The International Survey of Catholic Women

The International Survey of Catholic Women (ISCW) was undertaken for the Catholic Women Speak network as a response to the call for members of the Catholic Church to participate in the process of Synod 2021-2023. This report for submission to the Vatican is based on the survey findings, drawn from responses submitted by 17,200 women from 104 countries across the world.

The International Survey of Catholic Women (ISCW) was undertaken for the Catholic Women Speak network as a response to the call for members of the Catholic Church to participate in the process of Synod 2021-2023. It was devised and managed by researchers Drs Tracy McEwan and Kathleen McPhillips at the University of Newcastle, and Professor Tina Beattie, Professor Emeritus at the University of Roehampton, London. This report for submission to the Vatican is based on the survey findings, drawn from responses submitted by 17,200 women from 104 countries across the world. 

The overall aim of the ISCW was to gather feedback for the Synod on the experiences and insights of Catholic women from around the world. The large number of responses clearly indicates a desire by many women to share their hopes, aspirations, and frustrations, and to make their views known to the Synod with regard to the current situation of women in the Church. 

Identifying as Catholic  

A substantial majority (88 per cent) of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that their Catholic identity was important to them, with around 3 per cent identifying themselves in open responses as women religious.  

Respondents varied from women who described themselves as “devout”, “active”, “practising”, “committed”, or “faithful” Catholics to those who used words such as “lapsed”, “critical”, and “cultural”.  

While most respondents mentioned some form of involvement with the Catholic Church in their open responses, a small number wrote of either low levels of engagement or no involvement. 

The survey was designed to reach women on the margins of the Church as well as those actively engaged in parishes and dioceses. We realise however that the nature of distribution means that the majority of respondents are likely to have been in some relationship with the institutional Church.  

This may explain why Catholic identity was so important, with many respondents highlighting the importance of the Eucharist and the Gospels in sustaining their faith, even though a substantial majority mentioned tensions or difficulties associated with their Catholic identity in their open responses. 

Respondents frequently used words like “frustrated”, “hurt”, “angry”, “sidelined”, “challenged”, “difficult”, and “conflicted” when describing their current relationship with the Church. 

Companions on the journey 

While the vast majority of responses referred to women’s experiences of marginalisation or exclusion in the Church, respondents also showed concern for the inclusion and support of all vulnerable people, including those who are poor, disabled, elderly, or mentally ill. 

Women on the margins  

The full inclusion of women in parish life and wider church activities was a clear concern. It was relatively common for respondents to describe their struggles and difficulties as a result of feeling on the margins of the Church. 

“I cling on to the Church by my fingernails, because of the Eucharist and in spite of many of its clergy” – respondent in the UK.  

“I love the Catholic Church deeply. You must understand that I didn’t want to leave. But I could no longer participate in a church that doesn’t seem to care about the people it should be doing the most to advocate for and is more concerned about protecting its own power and interests” – young respondent in Canada.  

Furthermore, many women religious said that they are often ignored or shunned by clergy in their parishes. One wrote that “As a consecrated woman I am committed to God”, but added that she often finds herself “at odds with local clergy”. 

While a number of respondents identified as feminists, and some expressed a fervent hope that women might be ordained into the diaconate and/or priesthood, this was not the most common concern of those who sought greater inclusion of women in diocesan and parish life. The emphasis tended to be more on how to reconcile the tensions between being a modern woman and being a Catholic woman. 

Among respondents who identified as single or unmarried, some noted how it was difficult to find community, a sense of belonging, and a space to grow spiritually in their parish while a 40-year-old single woman described the calling to “live a life of chastity” as “a heavy cross to bear”: “We need to do a better job of supporting those who through no fault of their own are facing a life of singleness. There are other ways to live an authentic human life without marriage and sex or a religious vocation”. 

A few respondents indicated that they felt strongly that women were already fully included and valued in church life. This group tended to have negative attitudes towards those campaigning for greater inclusion and representation for women, which they associated with feminism and campaigns for women’s ordination. 

