Increasing women's voices is a moral imperative

Mexico City, 1984. My wife and I attended the second International Conference on Population sponsored by the United Nations (Bucharest 1974 was the first). Most national delegations and NGOs then were headed by men. Their answer to the booming global population: increased distribution of condoms.

Cairo, Egypt, 1994. We attended the third U.N. population conference. By then, however, many women headed national delegations; most NGOs were led by women. Their answer had changed dramatically: improved health care and education for women and children.  

Point: women bring different experiences, values and views to the public arena.

Women are the world’s initial nurturers, early educators, health providers. Given the opportunity for education, especially higher education, they most often seize it, eventually changing the complexion of families, organizations and governments. In so doing they have enriched education, health care and development efforts. Their impact on understanding war, peace and ecology continues to be chronicled.

So increasing women’s voices is not only a wise course; it is a moral imperative – if we are to unleash the full power of human experience and thought, rallying this to respond to pressing global challenges.

Remember, not even one century has passed since women in general have gained access to higher education. 

The exception, of course, to these leadership advances is within our church to our great discredit and loss. Fortunately, many Catholic women carry on, in spite of institutional obstacles. Our Catholic sisters, infused with their gospel missions, plod forward, day by day, often with little to no recognition. Their stories – and lessons emerging from their experiences – are slow to reach global audiences.

National Catholic Reporter has tried to change this. We are now taking this effort to a new level with the inauguration of Global Sisters Report. Our goal is to shed more light on the work of Catholic sisters, to amplify their voices, to recognize a growing global network coming into place.

Today, women religious carry out their orders’ missions in virtually every part of the world. No others in our church are more connected to the daily life of the People of God, their “joys and the hopes, griefs and anxieties” than are our Catholic sisters.

These women have long worked with the most marginalized and poorest among us. They continue to carry out their inspired, faith-filled work in some of the most desolate and isolated places on the planet.

These women have been on the margins long before Pope Francis called us there.

Want to peer into the future? Then become more acquainted with these women. Listen to their stories. Check out their fortitude. Listen to them voice the hopes of the silenced among us. Walk with them a bit as they respond to the challenges of trafficked children and ecological destruction.

Our Catholic sisters are the proverbial canaries in the mineshaft. How they fare, we all will fare. The stories they tell reveal the issues we must face to preserve community, even humanity.

The Catholic sisters of what we refer to as “the global north” have decades, if not centuries, of experience to share. These women, while declining in numbers for a host of reasons, continue to provide rich insights into issues of prayer, spirituality, theology, ecclesiology, religious formation, mission, and justice and peace. If they bring experience, then the Catholic sisters of “the global south,” rooted in the poor of the world, bring exuberance, culture, diversity and earthly connections. They trigger our imaginations; their communities, often still developing leaders, struggling for basic resources to survive, mirror the needs of most of the human family.

Sisters, North; Sisters, South: They complement each other, increasingly forming a global network of networks, the church from the bottom looking up, as the Gospels would have it. Through the use of emerging technologies, our Catholic sisters are connecting and communicating as never before, as never imagined even a decade back.

Enter the Global Sisters Report, an NCR project made possible by a grant from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation's Catholic Sisters Initiative. At least three years being imagined and one year in construction, the GSR is a work in progress. What you see today is the beginning of another phase of an NCR journey with our Catholic sisters.

This website will evolve and grow in the months ahead. From the first issues of NCR nearly 50 years ago, we have walked with women religious. We have shared their Vatican II vision of church, a vision being reinforced by Pope Francis today.

Walk with us as we walk with our church’s sisters. Finally, we venture forth we ask for your ideas, reactions and prayers.  

[Tom Fox, NCR Publisher, is director of the Global Sisters Report initiative and can be reached at and found on Twitter @NCRTomFox.]