ROME – It sounds like a clichéd bar joke: “Three female ambassadors from three different parts of the world, one Catholic, one Orthodox and one Protestant, walk into the Vatican.”
In reality, however, there’s no punchline waiting to be delivered, only what some may consider a counterintuitive realization.
Three women who represent their countries to the Holy See, coming from different cultural, societal and religious backgrounds, all agree that despite the predominantly male hierarchy that prevails at the Vatican, they’re happy with the treatment and welcome they’ve received.
On the other hand, they also say, albeit in different ways, that on the question of female involvement in decision-making processes within the Catholic Church, it’s past time to get the ball rolling.
The difference perspective makes
“I can underline that [my] relationship with the curia and each dicastery (Vatican jargon for a department), is a very attentive one, and it’s qualitative,” Ambassador Agnès Adjaho from the West-African country of Benin told Crux in an interview.
“The problem is not about underlining each time that I’m a woman,” she said. “The relationship is one of attention, and I think there’s nothing particular about it.”
Adjaho was the last of the three to bring her presentation letters to Pope Francis on December 10, 2016, and although she’s not a career diplomat, her past experiences made her into a perfect fit for the Vatican ambassadorial post. The Beninese newspaper La Nouvelle Tribune calls her “a woman of letters” due to her impressive academic résumé, but also her determined involvement to boost the literacy level in her country.
A faithful Catholic, Adjaho has been active in the Church, serving as a member of the Pontifical Council for the Laity and as a consultant to the Pontifical Council for Culture, but when it comes to the role of women in Catholicism, the ambassador believes that “there’s a lot left to do” especially at a national and formational level.
“When we talk about the situation of women in the Church, we always think about the pope and the Vatican. But there’s much that has to be done in our countries, at the level of priests.” She cited specifically “the formation of priests, who are not prepared to have a relationship with women in the Church as a partner in evangelization, in the promotion of values,” Adjaho said.
The ambassador from Georgia, Tamara Grdzelidze, who’s the veteran among the three, having served as a representative to her country since December 2014, offered a different perspective from a strictly Orthodox reality, where the role of women tends to be downplayed.
“I come from the environment of theology. Orthodox theology, even worse!” Grdzelidze joked to Crux. “Which means that I have been with male colleagues all the time. I was very often the only [woman] in the room with men, or one of two or three.”
The Georgian theologian admitted that she feels “very comfortable here at the Vatican,” and stressed how her understanding of ecclesiology made it easier for her to comprehend the dynamics that guide the Holy See and allowed her not to depend on the interpretation of others.
“Because you are an ambassador, you are neither male nor female” at the Vatican, Grdzelidze said. “Even within male circles, I don’t feel like I am being excluded, there is nothing like that.”
All three ambassadors praised the Vatican’s Secretariat of State as being helpful and inclusive in dealing with all foreign diplomats, male or female.
Sally Axworthy, the ambassador from the United Kingdom since September 19, 2016, described the Holy See’s foreign departments as “helpful and charming,” adding that, “as an ambassador, as a diplomat, you tend to be treated as a representative of your country” irrespective of being male or female.
Even though at the beginning of her mandate, Axworthy told British media outlet The Tablet that she had some adjusting to do to adapt to the largely male-dominated reality in the Vatican, her opinion seems to have slightly shifted nearly one year down the line.
“There are 20 percent of women who work in the Secretariat of State,” she said. “Most of the hierarchy are men, but they are very professional,” the UK ambassador told Crux in an interview.
Time to act on the role of women in the Church
While all three ambassadors agree that the Vatican is a pretty cozy place for female diplomats, they also, in different ways, believe that the time has come to push the agenda forward in terms of female involvement in the Church.
According to Benin’s Adjaho, there must be a reevaluation of the actual role of the Virgin Mary as a model and example for women in the Church.
“This is not about promoting the role (of women), but recognizing the role Mary had,” Adjaho said. “She didn’t spend her time talking and talking, blah, blah, blah, but every time she spoke it was a decisive thing. But today, at the level of decision, it’s a complete desert.”
Adjaho, while specifying that she does not consider herself a feminist, said that the Church must develop a role that highlights the quality of Mary as a partner of God in the New Covenant.
“Not of the prophets, of God, with no intermediaries,” she added.
The UK’s Axworthy, a Protestant, made quite an impression when she brought her presentation letters to Francis wearing the British diplomatic uniform, becoming the first female British ambassador to wear a diplomatic uniform overseas.
“As a female ambassador, I’m interested in the role of women in the Holy See,” she said, but she added that she learned in her new post of the many women, in particular religious sisters, who serve in the Church.
“We think of the Church as male-dominated, but there are these huge numbers of women, I seem to remember 800,000, who have committed their lives entirely to God and to the Church and are working with the weakest in society,” Axworthy said.
[Note: The latest Vatican statistics show a total of 670,320 professed women religious in the Church.]
According to Grdzelidze, gender issues are still taboo at the Vatican and a very big issue.
“Gender is one of the issues I am most concerned with, because I think that inequality in the church is absolutely not the right thing,” the ambassador from Georgia said, adding that this begs the question of the definition of equality.
“I will certainly not say that reform should lead to the ordination of women immediately, certainly not,” she said. “But to consider women as equal partners in decision-making is a must. In all churches,” Grdzelidze said.
“It’s problematic because of ordination, because Catholics and Orthodox give a very, very high respect for ordination […]. This should be debated. I am not saying that women should be ordained, but how can they be involved, without being ordained? This question I would pose to the pope.”
The Georgian representative said that while now may not be the right time, somewhere down the line this debate will become very important for the Vatican.
Women in the unique Vatican Diplomacy
As the role of women in society and politics is quickly changing, especially in the Western world, more and more think tanks and institutions are beginning to explore the added value of women in the workforce and especially at a decision-making level.
“The things that women are supposed to be better at is that they are supposed to be communicators, that is something that is useful generally for diplomacy,” Axworthy said adding conflict resolution as a specific concern for women.
This is definitely true for Adjaho, who has made peace building and development an important cornerstone of her work at the Vatican. “I never forget that the Church has always had as its mission to develop women, men and children. For this reason, for a long time now, the Church in my country, has always worked for the welfare of peoples,” the Beninese diplomat said.
In practical terms, Adjaho has been collaborating with the Holy See to foster interreligious dialogue and relations with Islam, and Benin – a country where Christians, Muslims and traditional religions peacefully coexist – may offer a viable example.
For Axworthy, the Vatican “is not like anywhere else,” because the motivation behind its political and diplomatic action is based on the question: ‘Is it right for the world?’ whereas most foreign ministers, she said, “define foreign policy in terms of national interest.”
The British ambassador underlined how the Vatican is “the world’s smallest state but it has global reach,” impacting millions through its executive arm, a.k.a. the bishops’ conferences around the globe.
Grdzelidze agrees with her colleague about the peculiar diplomacy of the Holy See. “This is a peculiar place, the Vatican, so it’s not any other country,” she said. “It’s not even any other international organization. It’s something in between.”
The Georgian diplomat expressed optimism for the future of women in diplomacy and in the Church and trust in the leadership of the pope centered on change. “I am a big fan of Francis and especially the women I know are big fans of Francis,” she said.
Axworthy has set her eye on the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life, which has a mandate for change.
“It will be interesting to see what they do,” she said.