Children, young people and families 

The relationship between young people and the Church was a significant area of concern. Several respondents looked to the future and the Catholic Church that their children would belong to.  

Others expressed a need for “innovative”, “child-centred”, and “age-inclusive” plans to bring young people and families back into Church communities and schools. One wrote: “It’s not right for priests to be pro-life in the pulpit and object to children being children in Mass”. 

Another said that: “Children are often treated in an instrumental way in the Church, as pastoral examples on which the clergy project their ideas. Hardly anyone really wonders how to consider them in the context of religious, spiritual, offers of practices and activities within communities as active entities”. 

People with disabilities 

In their open responses, women highlighted the need for parish communities to fully include people with additional needs, including people with physical and mental disabilities, while several mentioned that people were being denied the sacraments because of a particular disability. 

Divorce and remarriage 

Around 7 out of 10 (72 per cent) of all respondents strongly agreed or agreed with the statement “Remarriage after civil divorce should be allowed”. Older respondents were more likely to strongly agree or agree with the statement than younger respondents. Indeed, almost 9 out of 10 of respondents aged 70 years or older strongly agreed or agreed with the statement compared with just over 4 out of 10 aged 25 years or younger. Differences that could be associated with region of residence were also observed. 

Exclusion of LGBTIQ 

The preparatory document makes no mention of listening to sexual minorities, but respondents who identified as LGBTIQ told stories of harm and exclusion that had deeply impacted their lives and faith – “As part of the LGBTQ+ community, I just don’t feel welcome – it’s an entire culture and I’m too scared to be myself at church so I don’t go”. 

“I am a theologian and an employee of the Catholic Church. It is a love that often hurts. At some points, church and I don’t seem to fit at all (I’m a lesbian), at others we fit. I’m here. I’m church too!” 

A substantial majority (82 per cent) of all respondents strongly agreed or agreed with the statement, “LGBTIQ persons must be fully included and respected in all church activities”. Older respondents were more likely to be fully supportive of the respect and inclusion of LGBTIQ persons than younger respondents.  

In fact, 93 per cent of those aged over 70 strongly agreed or agreed with the statement about LGBTIQ inclusion compared with 65 per cent of respondents aged 18 to 25 years. Regional variations could reflect the influence of different cultural values on Catholic attitudes, though a majority supported inclusivity.  

Several respondents indicated that, while being aware of problems with the institution, they had chosen their particular faith community because it was a safe and inclusive space for LGBTIQ people. 

Same sex marriage was identified as an important process of inclusion where just over half (53 per cent) of respondents strongly agreed or agreed with the statement, “The sacrament of marriage should be extended to same sex couples”.  

Older respondents were more likely to strongly agree or agree with the statement about marriage for same sex couples than younger respondents, with again some variations that could be associated with region of residence. A small minority said in their open responses that the inclusion and acceptance of LGBTIQ people in the Catholic Church should be conditional on their celibacy. 

Social justice advocacy 

Several respondents related their faith closely to ministry with the poor. Many mentioned a need for a Church of and for the poor. For example, one described her Catholic identity in terms of actively seeking “a more just, equitable, world where everyone, everyone has a place” (56 to 70 years, Chile). Those who expressed concern with humanitarian issues saw the Catholic Church as having an important and strategic role to play in global diplomatic relations, particularly related to human rights advocacy and situations of conflict such as the war in Ukraine. 

Some young respondents said that a lack of social justice action by the Church was the reason for their lack of participation. Examples include: “I am no longer an actively practicing Catholic. This was a decision reached into my adulthood, following 12 years of Catholic Education, and being raised in an intensely longstanding Catholic family. The governing Body of the Catholic faith did not align to what I consider to be in essence the tenants of social justice, equality, and inclusion left by Christ. The creed no longer identified with my spirituality”, respondent in Germany. 

In contrast, a minority of respondents saw such concerns as a compromise with secularism. For some in this cohort, their resistance related to the need for the Church to maintain its Catholic identity and reject cultural trends.  

