A female lector in Sydney, October 2021 (CNS photo/courtesy Australian Bishops Conference)

The jump shots were graceful and precise, the offenses ran with creativity and perfect timing. The sellout crowd roared at a deft steal or a powerful blocked shot. As I watched the women’s Final Four basketball tournament this year, I realized that it was a pilgrimage of sorts for me—partly for the games themselves and partly because this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Title IX. As I left a panel discussion on that topic, it struck me that the Church could use a Title IX. An ecclesiastical Title IX would be an act of justice in keeping with Church teaching on the equal dignity of men and women and would achieve the reforms that Pope Francis seems interested in implementing, but in a more direct and effective way than his actions so far.

Imagining what such a thing might look like in Catholic life means first learning a little more about Title IX. Here is the text in its entirety: “No person in the United States shall, based on sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

Title IX was the brainchild of Patsy Takemoto Mink, the first woman of color elected to Congress, who went to law school when med schools wouldn’t take her because she was a woman. After the legislation was signed into law in 1972 by President Richard M. Nixon, it still faced fierce opposition as to its application to athletics. The male sports establishment ridiculed the very idea that women should have opportunities equal to those of men. It was bad enough that other programs and scholarships should be extended equally to women, but sports? When athletics was explicitly included in the title’s provisions, it was still a long way from being implemented—Sen. Jesse Helms, among others, opposed the measure and its application to sports, and the NCAA filed a (later dismissed) lawsuit challenging its legality in 1976. While the NCAA eventually came on board, true parity is still a work in progress. Recall the ridiculous disparity in workout equipment during 2021 in the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments. Up to the Sweet Sixteen, the men’s teams in their tournament bubble got a gym full of weight-training equipment, while the women got a single exercise bike, a few dumbbells, and some yoga mats.

What I remember first about Title IX is the uniforms. I was playing junior varsity basketball before Title IX came, and we wore the hand-me-down uniforms from the varsity squad. The varsity players were expected to use their uniforms as long as they could; our JV uniforms were old, stained, and so ragged that we had to wear t-shirts under them lest we suffer a lapse in modesty on court. Girls’ sports then just didn’t count for much, and JV girls’ sports mattered even less. But when Title IX kicked in, we got the varsity’s then-recent uniforms, and the varsity squad got new ones, because—well, because suddenly we counted. We still played to mostly empty stands then, even when I played varsity. But Title IX brought us a measure of dignity, an official recognition that, just like boys’ and men’s teams, we were representing out there. We girls—not only the boys—were the “mighty mighty Cosmos” of our fight song, and we strove to live up to our claim.

Title IX wrought an enormous shift in girls and women’s participation in sports. According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, before Title IX, only one in twenty-seven girls played sports. Today, that number is two in five. The participation of girls and women in organized sports at every level is now commonplace, and that participation—mirrored in other areas affected by Title IX, like academic scholarships and access to graduate programs—is its greatest accomplishment. We are here, and we represent, on the court and in the classroom, and from there, everywhere. While it was legislated from above, the fact that it had its effect at the ground level was the source of its power, even to the most ordinary players in far-flung corners of the U.S. athletic world, even to a JV girls’ basketball team in a small town in Vermont.

This recentering of focus can be enormously empowering, especially in its rejection of the stereotypes of female weakness and dependence on male leadership.

It is participation that matters most: the opportunity to represent, to be the face and hands and fast-breaking feet of the school. If sports overall were only a matter of identifying and cultivating the best of the best, the Steph Currys and A’ja Wilsons, we misunderstand the endeavor entirely. The vast majority of boys and girls will never grow up to be Steph or A’ja, or Diana Taurasi or LeBron James. The importance of sports does not lie only in winnowing the field to find the greats. Even a bench-warmer like me benefited from the discipline of practice, the focus on teamwork, and other virtues that sports confer. Athletes can develop a frame of reference that depends on our own cultivation of the best we can do. For girls, sports can be an arena in which performance (one’s own and the team’s), not male approval, is key. This recentering of focus can be enormously empowering, especially in its rejection of the stereotypes of female weakness and dependence on male leadership, and of its challenge to general notions of second-class status that held sway in the pre-feminist era. Washington Post sportswriter Sally Jenkins put it this way:

When you cure the perception of emotional frailty and physical incompetence in a young woman, you kill the idea that there are some things she is constitutionally unfit to do. And you seed a new idea in her, that she has the inalienable right to choose her professional interest and to work at it with an unembarrassed shouting passion.

The point of Title IX is not to compare girls’ and women’s sports to boys’ and men’s sports, nor is it a patronizing concession to let the “weaker sex” have some gym time, too. It is about equity, and the equal dignity of the athletic strivings of all people who practice their jump shots, or fling a javelin, or work out a floor routine in gymnastics. What it leads to is a conviction of one’s equal dignity, and a resolve that equal opportunity should be the rule, not the exception, not a concession from the boys. We sweat too, and we represent.


