At the invitation of Voices Speaking, a group of Catholics dedicated to women's equality in the Catholic Church, Catholics gathered at the United Church of Christ in Cincinnati to learn about the latest developments in women's leadership and ministry in the Church from FutureChurch's Deborah Rose-Milavec.

"While 80% of the lay Catholic workforce are women, only 3% of the top three positions of influence in the Vatican (Prefect, Secretary, Undersecretary) belong to women", explained Deborah Rose-Milavec, Executive Director of FutureChurch.

One of the barriers holding women back is the Church's infatuation with complementarity, the anthropological-theological framework honed by Pope John Paul II that claims women and men are equal, but have separate places and roles in the Church.

According to Rose-Milavec, "Pope John Paul II, the pope with the second longest papacy in history, exerted the greatest influence over the Church’s teachings on women.  In unprecedented fashion, he sought to shape and restrict the roles of women. A prolific writer, he penned the modern chapter on complementarity and provided what is, for some, a convincing anthropological and theological framework that advanced the Church’s support for women’s equality in the world as a new fact of faith -- while masterfully polishing the logic such that it exempted the institutional church from being bound to those principles of equality."

Rose-Milavec argues, "Catholic complementarity is our 'Equal but Separate' system of oppression for a class of people.  Like Jim Crow or Apartheid of the past, it heralds equality among all peoples but works vigorously to keep a sector of those people separate and without the real means to govern and shape their destinies within a society or an institution."

She continued, "Of course, there is no equivalence between Catholicism’s complementarity and Jim Crow and Apartheid in terms of the direct violence that was employed to keep those unjust laws in place, but it would also be wrong to suggest that the Catholic version of the 'equal but separate' clause does not engender violence.  In fact, 50 Catholic female and male religious, theologians, and professionals in India recently met and convincingly showed how Catholic complementarity engenders violence against women."

Still, Rose-Milavec said there is good news for women in the Church under Pope Francis because reform-minded Catholics have been working for change at the grassroots level for decades.  

"Because courageous dialogue is being encouraged there are more openings for women and men to speak up about the role of women in the Church," said Rose-Milavec.

"The courage of Sr. Carmen Sammut and the International Union of Superior Generals to lobby a) for seats at the synod of bishops, b) for a place at the table during the plenaries for religious superiors at the Congregation for Consecrated Life, and c) for a new examination of women deacons and reinstating their ministry for today are just a few signs that we are in a new era," according to Rose-Milavec.

"And events like the panel discussion with women sharing their views about women in the Church at the Voices of Faith event in Rome on March 8th are also a sign that Pope Francis is serious about fearless dialogue."  

Rose-Milavec shared that FutureChurch will be launching a new website mapping where women are in terms of leadership in the Catholic Church.  She explained, "While popes and prelates have expressed interest in creating more room for women's leadership in the Church, it is also clear that no one has ever attempted to show exactly where we are now so that we can track how much progress is being made."  

"Data can drive decisions," according to Rose-Milavec.  "It is our hope that this data will help those currently in leadership to see how far we need to go in order to take full advantage of women's gifts, talents, and faith for the good of the Gospel, the Church, and the world."