Last month, CBS News” aired a primetime “60 Minutes” interview between Norah O’Donnell and Pope Francis. Of all the topics that came up during the hour-long special, it was one exchange that got more attention than the others, prompting both celebration and condemnation from predictable corners of the online commentariat. 

The segment opened with commentary on how Pope Francis “has placed more women in positions of power than any of his predecessors.” 

“You will have many young boys and girls that will come here at the end of next month for World Children’s Day,” began O’Donnell. “And I’m curious … for a little girl growing up Catholic today, will she ever have the opportunity to be a deacon and participate as a clergy member in the Church?” 

“No,” replied the pope flatly. 

When pressed on whether or not his commissioned study of female deacons might provide a different answer, he responded that women “are of great service as women,” but not as ministers (within holy orders).  

As a woman who has worked for the Church in a variety of capacities, including in advisory roles for bishops and university presidents, I found this part of the interview to be frustrating. 

However sincere the intention or curiosity might be behind it, the question about female ordination sucks all of the oxygen out of the room whenever conversations arise about women in the Church. 

Because the priesthood dominates this topic—and repeatedly frustrates those who approach it in terms of power and function — attention is diverted from finding concrete avenues for women to find greater leadership opportunities and creative license in their work and ministry. It can also blind well-meaning men from seeing and addressing real issues of sexism within the organizations they lead. 

There is much work to be done to help Catholic entities hire, appoint, or commission women with an appreciation for and integration of their differences. Shifting the conversation about women’s roles away from ordination and toward the signs of the times — identifying where women are most needed — is what the young Catholic girls O’Donnell referenced need. 

Thankfully, this is precisely what author Bronwen McShea does in her new book “Women of the Church: What Every Catholic Should Know” (Augustine Institute-Ignatius Press, $24.95).

McShea, a scholar of Catholic history, provides a sweeping look at a few women who have played both leading and key supporting roles in the Church’s mission since its birth.  

“For a variety of reasons,” she writes, “there were wide gaps between what I had learned in my American Catholic upbringing about women in the Church and what scholars knew — and are still coming to know and appreciate — about the great diversity and complexity of countless women who for two millennia have been at the heart of the Church’s life and have been shaping history just as much as men.” 

The females McShea identifies were disciples, martyrs, queens, mothers, wives, teachers, writers, academics, founders of religious orders, physicians, artists, and social workers. Among these women who changed the course of history in their respective eras, McShea also highlights women who will rightly never be canonized, but whose influence remains unquestioned. 

Some of these women are names that we’d expect: Mary, the Mother of God, Mary Magdalene, Felicity and Perpetua, Catherine of Siena, Clare of Assisi, Teresa of Ávila, Thérèse of Lisieux, Katherine Drexel, Teresa of Calcutta, Dorothy Day, and Thea Bowman. 

But she also features lesser-known women like Christine de Pizan, a medieval laywoman who served as a court writer for King Charles VI of France, but who also wrote her own poems, biographies, books of advice, and a collection of stories about holy women at a time when others were highlighting their vices. 

Or queens of the Middle Ages: St. Adelaide, who was responsible for ensuring the reform of Benedictine monasteries; Blanche of Castille, who influenced her husband King Louis VIII of France in his crusade against the Cathars, and Jagwida of Poland, who helped to restore the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, where the future St. Pope John Paul II would do his doctoral studies. 

She details the lives of Catholic women in England who were executed for their faith after the reign of Henry VIII, like Margaret Clitherow, a convert, wife, and mother, who was arrested and executed for hiding Catholic priests, and Margaret Ward, who was hanged for helping a priest escape from prison. 

She poignantly recounts the witness of the Carmelite martyrs of Compiègne, who one by one were executed at the guillotine, all the while renewing their vows and singing the Salve Regina, Te Deum, and Veni Creator Spiritus

And while it’s often said that behind every successful man is a strong woman, McShea brings to the fore countercultural men who championed women.

Among these women were Renaissance poet Vittoria Colonna, who was encouraged by Cardinal Pietro Bembo, a poet of the papal court, to publish a book of poems under her own name (something that was virtually unheard of at the time). Colonna’s poetry even influenced the work of her friend Michaelangelo, who dedicated an image of Christ on the cross to her. 

There was also Margaret Roper, the oldest daughter of St. Thomas More, whose intellectual pursuits were remarkable for her time. Her father invested heavily in Margaret’s education, even bringing the scholar Erasmus into their home for her to converse with. Margaret published an English translation of his work, “Devout Treatise on the Our Father” at 19. Her husband also supported his wife’s scholarship. 

If the key to a more robust theology of women is what Francis alluded to — an appreciation of women as women, then McShea’s book helps the cause. The key is not what women have done in history, but who they have been. 

In her introduction to the book, Catholic writer Patricia Snow drives this point home by praising how “relational” its heroines are, “how gifted at forging and sustaining the kinds of relationships that are essential to communities and also at encouraging, often behind the scenes, the more visible vocations of prominent, socially powerful men.”

“What modernity resists as a negative,” Snow added, “the Church has always affirmed as a gift: a gift for hearing and receiving, absorbing and remembering.”

That receptivity and the “good soil of the female heart” has been a cornerstone of God’s plan of salvation for mankind, as evidenced by how often (almost always) he chooses women to receive divine messages, like Mary, the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, or Bernadette Soubirous. 

Catholic women boggle the modern mind, dismissed as submissive to an outdated patriarchy who cares little about their flourishing. This book stands as a defense of the counterpoint: that when a woman leans into her vocation/mission with the full force of her feminine gifts, she can literally change history.