular political party that has all of those views. Does the lack of clear representation present representation or a lack of interest in politics?

KW: I think that the fact that there is no political party that represents everything that the church stands for is very frustrating for a number of Catholic women and a lot of people try to figure out what is the best possible combination of issues that they can support and if there is a candidate who supports that, they might vote for them.

But I think it also points out that given the priorities that Catholic women, put on something like care for the environment and care for migration and pro-life issues like abortion that it opens up the door for a pro-life Democrat candidate in a way that many people might not think possible. Particularly given the size of this group of Catholic women who are going to be a huge voting block and 79% of whom intend to vote in the midterm elections. It is crucial for politicians to pay attention to Catholic women as well.

“It opens up the door for a pro-life Democrat candidate in a way that many people might not think possible.”

WRN: Speaking of the powerful political block of Catholic women voting were there any particular areas that are contested areas or areas that might not have been so carved up by gerrymandering where there is real potential to move the needle one way or the other?

KW: Yeah, that’s a good question. I don’t have those statistics on hand, but we do have regional breakdowns.

WRN: Speaking of representation, was there any discussion or mentioning about Catholic nuns, especially given their rich history of social justice activism and involvement.

KW: So about 9% of women said that they found current role models in Catholic women religious who nuns are part that group. It’s a relatively small percentage, but I think it has partly to do with the fact that the, there are far fewer nuns now than there were back in the sixties or something.

But I know from the women that I spoke to that a lot of the women who were very deeply involved in the church now had a woman religious who had, had encouraged them in their path and encourage them to take on a leadership role. So, although their visibility on a widespread basis have changed since the sixties the Catholic women religious we have now a remain, a really vibrant and vital force, both in their work, in education, in healthcare, and in so many other things. And also, just in terms of encouraging other Catholic women to keep going with the faith.

WRN: You talk a little about things that are potentially maybe missing and things that can be done to create positivity. Is there anything conversely that is being done that might be turning people off or shying people away?

KW: We didn’t ask a specific question about how women felt about the church speaking out, on a political issue from the pulpit. There were questions about how much influence the statement from the bishops or their parish priest or Pope Francis had on their voting and those numbers were relatively low.

So, women did not directly associate, you know, these statements with their own voting decisions. But with that said, if you look at the topics that the women prioritize that we’d discussed earlier, those are often the topics that the churches speaking about the most. So many women don’t necessarily connect these issues directly with the statements. They do have a sense of the churches’ priorities. And there and how that does seem to sort of coinciding with their own priorities around these issues, even if there isn’t a direct correlation. I’m sorry, the connection is, is there, but it’s just a little bit vaguer.

WRN: Which tone works best for engaging people? Positive or negative?

KW: I’m sorry there was not a question on the survey regarding the tone of the message and how that impacted it. I think a fair number of people said statements from Pope Francis, had impacted them and given Pope Francis’s tone which is genuinely challenging but justice oriented and sort of positive one, I think that speaks to what appeals to people, in terms of their willingness to engage around these issues.

WRN: So, the response has been overwhelmingly positive response to the survey?

KW: Yes, I would say overall there has been a lot of real interest and discussion around it. And that’s what we want. We don’t want everyone to just say “hey, you know, look how great America is because they did this survey.” Although we appreciated people say that, but it is really to have people engage around the issues that it brings up.

There has been an immediate and fruitful reaction from people looking at this data, but we hope that the long-term positive impact is that people will continue to do so and then it will actually hopefully change the way we engage around these issues.

WRN: Have you seen anyone misinterpreting the information or misusing the information by incorrectly interpreting the data?

KW: There isn’t a specific issue where I’ve seen somebody wildly misuse the data. I think you can learn different things about an issue or a question, depending on whether you’re looking, are there certain questions where we asked for sort of a degree of agreement.

So, whether someone said they agree, they felt very much, somewhat a little not at all, and I think you can learn a lot by breaking down that data in terms of who are the people. Let’s say this large swath of people are very interested in this issue to some degree, but how am I, how many people are, very interested or how many people are only a little interested.

I think you can learn a lot from that and I hope people are willing to kind of delve into that aspect too, but there hasn’t been any kind of egregious misuse of the data that I’ve seen.

WRN: For people that are not Catholic, what are the implications?

KW: As you mentioned, one aspect is that Catholic women are a huge voting block that can really have an effect on our country. In other terms, I think it’s always useful to understand, any group that is a different culture than yours or different faith or a different, denomination of Christianity, any of those things.

I think it’s useful because a lot of the same questions apply to all people of faith or to know people’s story or to people who have no faith in the sense that I’m maybe not how often do you go to mass, but what are the priorities that you value? Who influences those decisions?

These are questions that all people have to ask and to answer. It’s good to know where Catholics stand sort of in relation to other groups, but also, just to have people ask these questions of themselves and say, how would I have answered this question, in my own life and what does that mean for me and how I react and relate to the community that I’m a part of.

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