These responses tended to reject so-called “leftist” or “woke” agendas, including gender equality and climate action. For example: “We need to affirm our Catholic identity and stop trying to play nice with the culture. The culture we live in is a disgusting quagmire that is advancing the culture of death. We need to stop trying to play nice where we ultimately sell ourselves short” – respondent in New Zealand.  

There was consistent criticism of priests engaging in bipartisan political promotion during the homily, while ignoring social justice issues such as poverty, racism, and violence against women and children, while in some situations, however, respondents called for greater action by the Church to challenge injustices in their regional contexts. 

Addressing environmental challenges 

Almost 8 in 10 (79 per cent) of respondents strongly agreed or agreed with the statement “Climate change is an urgent challenge that the whole church must address”. Once again, findings suggest variations that could be associated with age, with those over 40 more likely to strongly agree or agree than those in younger age groupings. 

Some open responses highlighted the need for parishes and church organizations to give instruction on and practically address the teachings of Laudato Si’, however a small minority however rejected the idea that social action and environmental concerns should be addressed by the Catholic Church. 


A substantial majority (85 per cent) of all respondents strongly agreed or agreed with the statement “Clericalism (the misuse of authority and power by male clerics) is damaging the Catholic Church”. Older respondents were more likely to strongly agree or agree with the statement than younger respondents. Overall, it is clear that most of those who responded agree with Pope Francis that clericalism is one of the major issues calling for reform in the Church. 

Sexual, physical, and emotional abuse 

Some respondents made heartfelt responses to this topic in their open responses, and some took the opportunity to disclose situations of abuse. They reported sexual harassment and assault in Catholic workplaces and communities, including parishes. Many expressed dismay at the lack of concrete action on the part of the institutional Church regarding situations of sexual abuse. Some reported the effects of having been groomed and sexually, physically, and emotionally abused by clerical perpetrators. 

8 out of 10 (80 per cent) strongly agreed or agreed with the statement “Church leaders are not doing enough to address the perpetration and cover-up of sexual abuse”. As with other questions, some variations in responses could be associated with age. Younger cohorts of respondents were somewhat less likely to strongly agree or agree with the statement than older respondents. Similarly, there were variations that could be associated with region of residence. 

The call for accountability was even greater when respondents were asked about other forms of abuse. Nearly 9 out of 10 (89 per cent) strongly agreed or agreed with the statement “Church leaders need to do more to address other forms of abuse, including abuses of power and spiritual harm”, again with variations in responses that could be attributed to age, and some small differences that could be associated with region of residence. Respondents used terms such as “loss of trust”, “crisis of faith”, “shameful”, “angry”, and “frustrated” when discussing the crisis of abuse in the Church.  

In many cases, respondents said that they had begun to separate or distance themselves from the institutional Church because of the failure of church leaders to take effective action over managing and reporting clerical perpetrators to authorities. 

Some respondents referred to other forms of gendered violence they experienced in their parish or Catholic workplace. For example, a few respondents shared experiences of workplace harassment. 

There was awareness among respondents that women religious were sometimes involved in facilitating networks of abuse, providing clerical perpetrators with access to children, as well as abusing children emotionally, physically, and sexually and a former nun reported “bullying and psychological abuse” from her superior – more respondents however raised the issue of the abuse of rather than by women religious, including nuns and sisters. 

Sexual and reproductive health and freedom of conscience 

Several respondents drew attention to potential harm caused by church teachings concerned with sexual and reproductive health and it is clear that many Catholic women seek a faith that can realistically accommodate the complex challenges of their lives in many different contexts, while retaining a strong sense of social justice and concern for the most marginalised and for the environment, with only a small minority of respondents resisting this expansive view of what it means to be Catholic. 


Most respondents identified as ecumenical Christians, with almost two-thirds (65 per cent) either strongly agreeing or agreeing with the statement “Thinking about your identity, to what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statement “I identify as an ecumenical Christian’”.  

