Challenge for next pope: Reaching out to Catholic women

There are two gender gaps in many U.S. congregations.

One gap is the stained-glass ceiling in many churches. While social and cultural changes have allowed women to reach the top in numerous secular arenas, the 2006-2007 National Congregations Study found women lead less than 10 percent of congregations.

The second gap is that women greatly outnumber men in the pews. The 2008-2009 wave of the U.S. Congregational Life Survey found that 61 percent of worshipers were women, the same ratio as in the 2001 survey. Just 2 percent of congregations do not have more women than men.

As researcher Cynthia Woolever has pointed out, the imbalance is not due to the fact that women live longer than men. It shows up in every age group, with women making up 61 percent of worshipers ages 45 to 64, 60 percent of those ages 25 to 44 and 57 percent of people ages 15 to 24.

And women in many other ways are more active in their faith lives. Women are more likely than men to pray daily and say religion is very important in their lives, according to the Pew Forum’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey.

But there are signs the second gap may be fraying.

As U.S. Catholics await the election of a new pope, one area of concern is new evidence that non-Hispanic women are no longer so different from men in their spiritual practices.

In 1987, more than half of Catholic women reported attending Catholic Mass weekly, compared to 38 percent of men. By 2011, the gender gap was gone, University of New Hampshire sociologist Michele Dillon reported at the annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion. She used data from the American Catholic Laity Project, a national survey taken every six years since 1987.

And, for the first time in the 2011 survey, women were less likely than men to say the Catholic Church was among the most important parts of their lives. They also were less likely to declare, “I would never leave the Catholic church.”

If tension over women’s exclusion from leadership roles is in part driving the diminishing gender gap, it is unlikely that issue will be resolved soon. None of the candidates mentioned as possibilities for the papacy would be expected to allow women priests.

What do Catholic worshipers think about that topic?

In the U.S. Congregational Life Survey, 43 percent of Catholics said they support the ordination of women, and 22 percent said they were unsure of where they stood. Just one-third opposed women priests.

At the same time, most Catholics in the pews indicated they would be OK if their next minister was a woman. Fifty-six percent said they would be accepting or very accepting of a woman leader, while just 14 percent said they would be “not at all accepting.”

Something for the next pope to think about?