ROME – Italian journalist Lucetta Scaraffia, the former editor of a monthly women’s insert for the Vatican newspaper, has published a new novel highlighting women’s role in the Catholic Church and which features a woman cardinal as one of the main protagonists.

“Today the problem of women is one of the most serious and urgent in the Church,” Scaraffia told Crux in an interview, adding that she chose to write a novel because, “you can say things that are more difficult to convey in books and articles.”

Scaraffia launched the “Women Church World” supplement to the Vatican’s newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, in 2012, however, she and 10 other members of the editorial board resigned in 2019, complaining of a loss of autonomy.

Earlier this year she published a new novel called, La Donna Cardinale, or “The Woman Cardinal,” which recounts the story of Pope Ignatius, a native of Guatemala, who after his election faces the opposition of a curia hostile to his efforts to reform the so-called Vatican Bank.

As curial officials plot the pope’s death, Ignatius names a woman as the Vatican’s Secretary of State and makes her a cardinal in order to seal the vision of his reform. He is also assisted by nuns who overhear the plots to overthrow the pope, which are often made at dinners the nuns serve.

Scaraffia stressed that her novel is not advocating for women priests but is rather aimed at showing the importance of women’s participation in Church leadership.

“I have never been in favor of the women’s priesthood, which to me seems like a further step toward the clericalization of the Church,” she said, insisting that women “must be listened to and must participate in governing the Church as laity.”

Up to the publication of the 1917 version of the Code of Canon law, which stated that only priests or bishops could be named cardinals, laity were also allowed a red hat, she said, adding that offering the crimson biretta to women could provide them “a dignity equal to that of men and managerial roles.”

Scaraffia, widely viewed as one of the most influential women when it comes to Vatican affairs, has long spoken out on women’s issues in Catholicism, however, she said her time overseeing “Women Church World” gave her a closer look at the reality that women religious, in particular, face.

“I discovered the reality of the sisters, a fascinating reality of intense lives, strongly committed to evangelization and capable of a creativity and courage that are rarely revealed in male religious,” she said. “But I also discovered their humiliating conditions, such as their lives as women of service – even religious with doctoral degrees or rich pastoral experience.”

Many of these women religious, she said, were also victims of sexual abuse, and oftentimes the abuse was followed by an abortion.

“It is precisely due to the abortions commissioned and paid for by clergy that this scourge of abuse is even more hidden and neglected than the abuse of minors,” she said, but acknowledged that things are changing, and that across the world, more women religious are coming forward with complaints when they have been abused.

One important step Scaraffia said has benefitted all women, and not just women religious, was Pope Francis’s decision in 2015 for his Jubilee of Mercy to allow all priests to absolve the sin of abortion.

Prior to that edict, abortion had been considered a “reserved sin,” which could only be absolved by a bishop, or a priest whom the bishop had designated.

Although it will never be known how many women came forward to confess having had an abortion after Francis changed the norm, Scaraffia insisted that “in the life of the Church symbolic matters count a lot.”

The symbolic value of this move, she said, is that “women are no longer reported as potential sinners even more guilty than a murderer, who has always been able to confess to any priest. And this is very important for all women.”

She also advocated for allowing women to have a stronger voice during Synods of Bishops, but said the main impediments currently preventing women from fully participating in the life of the Church “are above all linked to customs, to a traditional mentality that must be overcome.”

As an example, she noted that there is no rule preventing women from being named members of the pope’s “senate,” or his Council of Cardinals advising him on Church reform and governance.

In her view, Scaraffia said the presidents of international religious organizations “could and should participate; competent and responsible women elected by women religious themselves. Why has no one thought about us?”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen