The most profound bit of wisdom I received during my four years at Boston College was in a speech delivered by Fr. Tony Penna, in which he emphasized the importance of doing small tasks greatly. In the face of structural injustices, people become fixated on achieving big tasks and transforming entire systems. This mindset anxiously skips to the harvest without planting the seeds or watering the grounds.
As I scrolled through The Boston Globe this past week, I came across a provocative article titled “Jack Connors has a dream for a more inclusive Catholic Church.” As a student who frequents O’Neill Library, home of the Connors Family Learning Center, and a multiple-time participant in retreats at BC’s Connors Center in Dover, Mass., I have personally benefited from Jack and Eileen Connors’ generous donations to the BC community. In the article, Connors explained that the Catholic Church must undergo a drastic transformation to become more accepting if it wants to remain relevant and aligned with the belief of human equality in the eyes of God. Connors went as far as to encourage extending the sacrament of marriage to priests and people within the LGBTQ+ community. The part of Connors’ “dream” church that resonated with me the most (as a woman who identifies as Catholic) was his argument for the ordination of women.
I could not help but question: Is BC, a university where Connors earned an honorary doctorate and previously served as chairman of the Board of Trustees, setting an example of inclusivity for the Catholic Church, especially with regard to gender equality?
It is admirable that Connors challenges the Church to rethink policies and beliefs that reject the participation of believers and perpetuate discrimination of marginalized identities. Nevertheless, Connors’ advocacy for institutional reformation would be all the more compelling if Catholic universities, a pillar of the Catholic Church’s power and influence, committed to similar changes. In other words, the seed must be planted at his alma mater.
BC’s Fact Book for the 2022–2023 academic year shows that a majority of decision makers at BC are men. This begins at the top of the University’s decision making hierarchy—the Board of Trustees. In total, there are 55 Trustees of BC, among which only 21 are women. Further down this decision making hierarchy, the 13 administrators who report directly to University President Rev. William P. Leahy, S.J., include only three women. Gender discrepancies also trickle down to the graduate and undergraduate academic deans, of which three out of nine are women. While the gender split of BC’s overall faculty is more equal (57 percent men and 43 percent women), there are twice as many faculty professors who are men than there are women (218 male professors and 105 female professors).
The lack of women in leadership positions at BC prevents the University from experiencing the thoughtful collaboration, improved fairness, and broader perspectives that women leaders bring to the table. Women have distinct strengths, skill sets, and personal experiences which expand discourse and benefit decision making.
Simply providing women a seat at the table is not enough. The goal should be to provide women with the ability to shape the table by empowering them to make decisions and take on leadership roles. The Jesuit mission, grounded in Catholic social teachings, provides values that BC and the Catholic Church at large are called to promote for the creation of a just society. Calls to family, community, and participation inextricably link opportunity access to human dignity.
Pope Francis’ attempts to give more women responsibility within the Vatican and acknowledge the importance of balancing different perspectives increases hope that the Catholic Church is on a path to becoming more inclusive. For the first time in the Church’s history, 82 women were invited to participate in the Vatican’s Synod on Synodality, with 54 of them being granted voting rights. Resistance to change—which currently divides the Catholic Church—is a complex, universal, and multigenerational struggle rooted in deep theological debates, presenting common objections to allowing women in leadership. It is not my goal to undervalue Connors’ brave, internal critique of the Catholic Church. Rather, I believe it is necessary to extend the same critiques and calls for social justice at BC.
A general misperception is that small acts have small impacts. Increasing equity at BC is a small task relative to increasing equity in the Catholic Church, but this difference in scope does not make the task less righteous or valuable. Enacting change at BC plants a seed of hope that Catholic institutions are working toward a more just future. The most effective way to promote gender diversity is prioritizing women in the hiring process. BC has a moral obligation to embrace the message Pope Francis imparts—that the only way to rectify structural injustice and enact real change is to provide “equality of opportunity.” In fulfilling Connors’ wish to reshape the Church to be more inclusive, BC’s leadership is in the driver’s seat to model what a more inclusive university, community, and Church can be.