Younger respondents tended to be less likely to identify as ecumenical Christians. Around 8 out of 10 respondents from Central Europe, Southern Europe, and South America agreed or strongly agreed with the question, compared with just less than 6 in 10 respondents from Oceania and North America. In the open responses several respondents mentioned a desire for Christian unity and proactive ecumenical engagement with other Christian churches. 

There was some acknowledgement of the progress that other Christian denominations have made towards the full inclusion of women in ministry and decision-making, with a few respondents saying that they participated in non-Catholic Christian denominations because of their recognition of the equality of women in these areas. However, a very small number of open responses expressed a resistance to ecumenism, with one making the claim that it “watered down” Catholicism. 


Respondents expressed a desire to be part of a process of genuine dialogue and listening. Many responses called for interactions and dialogue that involve mutuality, humility, and openness. A large proportion of respondents said that they filled in the survey so that their voices might be heard.  

Misogyny, clericalism, and stereotypes assigned to women and other marginalised groups were understood as barriers to listening and dialogue. Several women religious noted that in female religious congregations the vow of obedience can silence dialogue. For many women, such dialogue is an elusive hope in their relationship with the hierarchy and church authorities. 

Some respondents perceived a lack of real listening and engagement with regard to women and others who feel marginalised or excluded. 

Speaking out 

More than 8 out of 10 (84 per cent) respondents strongly agreed or agreed with the statement “I support reform in the Catholic Church”, with younger respondents significantly less likely to strongly agree or agree, and again with noticeable variations that could be associated with region of residence. For a substantial majority who mentioned reform, necessary change entailed a return to Gospel values, driven by principles of love of God and neighbour, equality, and justice. 

A minority of respondents who mentioned reform understood it to mean a rejection of change and a return to what they perceived as tradition. 

more than two-thirds (67 per cent) of all respondents strongly agreed or agreed with the statement “Radical reform is needed in the Catholic Church”. Again, there were notable demographic variations in responses to this question that could be related to age and region. For instance, more than 80 per cent of respondents in some countries including Germany, Argentina, Ireland, and Switzerland signalled a desire for radical reform. 

About 3 in 10 (29 per cent) respondents strongly agreed or agreed with the statement “Without reform there is no place for me in the Catholic Church”, though here there were significant variations that could be associated with region of residence. 

Formation and celebration 

A substantial majority of survey respondents described themselves as “active”, “practising”, or “faithful” Catholics. However, what that meant and how it translated into spiritual and liturgical practices varied significantly. When asked about their current relationship with the Catholic Church, a large portion wrote of regular private prayer and Mass attendance and some type of parish or local church involvement.  

Several mentioned their engagement in liturgical ministry roles such as reader, eucharistic minister, music ministry, and liturgy co-ordinator. A large proportion of respondents wrote of a deep commitment to the sacramental life of the Church, especially the Eucharist. When describing their relationship with the Eucharist, they used terms like: “love”, “source of grace”, “central”, and “anchor”. For some, Mass attendance and participation in the sacraments occurs in spite of the institutional Church. 

Many respondents mentioned the need for improved preaching and used words such as “robust”, “succinct”, “relevant”, and “engaging” when describing the type of improvements they sought.  

Overall, however, the call for reinvigoration of liturgy and sacramental life was stronger. Two thirds (66 per cent) of respondents strongly agreed or agreed with the statement “Language used in liturgy and church documents should be gender inclusive”. As with several other questions, differences could be associated with age and region.  

Indeed, younger cohorts were significantly less likely to strongly agree or agree with the use of inclusive language than older respondents. Age variations tended to be stronger in countries where respondents spoke English as the primary language.  

Some respondents wrote of participating in women’s movements and inclusive ecclesial communities as activist spaces and alternatives to parishes.  

There was support among respondents for more opportunities for qualified lay people, especially women, to preach homilies during Mass. In fact, just over three quarters (78 per cent) of all respondents strongly agreed or agreed with the statement: “Women preachers should be able to give the homily during Mass”.  

Authority and participation 

A substantial majority of respondents raised concerns regarding methods of church leadership and governance. Unlike some other issues which showed significant demographic variations, responses were generally in agreement that power and authority must be shared between clergy and laity. 

