ROME – As the world observed International Women’s Day, the Catholic Church was challenged to open more space for women in leadership, with some groups calling for access to priestly ordination and the ability to preach at Mass, as well as modifications to teachings on sexual morality.
Pope Francis himself observed International Women’s Day, celebrated annually on March 8, during his Wednesday general audience, during which he thanked women “for their commitment to building a more human society through their capacity to welcome reality with a creative gaze and tender heart.”
“This is a privilege only of women,” he said, and offered a special blessing to all women present for the event. He then asked for a round of applause for women, saying, “They deserve it!”
After giving his speech, Pope Francis met with a small group of women ambassadors to the Holy See and women representing different faith communities present at the audience, spending several minutes in conversation before moving on down the line.
Following the pope’s audience, the Australian embassy to the Holy See hosted a panel presenting two research studies on women and synodality, one of which was conducted by the University of Newcastle, Australia, and the other by the World Union of Women’s Organizations’ World Observatory for Women.
Once the reports were presented, the results were commented on by the women representatives of various faiths, including Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and Jewish communities, as well as the World Council of Churches (WCC).
Both reports reflected a general frustration on the part of Catholic women, who valued their Catholic faith and longed to be recognized for the work they do, and to have their voices heard. Most wanted to see change, but there was no common consensus on exactly what that change ought to be.
In introductory remarks, the Australian ambassador to the Holy See said they hosted the event to ensure that “women’s voices are not just heard, but listened to,” insisting that equality and social cohesion “cannot be achieved without addressing women’s inclusion.”
Maria Lia Zervino, a consecrated virgin and President of the World Union of Women’s Organizations (WUCWO), presented the first report. She is also one of three women appointed by Pope Francis last year as members of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Bishops and is a consultor with the Vatican’s Dicastery for Interreligious Dialogue.
Zervino said their report began by reaching out to women who are formally assisting in the synodal process at either the diocesan, national or continental levels for Pope Francis’s ongoing Synod of Bishops on Synodality.
As part of the initial stages, they spoke with two to three women from each continent, and expanded the process from there, sending out a survey of 10 questions to be answered anonymously by women involved in the synod process in some way.
The objective, Zervino said, was to have responses from 50 women. Since the survey was launched Feb. 1 in six languages, there have been over 400 responses, and many more are expected to come in before the survey closes on March 15.
Most participants in the survey came from western English-speaking nations in North America and Europe, with far fewer voices from Asia, Africa, and Latin America and the Caribbean.
Key questions asked women whether they felt their opinions had been listened to, and whether they had been involved in decision-making processes, as well as what obstacles and challenges they saw in terms of women’s involvement and how to implement the synod’s findings.
Most women, according to Zervino, said they felt they had been listened to and had been involved in decision-making, however, significant portions said no.
Across the board, women said most obstacles to their involvement came from ordained ministers, and the majority cited clericalism and patriarchal structures as among the biggest challenges to women’s including going forward.
Changes women participating in the survey said they wanted to see focus on changes in leadership structures that would allow women to access top positions.
Women from North America and Europe, who made up the bulk of participants in this survey, called for the female diaconate and women’s priestly ordination, as well as greater integration of “marginalized” groups in the church, such as the LGBTQ community and divorced and remarried Catholics.
Similarly, the second survey, conducted by the University of Newcastle and presented by Australian theologian and sociologist of religion and gender Tracy McEwan, who is the current vice president of WATAC (Women and the Australian Church), yielded similar results.
According to a report on results of the survey, which drew participation from around 17,200 women from 104 countries, most of which were also western English-speaking nations, some 79 percent of participants said women should be fully included at “all levels” of church leadership, and some 84 percent said reform is needed.
Most agreed that clericalism, defined as the “misuse of authority and power by male clerics,” was an underlying problem damaging the church, and many also said LGBTQ Catholics should be more fully included and respected in church life, as well as divorced and remarried Catholics, and single parent families.
The report listed 20 key findings, which highlighted the importance of the Catholic faith to those who participated, as well as frustrations in terms of some lived experiences.
Concern was voiced over the ongoing prevalence of various forms of abuse in the church, as well as the misuse of power and a lack of accountability and transparency in church leadership and governance, particularly when it came to the clerical sexual abuse scandals and financial corruption.
