In the early Christian Church, women had important roles and significant status. Jesus had many female followers and supporters. Mary of Magdala (Mary Magdalene) was an early and important supporter of the Jesus movement and accompanied Jesus and the apostles; her presence at the Resurrection indicates her critical importance to the movement even though her true role continues to be a source of disagreement and controversy. Women were critical to the spread of early Christianity, and there is considerable evidence that they functioned as teachers of theology, deacons, presbyters and perhaps bishops. Most historians accept Junia or Julia as one of the original apostles. Women were certainly the leaders of the “house churches” that provided early Christianity with most of its worship venues while purpose-built religious buildings were being constructed.
Later in the history of the Church, women were excluded from leadership roles and denied the ability to be ordained. Nevertheless, women continued to play leadership roles mainly through the religious orders. St. Clare of Assisi (1194-1253), an important follower of St. Francis, founded the Order of St. Clare (Poor Clares) based on the Franciscan rule. During the turbulent years of the late fourteenth century, St. Catherine of Siena, a Dominican Tertiary, organized groups of men and women to aid the poor and sick in northern Italy. Inspired by a vision in which Christ told her to become active in solving the problems of secular society, Catherine also played a significant role in convincing Pope Gregory XI to move the papal administration back to Rome from Avignon and worked tirelessly to help resolve the Great Schism.
During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and especially after the beginning of the Counter-Reformation, women played a key role in reviving Catholic spirituality and breathing new life into the religious orders. In the realm of spirituality, the name of St. Teresa of Ávila stands out as the founderess of the Discalced Carmelitesses and the author of some of the greatest works of Western mysticism. But if St. Teresa’s new order was characterized from the very beginning by its focus on the traditional monastic routine of prayer and contemplation, other orders founded by women during this period broke new ground. The Ursulines were perhaps the most influential of these new orders. Founded by the Franciscan Tertiary Angela Merici (1474-1540) the order was dedicated to the education of young women. Unlike, St. Teresa however, Angela Merici fought the idea of a closed order. It was only in 1572 that Pope Gregory XIII made the Ursulines into a religious order with full enclosure. This did not stop the order from fulfilling its primary mission, however, and even today it continues to operate schools and colleges mainly for girls.
Barred from ordination or taking any significant role in the central administration of the Church, women’s contribution in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries continued to be expressed through religious communities and in the traditional areas of social welfare and education. Extension of the European orders to North America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries led to the foundation of schools and colleges related to the order. Ursuline Academy of New Orleans, for example, which was founded in 1727, is the oldest girls’ school in the United States.
The dramatic decline in the number of priests, and the aging of the priesthood in all of the Western industrialized nations, has led to growing questioning of the Church’s opposition to ordaining women. Two–thirds of U.S. Catholics in a 1992 Gallup poll declared their support for the ordination of women, and similar majorities have been shown among the Catholics of Western Europe. Faced with these realities, the Church has chosen to reiterate its absolute ban on the ordination of women, most notably in the 1994 letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, which declared that “the Church has no authority whatever to confer priestly ordination upon women.” The main theme of the papal letter, moreover is “On Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone.” The facts on the ground, however, indicate that women are taking a greater and greater role in the actual running of congregations. In the United States, for example, there are about as many lay assistants as there are ordained priests (thirty thousand). But 80 percent of the lay assistants are women, and they do virtually everything but give Communion in hundreds of parishes nationwide.