Lutherans elect a woman as a leader, following Episcopalians: Where are the Catholic women in leadership?

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blog Ecumenical & Interfaith Dialogue Parish Life Women

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the largest U.S. Lutheran body, yesterday elected Elizabeth Eaton as the denomination's presiding bishop; Eaton joins Katharine Jefferts-Schori, who was elected presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in 2006, as top church leader among mainline churches. Though both women are trailblazers in their own churches, other Protestant bodies have long ago elected women in top leadership positions, such as the Rev. Dr. Sharon Watkins, president of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

Christian women of all denominations have something to celebrate when the last bit of the glass ceiling is cracked in their own churches. Unfortunately for Catholic women, little has moved in introducing women to the highest level of church governance, save for the few female diocesan chancellors. Roman Catholic canon law ties governance to ordination; hence, as long as ordination remains closed to women--and Pope Francis recently reiterated John Paul II's definitive teaching closing ordination to women--women will be shut out of church governance.

Or then again, maybe not: Many of the obstacles to women in governance are canonical; in other words, canon law could be changed to permit a woman to serve, for example, as head of a Vatican office. With many women serving churches as pastoral leaders and an ever-dwindling number of priests, perhaps canon law could be altered to allow a women to serve with the title pastor in a parish--though that would require rending the connection between parish leadership and leadership in the eucharist.

Or, perhaps, as Phyllis Zagano has been arguing for years, the church could again open the door to women in the diaconate--for which there is ample evidence in the history of the church. But until one or both of those happens, Catholics who wish to see greater leadership roles for women in Catholicism will have to be content with applauding their advance in other churches while wishing from something more from their own.