ROME – While tensions over women in the Church have been a constant in Catholic life for a long time, recent signs suggest a turning point may be looming, with conferences, assemblies and media outlets both within and outside the Vatican speaking up in a new way about perceived injustices.
Women meeting at a Voices of Faith conference this week in Rome, for instance, are saying the “Church is at a very important crossroads,” while the editor of a Vatican magazine focusing on women says she sees an “internal cultural revolution” brewing.
At the same time, a general assembly of bishops from Latin America taking place inside the Vatican walls has invited forty women to take part in a conversation on the female role in the Church, amounting to another recognition that it’s a subject that can’t be avoided.
While these female perspectives may differ in tone and focus, one common thread emerges: “The Times they are a Changin’.”
Today, the Church increasingly faces not only newfound feminist zeal expressed in the #metoo movement throughout the world, but also profound changes from within.
Voices of Faith
For the last four years, the annual Voices of Faith conference, featuring prominent female voices in the Church and representing many of the most progressive positions concerning women, has met within the Vatican walls. But when Cardinal Kevin Farrell, the head of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Laity, Family, and Life, did not approve three of the eleven speakers proposed by the conference, the group moved beyond Rome’s Tiber river to the Jesuit headquarters.
Former Irish president Mary McAleese was persona non grata in light of her vocal support for gay rights, among other issues, and at a press conference Wednesday, she challenged the Church to allow women to have greater roles and to “be there when the sausage is made.”
“We, the unheard voices, are trying to speak in a system that does not give us conduits for speaking,” she said, stressing that after years of promise, including the Second Vatican Council, the International Declaration of Human Rights and “patronizing platitudes of the popes,” little has been done to give women the necessary space to make their voices heard.
The activist and canon law expert said that the “Catholic Church is at a very important crossroads,” where it can choose to become either a “large, and largely irrelevant sect” bound to become a relic of the past, or to “flood the world with the capacity for healing.”
In her opinion, the Catholic hierarchy is not only a “clerical and elitist government,” but also “largely mediocre,” and women are demanding more accountability for priests as well as more agency.
“We are not the strawberries on the cake!” McAleese said, referring to a quip by Pope Francis about women in 2014 remarks to the Vatican’s International Theological Commission.
“We are the leaven in the bread,” McAleese said, adding that right now, in her view, “the bread of the Church is flattening.”
According to Chantal Götz, managing director of Voices of Faith, the feminist movement of 2018, with women increasingly speaking up against abuse, harassment and inequality, is “saying clearly that change is urgent” and that “we have reached a crisis point.”
This crisis, she added, is made apparent by a consistent drop in female vocations and an “exodus” led by young women, calling it a consequence of the Church’s inability to provide appropriate female roles.
The Revolt of the Nuns
In the preface of a new Spanish book called “Ten Things Pope Francis Proposes to Women,” the Argentine pope expresses concerns for the “persistence within societies of a certain male chauvinist mentality,” which extends also within the Church, where “the service to which each is called, for women, is sometimes transformed into slavery.”
The March edition of the Women Church World magazine, published by the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, lent detail to the pope’s observation, running an article addressing the mistreatment and indifference sometimes reserved for nuns throughout the world, who end up often performing housekeeping duties in a position of servitude with male clergy with no pension plans or meaningful pay.
A nun identified only as Sister Marie, for instance, describes how sisters serve clergy but “are rarely invited to sit at the tables they serve.”
“The issue of women in the Church has existed for a long time,” said Lucetta Scaraffia, the magazine’s editor, in an interview with Crux. “Now it’s becoming stronger and more evident, because the nuns are less passive and more aware of what’s happening, and they are asking for change.” Scaraffia said these concerns don’t only interest young women, who’ve had a different generational formation and experience of life, but also older nuns.
“I’ve met 80-90-year-old nuns who are furious,” she said. “The real feminism right now I find in nuns,” she said.
The journalist and intellectual said she “hears these things all the time,” and reported a “voluntary exile” on behalf of religious women who are quietly stepping away from engaging with male clergy.
“I think it’s very wrong to interpret a ‘revolt of religious women’ as being influenced by the outside,” Scaraffia said, adding that unlike most lay women who are influenced by the #metoo movement, nuns are creating their own revolution by drawing from the exegetical and theological writings of female scholars.
“By returning to a reading of the Gospels as they are, they feel the injustice of how they are treated. This is the reality,” she said.
The bottom line, according to Scaraffia: “It’s an internal cultural revolution.”
Women in the Vatican
While Catholic feminists at the Voices of Faith Conference promised to break open the Vatican’s “hermetic shield,” and the disenfranchising of religious sisters is featured in the New York Times, the Vatican itself quietly continues along with Pope Francis’s directive of dialogue.
The Pontifical Commission for Latin America (CAL), for instance, is holding a general assembly meeting March 6-9, titled “Latin American Women, Column in the Working of the Church,” which includes women in discussion of major female concerns in societies.
This comes after Francis condemned machismo, meaning chauvinistic attitudes towards women, while speaking to 60 Latin American bishops in Bogotá, Colombia.
Forty women from different religious and lay backgrounds are taking part in the discussion and will attend an audience with the pope on March 9. Today, which happens to be the International Day of Women, the CAL is holding a supper with assembly participants as well as a number of female Vatican employees.
The CAL assembly builds on recent cases where the pontificate has acted in order to foster further female inclusion.
Late last year, Francis appointed two lay, female undersecretaries of the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, while also creating a commission composed of both women and men to study the viability of female deacons.
But unresolved issues remain, according to Scaraffia, including the need for female voices in the “C9” council, the pope’s group of cardinal advisers, as well as making religious and missionary women more relevant and heard when it comes to the appointment of bishops. Unless questions such as these are addressed, the Church will soon have to deal with the consequences, she added.
“The silent complacency is ending, and priests are not even aware of it,” Scaraffia said. “They don’t know that everything is about to blow up in their hands.”
Pope Francis and Women
When it comes to Francis’s role in increasing the participation of women in the Church, opinions vary from hope to disappointment. Götz praised the pope’s openness to dialogue and expressed optimism toward Francis’s concern for further female inclusion.
“I continue to hope that the pope will listen and provide leadership to overcome the Church’s outdated fear of women,” she said.
McAleese, however, said that “Francis has been a journey that has dwindled into disappointment,” and pointed to what she perceives as failures in the fight against sexual abuse and in his exhortation on the family, Amoris Laetitia, which in her opinion “changed nothing.”
Yet, according to Scaraffia, two major actions by Francis have had a deep impact concerning the role of women in the Church: the first being a concession that any priest can forgive the sin of abortion, not simply a bishop or priest specially designated by the bishop, while the second is the elevation of the feast of St. Mary Magdalene to the same level as those of the male apostles.
“The rest is words,” she said. “What’s really missing, and that the pope hasn’t gotten to yet, is listening to women, what women have to say.”