Women at the Holy See

HRH The Duchess of Gloucester meeting the Sisters at the Pontifical Scots College. St Andrew’s Day 30 November 2012

As we reflect on International Women’s Day, it seems clear to me that one of the tasks awaiting the successor to Benedict XVI will be to explore how the Holy See, and the Roman Catholic Church, can use better the talents, energy and loyalty of the women in its ranks.

Anyone who works with the Holy See network will be aware of the vital role played by women religious in almost every aspect of Church life on the ground and across the world, be it in education, development work, health care, managing parishes, supporting Papal nuncios, or spreading the word about the faith.

There are over 720,000 religious sisters active across the world, and over 26,000 further members of female secular institutes, often working in conditions of great hardship. And, of course, there are many more female lay members of the Church, committed to the future of their Church and their faith.

I have come across many women doing wonderful jobs here in Rome.

Those with whom this embassy works include Sister Helen Alford, Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the Angelicum University. Sister Jane Livesey, Superior General of the worldwide Congregation of Jesus – the Mary Ward Sisters. Sister Eugenia Bonetti, running the human trafficking network of the Union of Italian Mothers Superior.

I have recently discussed UN issues with Dr. Francesca di Giovanni and Prof Jane Adolphe in the Secretariat of State, and have worked on climate change with Dr Flaminia Giovanelli, Under Secretary in the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. English speaking listeners of Vatican Radio will know well Philippa Hitchen, one of the key anchors of the global Vatican Radio service.

Ecumenists have much to thank Professor Donna Orsuto, Director of the Lay Centre. And the global Caritas Internationalis development and aid network is indebted to their Policy Director here in Rome, Dr Martina Liebsch.

We celebrate them all on 8 March, and the other women working for the common good on behalf of the global Catholic Church. And yet the public face of the Holy See, and the Roman Catholic Church, remains predominantly male. Stating that is not meant to be a criticism, but it is a fact.

I wonder whether the Holy See is doing all it might to mobilise this great resource – Catholic women worldwide? No society can afford not to do so.

8 Responses

  1. Anne Carthy says:

    Great to see these wonderful women recognized Ambassador. Thank you for taking the time to reflect and share.

  2. Frances Orchard says:

    I am delighted that Nigel Baker has identified the superb work many Catholic women are doing in the Church globally, and even in Rome where their presence is usually unacknowledged. Having lived in Rome recently with our generalate team for nine years, I know what it is like to be an invisible, anonymous human being.

  3. Mary Esquivel says:

    Thank you for your concern regarding women’s participation in the Church. Britain is a nation renowned for its love of freedom and its history respecting women’s rights (the same, unfortunately, cannot be said for the Catholic Church).

    One important correction to your comments, however. The face of the Church is not predominately male. It is exclusively male. Church structure functions in accordance to a single theology: Paul’s Body of Christ theology, where women are the body of the correlative male head who speaks and acts for them. Paul’s injunctions “women be silent” and “women be submissive” are logical derivatives from the male-head/female-body theology.

    These directives are still applied literally in the Church. No matter how high ranking in Church organization, women are essentially subordinate (as opposed to men who are only circumstantially subordinate). Women can speak and act in the Church only as approved by a hierarch who ultimately can only be male.

    Women’s essential silence and subordination (vis a vis circumstantial male silence and subordination) constitutes a violation to the human dignity of women as rational-decision making human beings (speech and action are natural manifestations of reason and will, the two faculties that characterize us as human as opposed to animals).

    This violation of the human dignity of women, infringes article 1 of the United Nations Convention Elimination Discrimination Women which defines discrimination as “any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, by women, …on the basis of equality between men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field” (religious sphere would be one such field), It also infringes the Vatican II Pastoral Constitution. No. 29 states that: “With respect to the fundamental rights of the person, every type of discrimination, whether social or cultural, whether based on sex, race, colour, social condition, language or religion, is to be overcome and eradicated as contrary to God’s intent).”

    This has been brought to the attention of Benedict XVI. Alternative theologies are available for restructuring the Church for the participation of women as vocal, active and non-subordinated. He did nothing about it.

  4. Maggi Forte says:

    Re Benedict’s inaction…I strongly doubt that any of the current crop of cardinals, all selected by Wojtlya or Ratzinger, will provide any changes to the status-quo. the Church needs an overhaul but the powers-that-be are not going to make any waves, especially when it comes to recognizing women as more than ‘handmaidens’…and that’s a shame…as well as one of the reasons so many are leaving…

  5. Joan Agnessini says:

    Women totally dominate the Church. The “hierarchy” may be male. Look around at ANY parish, everything else is dominated by women, from education to music to the liturgy to financial decisions to the parish council. The priest does not function in a vacuum, he is dependent on all these women if he wants to do just about anything. I have seen parishes and programs rise and fall due to the machinations of women. Women are conniving, gossiping, and backbiting. God forbid they get even more power than they now have. I am a woman.

  6. Alisa Reablerthirun says:

    Isn’t the Roman Catholic Church so pro-female as the Rosary has 10 beads to pray to Mary but only one to pray to God the Father? That speaks volumes! Roman Catholics hardly talk about Jesus Christ except during the Holy Week. The RCC is heavily laden with lithurgy, tradition but very light on the Gospel (Jesus Christ who was born, crucified, buried, rose again the 3rd day, is coming back again) preaching it everywhere so people will be saved so assured that when they die they will go to heaven. Ask a RC if he/she is assured he/she will go to heaven as soon as she/he closes his/her eyes in death!

  7. Mary Esquivel says:

    To Maggi: Thank you. There may, in fact, come a point when many others of us will also feel that we have no option but to leave. It is very difficult to remain in a Church like ours knowing that we are aiding and abetting an organization that violates our human dignity as thinking-volitional human beings on par with men, knowing, as well, that nothing significant is being done to put in place alternate theologies and structures that recognize women as non-subordinated human beings.

    To Joan: The issue is juridical, not pragmatic. What happens in the particular parishes of your experience is irrelevant to the fact that the equality in human dignity due to both women and men is violated by current Church structure. Women are essentially silent and subordinate in that structure, men are only circumstantially silent and subordinate, despite the fact that the dignity of women on par with men is an inalienable human right. A religious system may fail to recognize that right (i.e.: the Holy See is not a party to the appropriate UN conventions) but that does not mean the right does not exist. It means the Church is infringing that right.

    To Alisa: Unfortunately, the Church is only pro-submissive-female. It will exalt and revere women who are silent and obedient and fulfill patriarchal stereotypes (following the personality the clergy have projected onto Mary of Nazareth). It condemns women who reject the supposition that those personality traits are essential to them as women, as opposed to men.

    • Nigel Baker says:

      Thank you all for your interesting comments, let us now close this particular debate on this platform