Articles in the March 1, 2016, issue of L’Osservatore Romano, generally regarded as a semi-official Vatican newspaper, raised again the question of whether women should be allowed to preach in the Catholic Church?
This issue differs from whether women should be ordained priests. In the Catholic tradition as opposed to many Protestant denominations “women as preachers” does not imply “women as ordained” ministers.
The question in the Catholic tradition is whether women can or may preach the Gospel, even in a church setting. Vatican II’s Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People confirms that lay persons (men and women) have a role in the evangelizing mission of the Church.
Affirming the apostolate of the laity, the decree says, “the true apostle is on the lookout for occasions of announcing Christ by word, either to unbelievers to draw them towards the faith, or to the faithful to instruct them, strengthen them, incite them to a more fervent life…” (Apostolicam actuositatem #6).
God gives a variety of gifts to the people, and each has “the right and the duty of exercising them in the Church and in the world for the good of human beings and the development of the Church…” (#3).
Experience amply demonstrates that some lay persons have the gift of preaching, and that some clergymen do not. Ordination does not necessarily confer the preaching charism on the one ordained.
If the question is “Can lay persons (men or women) preach?” the answer is that some have the manifest ability to do so and to do it well.
If the question is “May lay persons (men or women) preach?” the answer is that some have been authorized to do so and do so in accord with Church law.
Canon 766 acknowledges that “Lay persons can be permitted to preach in a church or oratory, if necessity requires it in certain circumstance or it seems advantageous in particular cases, according to the prescripts of the conference of bishops and without prejudice to canon 767.1.”
Commentators on this law explain that the diocesan bishop can give permission for lay persons to preach. Lay persons, for example, do legitimately preach retreats, parish missions and days of reflection.
Canon 767, however, insists that preaching of the homily at Mass is reserved to a priest or deacon. Commentators on this law interpret the wording to imply that homilies in other liturgical contexts are not necessarily reserved to priests and deacons.
Although the articles in L’Osservatore Romano focused on women as preachers, legal restrictions about laity preaching a homily at Mass do not focus on “gender” or “the sex of the preacher,” but on whether the preacher is lay or clerical.
The question then is not whether women may preach, but rather whether lay people may preach.
The issue of women as preachers, however, is of special concern to Dominican Sisters (two of the newspaper articles were by Dominican Sisters, Catherine Aubin and Madeleine Fredell) whose religious order is officially known as “the Order of Preachers.” The irony is palpable.
One argument against having women preach the homily is that lay preaching at that point in the liturgy violates the role of the priest-presider (or of the deacon) as one who preaches for the bishop. If women were ordained deacons then they could preach.
Another argument opposing women as preachers is that it would lead to ongoing and unwarranted feminization of the Church. Cardinal Raymond Burke has said that a radical feminist movement has strongly influenced the Church, leading to a complete collapse of the teaching of the faith and to rampant liturgical experimentation.
Some oppose the preaching of women in any church-setting basing themselves on 1 Corinthians: “As in all the churches of the holy ones, women should keep silent in the churches, for they are not allowed to speak, but should be subordinate” (cf 14:33-34).
Arguments in favor of women as preachers of the homily include the realization that some women have the gift for preaching, that women can add a female perspective to Scripture and Church life that may escape the male perspective, that lay persons in general may be better suited to preach to women and/or children given their varying life experiences.
Enzo Bianchi, author of the primary article on women as preachers in L’Ossrervatore Romano, noted that there was time in the history of the church that “preaching by the laity was also authorized in the liturgical setting and that in the Middle Ages even some women received this authorization from the Pope.” He added that the ban on lay preaching by the laity was raised by Pope Gregory IX in 1228.
That the Vatican just a few decades ago approved of lay persons preaching the homily is obvious from the Directory on Children’s Masses (Pueros Baptizatos, November 1, 1973): “There is no reason why one of the adults should not preach a homily to the children after the gospel, especially if the priest has difficulty in adapting himself to the mentality of the children” (#24).
That the issue of women as preachers was raised again in a semi-official Vatican newspaper suggests that Pope Francis might be open to a change in Church discipline about lay preaching. He has said that he wants women to have a greater role in the Church, and this may be one of the ways in which to further this goal.
His concern for good preaching, for orthodoxy, and for recognizing charisms given to the faithful undermine the fear that unqualified, unorthodox, ill-prepared lay people would be authorized to preach the homily.
Perhaps the time has come for a more intimate inclusion of the laity (men and women) in evangelization and preaching.
Vatican II acknowledged, “It is a fact that many men cannot hear the Gospel and come to acknowledge Christ except through the laymen they associate with” (Apostolocam Actuositatem, #13).