Clerical leadership  

The functions and methods of clerical leadership were key issues in open responses. A large majority criticised the hierarchical structure of the Church, using words like “authoritarian”, “patriarchal”, “clerical”, “machismo”, “undemocratic”, and “top-down”. Several open responses simply stated, “end clergy celibacy”, or “allow married priests”. 

Several respondents strongly asserted the need for better discernment of vocations and improved initial and ongoing training and supervision for ordained members of the Church. The necessity of reformed seminarian training, including the inclusion of women as teachers and students, was broached by many respondents. 

Women in leadership 

A substantial majority of respondents were supportive of expanding the role of women in church leadership and governance. Indeed, almost 8 in 10 (79 per cent) of all respondents either strongly agreed or agreed with the statement “Women should be fully included at all levels of church leadership”.  

Support for women in leadership increased with age and varied with region of residence, with a marked difference between, for example, the strong agreement from respondents in western Europe and considerably less agreement from those in eastern Europe. Nevertheless, overall, a majority of respondents agreed with the statement. 

Most respondents drew attention to the limited roles allocated to women in the Church and highlighted the necessity for greater recognition of the role women already play in Church leadership. Some observed that the COVID-19 pandemic had given visibility to women’s liturgical and pastoral leadership. It was common for women to make claims of being undervalued and overlooked in the Church in spite of their position of leadership. 

It was also common for women to make claims of being undervalued and overlooked in the Church in spite of their position of leadership and some respondents highlighted the lack of recognition of women’s labour and leadership more broadly. 

In contrast, the denial of women’s full participation in church ministry, leadership, and governance was understood as harmful, both to Church as the people of God and women.  

A few respondents viewed the new opportunities for women to serve as acolytes, lectors, and catechists as a positive step forward. For some, however, this was not enough. There was passionate and consistent endorsement of women’s inclusion in the diaconate, and for their ordination as priests.  

Almost 7 in 10 (68 per cent) of respondents either strongly agreed or agreed with the statement “Women should be eligible for ordination to the priesthood”. Support for women’s ordination increased with age and there were variations that could be associated with region of residence. 

For some, their support for women’s ordination was associated with a sense of vocation. One spoke about the impact on her life through being unable to fulfil her vocation to the priesthood. For those who expressed support for women in the diaconate and priesthood, this was often linked to baptism and the capacity to stand “in persona Christi”. 

Some respondents were however sceptical of or strongly opposed to women’s inclusion in the diaconate and/or the sacramental priesthood. Some questioned the advisability of adding women to an already flawed clerical system. 

Employment reform 

The lack of recognition and respect for women employed in church leadership positions was a significant concern. In addition to poor recognition of skills and talents, respondents repeatedly described experiences of exploitation, low pay, and poor working conditions. 

Open responses consistently referred to the urgent need for fair and equitable employment of lay and consecrated persons participating in leadership, ministry, and service positions in church organisations and parishes. Most respondents when discussing the need for employment reform used terms such as “urgent”, “exploitation”, “exclusion”, “discrimination”, and “inequality”. 

Many other respondents also wrote about the lack of acknowledgement for their theological training and academic qualifications. 

Economic management 

Economic justice was a dominant theme across many responses. Respondents mentioned anger and disillusionment at the wealth and privilege displayed by many clerics. Exhibitions of power and wealth associated with clergy lifestyles, housing, luxurious cars, overseas trips, lavish liturgical vestments, and extravagant church buildings were condemned. One respondent highlighted such displays of affluence as “counter-witness for a church that wants to be close to the poor” (56 to 70 years, France). 

Discerning and deciding 

The organisation and culture of decision-making in the Catholic Church was a key issue raised by respondents. Questions of abusive power relations, authoritarianism, and a lack of transparency and accountability featured repeatedly and have already been covered in some of the foregoing sections. These were all perceived to have a negative impact on the ability of “the whole community” to engage in and contribute to discernment and decision-making. 

