THE INTERNATIONAL SURVEY OF CATHOLIC WOMEN (ISCW) is one of the most extensive surveys of its kind ever undertaken. The Survey was commissioned by the Catholic Women Speak network in order to prepare a submission to the Synod of Bishops as part of the Synod 2021-2023 consultative process initiated by Pope Francis.

The large number of responses (more than 17,000 from 104 countries) indicates a desire by many women to share their visions, aspirations, and frustrations, and to make their views on the current situation of women in the Church known to the Synod.

The overall aim of the survey was to gather feedback on the experiences and insights of Catholic women from around the world. Topics included Catholic identity, significant issues of concern and views on church reform, and the impact of Covid-19 on women’s faith and practice.

An important insight to be drawn from the survey is that Catholic women do not constitute a homogenous group but reflect the many different cultural and communal contexts within which their faith is experienced and practised. It is an area of concern to the researchers that this diversity is rarely represented in official church documents, with the result that many women struggle to see the relevance of some church teachings to the complex realities of their lives.

The first major finding of the ISCW is that even when women have considerable struggles with Catholic institutions and structures, nearly 90 per cent affirmed that their Catholic identity is important to them. Many continued to practise their faith and to engage with their parishes and Catholic communities, despite their difficulties with the institutional Church.

A second major finding is that most would welcome reform in the Catholic Church, especially but not exclusively regarding the role and representation of women. Other issues included church teachings on sexuality, including respect for freedom of conscience and the place of LGBTIQ persons within the Church; women’s leadership roles in church institutions and worship, including for some the ordination of women to the priesthood and/or diaconate, and remarriage after civil divorce. A minority of respondents rejected reform and instead expressed a preference for the Church to revert to a pre-conciliar model of authority, priesthood, and liturgy.

A third major finding is that respondents identified the sexual, physical, and emotional abuse of women, children, and other vulnerable people as a dominant issue. A substantial majority was concerned about the prevalence of abuse, racism, and sexism in church contexts. A small number shared personal experiences of sexual abuse, racism, and workplace harassment, while others expressed dismay at the lack of effective action to address the continuing scandal of abuse.

A final major finding is that Catholic women are deeply concerned about transparency and accountability in church leadership and governance. A substantial majority of respondents identified clericalism as having a negative impact on church life. There was also a high level of agreement that a less hierarchal and authoritarian model of Church was urgently needed, with greater collaboration and sharing of responsibility and authority between clergy and laity.

Some respondents raised concerns regarding economic justice in church affairs, including the lack of adequate pay for female church workers, both lay and religious.

While the ISCW does not claim to be representative of all Catholic women, it provides a rich insight into the complex realities of Catholic women’s lives, the ways in which they express their faith, and their relationships with the institutional Church. The substantial findings should thus inform lasting and genuine change in church institutions, structures, and practices.

The ISCW is a significant and unique resource, in its aim to listen to diverse voices to better discern what it means to “journey together” as the People of God in a Church of many cultures. It gathered quantitative data via ‘closed’ questions where respondents were invited to choose from a set of responses, and qualitative data through ‘open’ questions which asked respondents to comment and share insights. Demographic information regarding respondents’ ages and regions of residence was also collected.

The report submitted to the Synod includes quotations from the open responses which, alongside the statistical overview, reflect the diverse perspectives and concerns of Catholic women.

The survey was devised and managed by researchers Drs Tracy McEwan and Kathleen McPhillips at the University of Newcastle, Australia, and Professor Tina Beattie, Professor Emeritus at the University of Roehampton, London. It was published in eight languages (English, French, Polish, Italian, Mandarin, German, Spanish, and Portuguese), and distributed between 8 March (International Women’s Day) and 26 April 2022.

A more detailed sociological analysis of the survey findings will be published early in 2023.

* Read the Executive Summary here.

* Read the full report here.

* Source: Catholic Women Speak