So what would Title IX—let’s call it “Titulus Novem”—look like in the Church? How would Catholic life be affected if it was mandated that “no person in the Church shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination in any program or activity receiving Church funds”? First, as in Title IX, it is not a comparison of, say, whether women or men are better preachers, or more compassionate pastoral caregivers, or whatever. Such a comparison trades in invidious sex stereotypes and ignores the rich tapestry of the ecclesial gifts of different individuals called into service by God. No, Titulus Novem is about what it means to represent. 

Pope Francis has shown an interest in raising women’s profile in leadership in the Church since the beginning of his papacy. In his 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii gaudium, he wrote:

Demands that the legitimate rights of women be respected, based on the firm conviction that men and women are equal in dignity, present the Church with profound and challenging questions which cannot be lightly evaded…

(Then he spent the rest of that paragraph explaining that of course women cannot be priests.) He added more women to the International Theological Commission (then undercut that advance by calling them “the icing on the cake,” and praising them for their intuition, not their theological acumen). Recently, he announced that women and lay men can lead some dicasteries in the Vatican (which is great, but ask any Catholic: “How many dicasteries are there in the curia, and who leads them?”). And most recently, he announced his intention to add two women to the Dicastery of Bishops, implying that they would be members of the (currently) twenty-three-member dicastery, not consultants. A fine thing to do, but not exactly a powerful voting bloc.  

Here’s the problem. Putting women and laymen in such positions is admirable, and is certainly a step in a good direction, but it won’t have the kind of immediate effect that is needed to bring about real change. Making women into Vatican functionaries in small, easily outvoted numbers or giving them leadership of certain departments is unlikely to significantly increase the effective voice of women in the Church. Like Title IX, Titulus Novem would need to take effect at the ground level, in this case in the daily lived reality of the Church, not merely in the rarefied atmosphere of Rome. Like Title IX, Titulus Novem would mandate proportionate funding for boys and girls, men and women, for all Church-funded functions. Budgets, after all, are moral documents: Titulus Novem would mandate that the Church’s allocations treat its daughters and sons equitably, in keeping with the Church’s teaching on the equal dignity of women and men. 

So how might Titulus Novem actually work in practice? Here are a few thoughts. What if, every time a diocese fully funds the education of a man in seminary, it provided equal opportunity and equal funding for a woman? That alone would vastly expand women’s opportunities to minister in the Church and would especially benefit lower-income candidates. It would make their time in seminary easier, too, since they wouldn’t need to work for food and shelter while also holding down the full-time job of seminary studies. Funding equity would expand the range of ministries that women could pursue, since they’d be less pressured paying off educational debts after seminary. People called to less lucrative ministries—like many ground-level social-justice ministries—could follow that call without worrying that the student loan servicers would come after them. 

What if every Church-sponsored school had to be either co-ed or have equal facilities for boys and girls? What if vocation-exploration weekends for men and women were funded equally, and those vocations were celebrated and supported equally? What if we didn’t need a special collection for impoverished retired religious women and men, about three quarters of which is needed by women’s institutes?

Consider liturgy. What if every week at Mass we heard the words of the great women writers and mystics in our tradition, not just stuck into a homily as a reference, but as words to ponder, say, after the first or second scripture reading? What if we required women as well as men to proclaim the Gospel, so that we would see that the words carry the same power in a soprano or alto voice as in a tenor or bass? What if it were a requirement that altar girls as well as boys serve? We know that women do a lot of the support work in the Church, from dealing with altar linens to cooking for Church suppers, from childcare during services to religious ed, from being lectors and sacristans to training those ministers. What Titulus Novem would do would not be to keep those essential tasks from being done—the Church would not function without the unpaid labor of (mostly) women. Titulus Novem would require that women be included in the work and the benefits of the Church in all its functions. 

And, of course, priesthood would be changed if it were really based on vocation, education, and devotion—qualities not limited by sex. Catholic women are now specifically told that they cannot ever represent, that no one can encounter the presence of Christ if mediated by female hands. Anyone who has ever met women clergy from other denominations or seen the Christlike work of women in non-ordained ministries knows how silly and obsolete that notion is. It may help explain why moms are more likely to take their daughters out to soccer practice on a Sunday morning—where their girls represent—instead of to Church where they’re reminded of a stained-glass ceiling we’re told is Jesus’ fault. (And people who think of Jesus like that should go back and re-read the gospel of Luke, where powerful women and men together announce the Good News.) 

These are just a few ideas—in truth, I’ve found it difficult to imagine what true equity for women would look like in the Church at the ground level, because it is so far off. I’ve only had glimpses of what it might look like, only hints of anything like the way those glorious post–Title IX basketball uniforms felt back in the day. Without a bottom-up, visible, palpable requirement that women be treated equitably in the life of the Church, women will continue to be relegated to supporting roles, clapping on the sidelines while our brothers are the only ones who really count.

But it’s also true that when Title IX was passed, few could imagine the sea change it would bring. Simply requiring that women be treated like equal human beings, like people whose lives and strivings, hopes and dreams could not be shot down by the legacy of discrimination, fostered an enormous change in women’s educations and careers. We needed—and still need—Title IX. The Church doesn’t need (only) women serving in the Roman curia; the Church needs Titulus Novem.

Lisa Fullam is professor of moral theology at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley. She is the author of The Virtue of Humility: A Thomistic Apologetic (Edwin Mellen Press).

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