ROME – As Catholic women continue to push for more leadership in the Church, at least one member of the hierarchy has said the general mindset on women must break away from antiquated categories and delve into what they actually bring to the table.

When it comes to giving women an authoritative voice in the Catholic Church, Bishop Gianrico Ruzza, one of six auxiliary bishops for the Diocese of Rome, told Crux that “there are many challenges” to confront, both from within the Church, and outside of it.

Most important, he said, “is to take the woman out of the role which has (often) been attributed to her: A role either exclusively of motherhood, or beauty.”

“Women have value in themselves, beyond whether they are mothers or not, or whether they are beautiful or not,” he said, insisting they be taken seriously.

Another challenge Ruzza flagged is to get women into more positions of governance, but he stressed that this is “not simply listening to her voice.” Rather, it means allowing a woman’s contribution to become “an integral part of the constitution of civil life. And this also includes the Church in the call for women to have co-responsibility above all in evangelization, but also in governing.”

Noting that several women have recently been appointed to more visible roles in the Roman Curia, including two women undersecretaries for the Vatican department of Laity, Family and Life, Ruzza voiced confidence that this type of leadership from women “will increasingly be possible.”

“It’s a direct assumption of responsibility. But above all, what’s important is to get out of this cliché, this cultural scheme that has relegated women into a very limited area,” he said.

Ruzza spoke at the Sept. 23 inauguration of a new diploma course on “Women and Church” offered by the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum University’s Institute of Higher Studies on Women in Rome.

Established in 2003, the institute’s aim is to advance the role of women in society through a multidisciplinary scientific evaluation of women’s identities and actions, both in the family and in the professional sphere.

The new course kicked off Monday and consists of two intensive study weeks for the fall and the spring, the first lasting Sept. 23-28, and the second Feb. 10-15, 2020. The course, which has drawn some 46 students from eight countries, will explore topics such as the differences between men and women, as well as their complementarity, and Catholic teaching on the role of laypeople in evangelizing.

It will also explore canon law, specifically looking at definitions of power, and will evaluate the role of women from the theological, scriptural, psychological and anthropological perspectives, among others.

Although for years discussion on women’s inclusion in the Catholic Church has primarily been focused on the ordination of women to the priesthood – with pressure for women’s ordination increasing when Francis stepped on board, as well as calls for a more “incisive” presence of women in the Church – the course will offer a broader look at the issue.

Francis established a commission to study the women’s diaconate, but he has consistently said — like his predecessors — that the door to women’s ordination is closed.

For organizers of the course and students who participate, the real question is: What does women’s inclusion look like concretely, if not the priesthood?

Speaking at the inauguration of the course, the director of the institute, Marta Rodriguez, said the inspiration came from a shared desire among faculty “to do something to help women in the Church and to help the Church discover its feminine face.”

In comments to Crux, she said this does not mean reducing a woman’s role “to a job or a function,” but goes deeper. “Women can carry out functions, but they are not reduced to functions,” Rodriguez said, adding that in her view, the presence of women “brings a perspective that is lacking in many environments.”

For this to change, both Ruzza and Rodriguez said drastic cultural and psychological shifts are needed, not only inside the Church, but also in terms of how wider society views women.

In his speech at the inauguration, Ruzza called for greater respect for women in general, noting that in many countries, including Italy, “unacceptable abominations” continue to be prevalent, including emotional and verbal abuse of women, physical violence, sexual abuse and in some cases, genital mutilation.

In Italy, violence against women is a widespread problem, with several national campaigns aimed at ending domestic violence. According to figures from Istat, the national statistics agency, Italy has the highest femicide rates in Europe, with 149 women murdered in 2016 alone. Some 27 percent of women in Italy have reported some form of physical or sexual violence since the age of 15.

Ruzza also spoke of the problem of prostitution, insisting that in Italy, “this is a problem we have never seriously faced in this country because of the number of clients.”

The bishop insisted that discrimination is also present in religious life and stressed that the Church “must continue doing its part” to urge greater respect for women and to create spaces for them in leadership.

What is needed, he told Crux, is “to rethink the Church and theology with the feminine spirit and to rethink it with feminine categories,” focusing not only on the qualities of women saints, but also those who lead and govern.

Also speaking to Crux, Rodriguez noted that generally speaking, women “don’t always feel listened to by the Church or that they can give their input to the Church.”

To overcome this, “there is a big mentality that needs to be changed,” she said, noting that the Second Vatican Council offered extensive reflections on the role of every baptized person in evangelizing, “but this is still not seen” in the Church’s practice.

“To me it seems like there are many cultural barriers that need to be overcome; a clerical mentality Pope Francis speaks about a lot, and which is part of the difficulties in realizing the renewal that the Church needs,” she said, adding that in her view, while there are some practical changes that need to be made, “a large part of the gap is cultural.”

Follow Elise Harris on Twitter: @eharris_it

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