ROME — In an attempt to include the voices of women in the Vatican’s formerly all-male Pontifical Council for Culture, Italian Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi has created a “Women’s Consultation Group,” which includes 37 women who work in areas ranging from Iranian theology to medicine, diplomacy and acting.
The scope of the group is not to gather and talk about women’s issues, but rather to bring the voices of women to a male-dominated environment to “stimulate the reflection” of the council’s members on universal issues.
According to the presentation made in Rome on Tuesday, the plan is for the consultation group to meet three times a year and to present proposals over the many activities of the council: artificial intelligence, neuroscience, sports and human anthropology.
“These women have the mission of judging, analyzing our activity, [and] above all, making suggestions,” Ravasi said at a press conference held Monday in Rome. “The dicastery is concerned with very delicate issues which, when studied by them [women], it becomes evident just how important the feminine perspective is.”
He ticked off several examples, from robotics to rare degenerative children’s illnesses, but also interreligious dialogue and conversation between believers and non-believers, offering advice that’s less “mechanical” than what a priest can offer.
According to Ravasi, Pope Francis’s strong push for the inclusion of women in different Vatican offices was key in the creation of the consultation.
The group is composed of Catholic, Muslim, Protestant and Jewish women, coming not only from Italy but also the United States, Ireland, Iran, Chile and Turkey. Many are mothers, politicians, or have high-ranking jobs at companies such as Google, and others are religious women such as Maria Giovanna Ruggeri, president of the World Union of Catholic Women’s Organizations (WUCWO).
Some 25 of these women were at the Vatican’s press office to present the consultation, including Consuelo Corradi, coordinator of the group and vice rector for research and international relations at the LUMSA University of Rome, as well as Iranian theologian Shahrazad Houshmand.
Speaking to Crux after the presentation, Ruggeri said that she’s in the group representing the ten million women who are members of the UMOFC, a body that has representatives at the UN in New York and Geneva, as well as the FAO in Rome and the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
“I think that it’s important that the real life of women is included in the consultation, which includes entrepreneurs, actresses, philosophers, university professors,” she said. “But also the daily life of women in a small village in Africa or Asia has to be included. It’s something many might have heard of, but it’s a reality they don’t know first-hand.”
She said that even though the role of women in the Church is not “officially” recognized, at the end of the day, if they left, “What would remain?”
“But I believe Pope Francis is urging the Church to listen to women more … The challenge is that Pope Francis has to be heard too!”
Regarding her organization’s presence at the United Nations, Ruggeri acknowledged that the international body has a particular vision of what women’s rights are, taking it as “the right to control life. But we believe life is a gift that has to be respected, not controlled. It’s complicated, but also important that the UN knows that there are many women around the world who don’t think like this.”
Donna Orsuto, one of the Americans in the body, is a university professor and a consultant to the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship. She was among the original members of the consultation, when the dicastery had a plenary session, back in 2014, dedicated to women.
Ravasi, Orsuto told Crux, “rightly said that he didn’t want to have just a bunch of men talking about it. So he gathered a group of women, of which I was one, and we worked together and helped from the very beginning.”
After that, she said, the cardinal acknowledged the need to have a permanent body, so that the voice of women can be heard, and also to guarantee that feminine perspectives help shape the work being done by the council.
Yet the idea is not for women to simply give their opinions, but to actually be involved in the work of the council, “taking leadership roles, in an indirect-direct way, involving them within the present structures.”
Orsuto believes Ravasi has “found a way to further involve women.”
Also among the women present at Tuesday’s presentation was Emma Madigan, the Irish ambassador to the Holy See, who will be part of the group because of her professional background, but representing herself, not Ireland.
Madigan believes that it was “courageous” of the Council for Culture to do something like this, and not only because having 37 women at a table can “get a bit chaotic.”
“The cardinal is very open to hearing what we have to say,” she told Crux. “We haven’t heard much about this consultation in the last two years, but a part of it was having substance, getting established, and not just rushing out of the gate and saying ‘we’re here’ and then people asking ‘what are you doing, what is this about?’”
The invitation from Ravasi, which she got after the usual courtesy call ambassadors pay to the head of different Vatican offices when arriving, is for a three-year term. The consultation will be a permanent body, but the women participating in it will change, in an attempt to add to the plurality of voices.
“I’m an ambassador to the Holy See, and [as such] you want to understand better your interlocutors,” Madigan said. “And at its most basic, this is an invitation to dialogue, opening a channel with the Vatican. I’ve been getting to know all these fantastic women, but also about what the Vatican does, its own processes.”
For a diplomat, she added, dialogue is a core value and activity.
Houshmand, an Iranian theologian, spoke about the central role that Mary plays both in Christian and Islamic scriptures, and defined the consultation as both a “natural, yet delayed, birth” and as a “revolutionary act.”
She said that the women in the group are not “feminists nor exclusivists,” but instead think that women have a “marvelously strong voice to do good.” For this reason, the first journal of the consultation was not dedicated to “women’s issues” but to youth, economy and even masculine culture.
The essence of the human identity, she told Crux, is only one. “It’s not feminine nor masculine, Christian or Muslim: Human. It then takes on other ‘accidental’ identities, such as gender, language, culture or religion.”
Ahead of women’s day, Houshmand also noted that violence and discrimination against women is a global phenomenon which began when man decided, for social and political reasons and in an attempt to control power, to move women aside.
“This happens in the Christian, Buddist, Jewish and Muslim worlds,” she said. Yet insisting on the human identity, she said, “the tears of a Christian woman or a Muslim woman have the same color.”