ROME – This year’s Roman celebration of International Women’s Day happened to fall in a moment when Pope Francis has been drawing some fire over women’s issues, in part for using allegedly sexist language during a recent sex abuse summit and also for a perceived lack of progress on his repeated vows of female empowerment in the Church.
At a couple of high-profile Roman events for Women’s Day, however, leading women from the secular world as well as some of the highest-ranking women in the Vatican all had broadly positive things to say about Francis and the Church.
In one corner of Rome, famed Australian journalist Geraldine Doogue went to bat for major institutions, including the Catholic Church, insisting that while improvements and internal reforms may be needed, they’re fundamental to a well-functioning society.
At a separate event, three of the highest-ranking women in the Vatican said they have seen progress, praising Francis for having a keen grasp on the issue and for taking concrete steps in the right direction.
In comments to journalists after a March 8 panel marking Women’s Day, Barbara Jatta, who in January 2017 was named director of the Vatican Museums, said that while providing more leadership for women in the Catholic Church is “complex,” her overall experience “is more than positive.”
A wife, mother and accomplished art historian, Jatta said she has never felt a conflict between her family and her career, which has for the most part been spent in and around the Vatican.
“There’s talk of misogyny, but that’s because it was a completely masculine environment, so there wasn’t the attitude of having a professional relationship with women,” she said, noting that when she quit working for the Vatican library in 1996, this attitude was already changing.
Jatta spoke at a panel organized by the Opus Dei-run Pontifical University of the Holy Cross as part of an annual course for journalists covering the Vatican. She was joined by Gabriella Gambino, undersecretary for the “life” section of the Vatican department for Laity, Family and Life, and Natasa Govekar, head of the theological-pastoral office of the Vatican’s communications department.
Jatta said that in the 30 years she has spent working in the Vatican, “the role of women has radically changed.” That’s due in part to changes in society as a whole, she said, but she credited Francis with the increased presence of women in leadership roles, saying he “has in some way perceived (the changes) in our society and in our times.”
Similarly, Gambino praised Francis for comments about women he made during his recent summit on child protection, which she helped to organize.
After a speech by Linda Ghisoni, also an undersecretary in Gambino’s department, Francis said that to invite a woman to speak at such a high-profile event was not an act of “ecclesial feminism,” which he said realistically boils down to “machismo with a skirt,” but was rather a moment when he said he heard “the Church speak of itself.”
Though women in some quarters took the pope’s comments as a tad patronizing, Gambino said they “immediately resonated” for her.
“I am not a theologian or a canonist,” she said, but “I felt that he was expressing the true presence of women in the Church…he was vocalizing what I have always felt as a woman of faith, as a woman who today works in the Church and as the Church.”
Both Jatta and Govekar voiced agreement, saying Francis’s words helped clarify the “mistaken way” in which the discussion of women in the Church is at times viewed.
Gambino said that in her view, for the Vatican to function properly men and women must work together in collaboration, not competition.
“The problem of women in the Church will not be solved by the redistribution of men,” she said, “but it indicates a dutiful understanding of how to give space to the feminine originality” which Saint John Paul II called “the feminine genius,” and which she said enriches the life of the Church while respecting the different perspectives men and women offer.
Similarly, Govekar said that woman “was created to bring man to relation,” and to speak of women in the Church means trying to “illuminate men and women together.”
At another seminar organized by the Australian embassy to the Holy See, famed broadcaster in print, radio and television Deraldine Doogue, a longtime anchor for ABC Australia who’s Catholic, spoke of the rise of women in the professional sphere in Australia and the value of large institutions, including the Catholic Church, which in recent years has suffered major blows to its public image due to widespread clerical abuse scandals.
Doogue said “it’s been an exceptional few years” for Australia, which she said has been “a bit convulsed” with scandals involving several major institutions, including the Church, banks and healthcare.
Yet despite the problems with big institutions, Doogue said “they’re better than the alternatives on offer,” and questioned how to improve institutions “without undermining them.”
“Like death and taxes, we think they’ll always be there,” she said, noting that institutions are often scrutinized for their faults while the benefits they offer are taken for granted.
With much of global society becoming generally mistrustful of institutions, Doogue challenged attendees to take another look, arguing that they’re “crucial to opportunities for people at all levels of society,” including schools, universities, hospitals, the judicial system, government and even garbage pickup.
She insisted that institutions serve communities with a “forward-thinking view,” and said her experience working in large media outlets – where, she said, she had the opportunity to succeed, fail and try again with role models encouraging her along the way – is an example of how institutions can provide room for people to grow and develop with the needed resources.
“I would not be here if I’d started out in a more ruthless environment,” she said.
Speaking of recent news that Cardinal George Pell, former head of the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy and the highest-ranking prelate in Australia, was found guilty of historical sexual abuse, Doogue said the time that’s elapsed since the announcement has been “two of the worst weeks in my life.”
“I think it’s extremely demoralizing for the Australian Church,” which has been rocked not only by the Pell verdict but by years of investigation into abuse allegations by Australia’s Royal Commission, tasked with looking into institutional instances of sexual abuse, and which recently recommended that Catholic priests be required by law to break the seal of confession if they are told about abuse.
Speaking of how a reconciliation between Church and state in Australia might be possible, Doogue said that in her view, it could be time for lay people “to step up, whether or not we’re invited to, and no matter how we step up.”
She noted how the number of enrollments in Catholic schools has increased, despite the scandals. Yet the number of regular church-goers continues to drop, she said, recalling how a colleague had used the image of falling off a cliff.
“Although it’s not quite that bad, it’s pretty serious,” she said, adding that the image of the Catholic Church in Australia “is under great, great stress,” and it’s time for some “egg-breaking moments” to seek solutions.
“I’m not talking about breaking doors, I’m just talking about keeping the show on the road in a sense,” Doogue said, adding that to do this will be “quite a challenge, and it’s a big one for all of us to look at, because it is a crisis.”