Misuse of power  

Most respondents who raised these issues referred to the negative impact on church attendance, either because people left in order to preserve their faith and mental health, and sometimes for their own safety, and at other times because they had been deliberately excluded and a less top-down model, with shared leadership between clergy and laity was cited by many respondents as a step towards full equality for women in the Church.  

Transparency and accountability 

Respondents’ comments regarding transparency and accountability varied widely yet frequently raised issues such as “management by competencies”, “consequences”, “transparency in governance”, “oversight”, “accountability of leadership”, “restoration of trust”, “power accountability”, “integrity”, “information sharing”, and “justice”.  

Co-responsibility: The role of laity 

As mentioned above, most respondents called for a greater role of the laity, especially women, in leadership, governance, and decision-making, and a considerable majority supported women holding leadership positions at all levels of the Church. 

For many respondents, however, women’s inclusion in Church leadership and decision-making was not the whole answer. They used words like “co-responsibility”, “synodal”, “dialogue”, and “collaboration” when describing the role lay people might play in decision-making processes. 

A few respondents strongly opposed the inclusion of lay men and women in decision-making processes. This small group was concerned with the preservation and renewal of the office of clergy, including a return to “tradition” and lay submission to clerical authority, which they suggested would eliminate issues related to mismanagement and corruption. These responses tended to appeal for a “return to tradition”, “strong priestly male hierarchy”, and the removal of “effeminate priests”. 

For most respondents the role of laity in decision-making processes was highly important not just for the Church but also for its role in broader society and culture. A key issue was to set an example by the inclusion of women, young people, and other groups marginalised or excluded from decision-making structures and processes in their communities and societies.  

Forming ourselves in synodality 

There was clear and consistent support for engagement in the synodal process, with some respondents describing high levels of engagement with synodal activities and processes. There was a sense of hope and excitement among those who were working and journeying together through synodality. 

Some respondents wrote that all people must have a voice in the synodal process. They used terms like “urgent”, “stop being afraid”, and “fervent hope”. 

Several noted that synodality in Church would not simply happen but must be learned and practised. When describing how synodality might work they used terms such as: “democratic”, “circular”, “collaborative”, “productive”, “equality”, “prophetic”, and “inclusion”. 

Yet even though many respondents expressed enthusiasm, there were also serious reservations raised about the synodal process. Several responses pondered the genuineness of the invitation to speak out; while others cast doubt on the purpose of “journeying together” in synodality if there would be no impact or change. 

It was agreed that the absence of women in decision-making, particularly in voting processes during synods, was viewed as a particular obstacle to effective synodality. 


Even when women have significant frustrations and struggles with Catholic institutions and structures, their Catholic identity is very important to them.

Many respondents saw their Catholic identity as inseparable from social justice, concern for the poor and the marginalised, and care for the environment, often described in terms of Gospel values and the example of Jesus. 

The vast majority of those who responded support some level of reform in the Church, especially but not exclusively regarding the role and representation of women. A small minority would prefer that the Church revert to what we might refer to as a pre-conciliar model of authority, priesthood, and liturgy. 

Most respondents saw an urgent need for reform with regard to church teachings on issues of sexuality, including respect for freedom of conscience and the place of LGBTIQ persons within the Church. A majority agreed that reform was needed with regard to the ordination of women, inclusive language in liturgy, women preaching, and remarriage after civil divorce.

A large majority of respondents were concerned about the prevalence of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse, racism, and sexism in church contexts. Many respondents expressed disappointment at the lack of accountability and transparency apparent in the hierarchy’s handling of abuse. 

A substantial majority of respondents raised concerns about transparency and accountability in church leadership and governance. A significant majority identified clericalism as having a negative impact on church life. There was 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.

We believe that the challenge for the Synod is to show that these many different voices have been listened to with the kind of respectful attentiveness required if dialogue is to be authentic and effective. If that happens, we would expect church teaching to become far more attuned to the realities of women’s lives in all their many different contexts and cultures, with all the struggles, frustrations, and hopes expressed by the respondents. 

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