ROME – From Vatican departments to British foreign offices, women speaking at a conference in Rome March 5 know a thing or two about making their way in a male-dominated workplace.
Progress has been made, they agreed, but there are still miles to go before anyone sleeps.
“I have seen awareness of the role of women grow in the Holy See,” Flaminia Giovanelli, former undersecretary of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Integral Human Development, told participants, but “surely, as in civil society, a lot still needs to be done.”
The conference, titled “Women as Bringers of Hope,” was promoted by the Global Union of Female Catholic Organizations in collaboration with the British and Peruvian embassies to the Holy See to celebrate the United Nations’ International Day of Women, which occurs March 8.
Giovanelli worked in the Vatican for 30 years before being appointed to the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, which she described as a “place of responsibility in a predominately male universe.” Already a veteran and insider of Vatican dynamics, she became the first lay woman to hold such a position, previously held exclusively by clerics.
Though Giovanelli said that her promotion “did not seem to be so important to me at the time,” she described a certain “hostility” and “suspicion” at Vatican meetings fueled by the innovations introduced during the Second Vatican Council, which she inadvertently came to represent.
She was counseled to respond by being “twice, three times nicer” to those who opposed her, adopting a “kill them with kindness” approach which, in many ways, was a staple for many women attempting to succeed anywhere in the ’70s, including the Vatican.
Outsider advocacy groups, such as “Voices of Faith,” have put forward a very different kind of female leadership, one that is willing to respond unabashedly to hostility by clergy members and for this reason, perhaps, destined to remain outside the Vatican walls.
Last year, a Voices of Faith yearly conference on March 8 was moved from inside the Vatican to an outside location due to the participation of women critical of the Church hierarchy (and even Church teaching), among them former Irish President Mary McAleese.
This year the group has opted for an online petition, criticizing the fact that while 50 percent of Catholics worldwide are women, only 7 women have been appointed to key roles in the Vatican since 1967. One is Giovanelli, who sees in the growing sexual abuse crisis within the Church a ripe opportunity for the inclusion of women.
“These recent scandals have created a crisis within the Church, and I believe that in this aspect women have a lot to contribute,” she told Crux in an interview after the conference.
According to Giovanelli, the recent summit of heads of bishops’ conferences that took place at the Vatican Feb. 21-24 was “very important” and demonstrated an openness to addressing issues that were considered “taboo” not so long ago.
“When I was a girl there were things that we simply did not talk about,” she said, adding that “perhaps today we talk about them too much” and that “a balance must still be found.”
It’s important, Giovanelli said, that the summit “not stop at the organizational level” and the inclusion of women in seminaries and formation become a fundamental aspect to providing priests with a “fully rounded” preparation.
“Being discreet” is the advice Giovanelli has for women attempting to break into Vatican positions, which strikes a very different tone from the calls to accountability, transparency and openness often directed at the Catholic Church and its hierarchy.
“Speed” is a word rarely used in connection to the Vatican, especially at a time when “discernment” and “collegiality” are very much in vogue, but a look at other secular and Catholic institutions also shows a glacial pace in promoting female leadership roles.
“A lot of women work at Caritas,” said Martina Liebsch, Policy and Advocacy Director at Caritas Internationalis, “but this is not reflected in leadership positions.”
Only 22 percent of directors at Caritas are women, she said, a disproportion that is also reflected the number of women in parliament around the globe (24 percent). Of the almost 200 countries on the planet, only 25 are led by women.
Sally Axworthy, the British ambassador to the Holy See, was one of the few – if not the only woman employed in the United Kingdom’s foreign office when she began 30 years ago. Today, she told attendees at the conference, women represent 30 percent of the country’s Head of Missions across the Foreign Office network .
“We see women as very much part of the solution,” she said, adding that the British government found an endless resource in the global network of religious sisters for the prevention of sexual violence and fighting human trafficking.
When it comes to Latin America, the non-inclusion of women would mean losing “the strength of being renewed and reborn,” said Marìa Elvira Velasquez Rivas-Plata, Ambassador of Peru to the Holy See.
“We’ve made progress,” she said, but “statistical data show that despite all of the challenges that have been taken up there are still many more to tackle.”