Racism was also a concern, and “strong support” was expressed for the “full inclusion” of women in all leadership and governance positions, with some calling for women to give homilies during Mass and advocating for women’s ordination to the diaconate or the priesthood.
Respondents also voiced their desire for greater “freedom of conscience” when it comes to sexual and reproductive decision-making, as well as greater action on issues such as climate change, economic justice, and poverty.
Participants wanted a less authoritarian and hierarchal model, but there was no consensus on change. According to the report, “most respondents sought some type of reform, there was a smaller group who were critical of change as a compromise with secular trends.”
A list of 14 recommendations included suggestions that the Catholic Church increase access for women and laity generally to leadership and decision-making roles, including “equal representation in Synods,” and that the diversity of Catholic women be more fully recognized in leadership, documents and practice.
The report also recommended that the Catholic Church change canon law to allow women to preach the homily at Mass, and to consider ordaining women to the priesthood and the diaconate. It also asked that “women’s freedom of conscience” be respected in sexual and reproductive health and decision-making.
“Immediate reforms” were also recommended for guidelines aimed at eliminating sexual, spiritual, physical, and emotional abuse and reporting these abuses to civil authorities. Provisions for greater formation and supervision of church representatives was also recommended.
The suggestion was also made for the church to develop a set of guidelines on human dignity and equality aimed at ending sexism, racism, ableism, and any other form of discrimination.
Other recommendations targeted corruption and financial mismanagement, and just wages for church workers, as well as action on issues such as poverty, climate change, war, and economic injustice.
It was also recommended that priests and bishops be prevented from preaching on partisan political issues, and that “respectful listening and dialogue” be facilitated to heal theological and ideological divisions.
McEwan said she believed the data collected during the report would be an “incredible resource” for future research and other similar initiatives.
She defended the report’s recommendations, saying that despite a lack of consensus from all participants, with some women expressing “quite conservative non-supportive views” of issues such as women’s priestly ordination and a change in Church teaching on LGBTQ issues, they were developed based on a majority consensus after close thematic analysis.
McEwan said the next step is implementation, and that she had handed the report to Pope Francis earlier that morning during his general audience.
“Pope Francis has shown in some circumstances that he’s good at listening,” she said, voicing hope that he heeds the report and its recommendations.
“When you read through responses of women who feel called to ordination, there’s a sense of despair and hopelessness, that their purpose in life cannot be fulfilled. But there are women who are educated who have risen to positions of leadership in the church who simply aren’t valued in the positions they already hold,” she said.
A first step after the surveys, then, “is perhaps to look at women who are already serving their communities in basic ways. Let’s see and acknowledge and listen to them,” she said.
Asked whether she felt she had been listened to and involved in decision-making as a member of a Vatican department, Zervino said the answer was yes, “my voice has been and is listened to.”
“I form part of a decision-making process at a high level of governance in the church,” she said, noting that her job, assisting the pope in one of his most important tasks of appointing bishops, is to meet regularly with bishops and cardinals, who she said listen to her recommendations.
Zervino voiced gratitude for her appointment, but also stressed the importance of having better preparation for women who step into leadership.
“I never in my life imagined that I would be there,” she said, saying she is learning a lot as she goes, and there ought to be better formation process “in which women can go forward until arriving at these decision-making levels.”
Responding to a question from the ambassador of Ghana to the Holy See on why women cannot be ordained priests, Zervino said there is nothing wrong with women preventing it, just as there is nothing wrong with men that prevent them from pregnancy and childbirth.
“We are different, we have different input,” she said, saying, “diversity is a richness” and she believes that Pope Francis has already taken action on many of the recommendations made.
“Not all, but many,” she said, saying, “he’s already making a fantastic journey, so let’s go forward, because we can do concrete things. We women are concrete.”
Speaking to Crux, Porro applauded McEwan’s report for highlighting a “diversity of views among Catholic women,” who she said are “too often reduced to a homogenous group that all wants one thing.”
The report also showed a convergence on issues such as participation and leadership, a more inclusive church, and an end to abuse, she said, saying the panel “was about promoting women’s voices not any particular agenda, or even religion.”
“I think the Vatican, like other religious actors, could be powerful forces for change on gender equality given their reach, involvement in education, and contribution to sustainable development,” she said.
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