By Carolyn Y. Woo, Ph.D. (Orbis Books, 2022)
“Dr. Woo, do you think that the leadership of women in the church is really possible beyond the exceptions because it seems that women are not welcome in the church and there are no doors for us to knock on?”
This question was posed by a Catholic high school student to Carolyn Y. Woo, former dean of the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame and former CEO and president of Catholic Relief Services. Woo’s answer is this book: her reflections on the gifts Catholic leaders need and the challenges they face, followed by essays by more than a dozen Catholic women in leadership roles. She writes to encourage those who do not see possibilities for women to meaningfully exercise their gifts in ecclesial spaces. While Woo acknowledges that the challenges facing Catholic leaders are real, her outlook is optimistic. Her love and faithfulness to the church, rooted in her upbringing with the Maryknoll Sisters in China and strengthened through student ministry experiences on the Purdue University campus, is palpable throughout the book. .
Woo’s methodology in this text is remarkable. She starts from and remains focused on the lived experiences of women leaders, not abstract theological or philosophical ideas about women or leadership theories. While the book quotes and references various church documents, including the 2013 apostolic exhortation the gospel of joy (The Joy of the Gospel) and the 2005 encyclical God is love (God is Love), essentially gives voice to the real-life experiences on the ground of contemporary Catholic leaders. In addition to Woo herself, these leaders include diocesan and hospital administrators, the principal of a Catholic school, the president of a Catholic university, and leaders of Catholic service organizations. The diversity of voices shows that there is no single path or universal experience of women leaders in the Catholic Church. The grassroots methodology focuses on the women leaders’ own articulations of their ideas, joys, challenges, and hopes.
Also of note is Woo’s criticism of the idea of ”female genius” as described in multiple papal documents. She describes the idea as well-intentioned but “full of platitudes and stereotypes” that reinforce a longstanding and useless gender division of labor that limits women’s opportunities. Basing Catholic leadership on our common baptismal identity is far more appropriate than placing women on a pedestal with exalted ideas of the feminine genius.
Similarly, Woo criticizes Pope Francis’ comment that there is a need for a “deep theology of women in the Church.” The statement “situates women as a separate species from men, or from the human family,” Woo writes, rather than reflecting the truth that “both women and men are sacred mysteries; both bear the image of God.”
Despite these thoughtful criticisms, Woo’s tone is hopeful and engaging throughout the book. She is passionately convinced that despite the challenges, women’s leadership in church spaces is alive and well, and she offers her own testimony and that of many other female leaders. And in her chapter titled “Acting for Women’s Leadership,” she offers concrete steps Catholic organizations can take to increase women’s leadership.
Growing is a must read for those committed to leadership development and the advancement of women in ecclesial spaces for the building up of the body of Christ.