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Women and the Church

La Stampa - Fri, Mar 15th 2013

« God, grant us a Pope who is holy, wise, competent, and strong"

La Stampa has collected some comments from influential women on the conclave, and on what they’d like to see during the new papacy.


Sister Maria Barbagallo, as the General Superior of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, has tackled many thorny issues. “If I had been able to talk during the congregations, I would have said that women are essential to the new evangelization started by Benedict XVI”, she explains. And adds: “We feel we are a living part of the Church even when our role is recognized. Women are freer from powers and special interests. We do not chase after positions of power”. In fact, “our service to the Church is qualified but not self-interested: I would have wanted to say to the Cardinals that women in the Church can do more”. Not only at the pastoral level, in preaching and charity, but also at the decision-making level. “We can bring Evangelical ferment with a female sensibility in order to intuit the spirit of the times”.


In fact, “Jesus always had women around, Hildegard of Bingen confronted popes, bishops and abbots”. In the US, Saint Francesca Cabrini overcame the sexist prejudices of the Church. “Still, today, if there were women in positions of power there would be fewer scandals in the Church: whether child abuses or Vatileaks”. With a maternal sense “we defend the rights of life”. Although “we can become the President of the Republic but not the Pope, we offer innovative contributions in the philosophical, spiritual, and mystical spheres”. Men often walk around problems, “we jump over the bureaucracy”. So, “the world must be looked at with the serenity of a God who is father and mother”. And she recalls: “Up until the Council, we were structured according to a monastic organization, where the vocation was measured according to the ability to obey and observe strict rules”. They were rules that, with some permits, could sometimes be changed, but “our life was still very disciplined. Vatican II introduced the crucial distinction between monastic life and apostolic life. Those indications arrived as a wind, even with a certain violence, driven primarily by North American nuns.


Lucetta Scaraffia, Professor of contemporary history at the “Sapienza” university, is responsible for the female insert of the Vatican’s daily newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano.  “In our monthly inset we give voice to those who work in various roles in the Church,” she says. “In view of the conclave, the opinion of women was not formally accepted because in the General congregations it is not permitted by the statutes, and to let women talk would require a change to the laws of the Church”. For the next conclave “it would be opportune if the Cardinals could listen to abbesses, to the general superiors of orders and to the most influential lay women”. In the Synod Room the role of women was addressed. “In society there is confusion between women’s empowerment and women’s liberation from her biological maternal destiny, while the Church has continued to defend the female specificity, that of motherhood,” she stresses. Until the twentieth century, the Church has given women more opportunities for development than the rest of society: just think of Saints or the founders of active lifestyle congregations who travelled freely and managed great amount of funds”. Then, in the last century, “the situation has been reversed and the Church today does not recognize the equality of women within it. Yet in the defence of women the Church is always at the forefront”.


And [she] adds: “The Billings method of birth control is perfectly ‘feminist’ because it is totally managed by the woman and it does not harm her health”. The changes in Western societies that have opened to women spaces that were reserved for men have caused “a revolution in the configuration of sexual roles, introducing the issue of expanding the role of women, even for the Catholic Church”.  It is a problem of equality that “the Christian tradition has seen very clearly from the very beginning, bringing it to start a revolution against the concept of sexual difference”. This radical change “is the origin of contemporary women’s revolution”.


Sister Giuliana Galli, Vice President of the Compagnia di San Paolo, has always spoken clearly to Cardinals and bankers. “The social and religious framework is shaky,” she underlines. “There is the need for certainties that do not arise from human and divine knowledge”. The Gospel is always confronted with the real world. “You cannot perpetuate the image a society from two-thousand years ago when women were ignorant, yes, but it is not that the Apostles were luminaries either”. She appeals to the Bible: “God created man and woman”. The woman is the carrier of life in the long run, “without her there would be no evolution”.


So, more than the traditions, it is the word of God that counts: “The Word became flesh”. And it became flesh through a woman. “It was women who took care of corpses; they mended the sheet and prayed on the Shroud”. Yet society and the Church “still find it hard to enhance the role of women”. Indeed, “the most reactionary and closed environments towards female participation are the Church and finance”. But a house without woman falls into disrepair, it is cold, it doesn’t breathe”. A ban on speaking to the congregations is “crystallized on who-knows-what tradition”. So the female contribution to the Church is “like good wine forgotten in the cellar”. Evangelization is fullness of life. “And who better than a woman could be witness to this fullness which brings life?” Certainly at the congregations “I wouldn’t have made ‘sentimental’ speeches: we speak of love too much these days”.  In fact, “a colossal hypocrisy has defaced the meaning of this word in the private dimension of relationships and in the public one of institutions, of the Church and of communication”. Maybe the time has come not to mention it any further, to let it be.  There is the urgent need of a lay “eleventh commandment”. That is: “Though shalt not mention love in vain to retrieve the radicalness of meaning of an abused and mistreated word”. Charity “is not a substitute for justice. It is a better dress than justice, which is a part of charity. Women know this”.


Sister Maria Trigilia, world delegate of the Salesian co-operators, sees “a problem of appropriation of the female identity”.  Although women do not enter into the conclave, “the Cardinals should also be bearers of women’s demands”. She hopes that “they will listen to the teaching of recent Popes about the ‘genius’ of women”. Religious women participate “in round-tables and meetings for the processing of ideas: the conclavists have to take this into account”. The template is there and is a half a century old. Vatican II had the appearance of a “sexist” Conference, actually after the Council nothing was like before even for the feminine universe. The 23 women who were accepted in the proceedings by Paul VI starting in 1964 were auditors, and historical research has realized the weight that these women, who were allowed into the room with a black veil on their heads and that the Synod Fathers called “mothers”, exercised in urging the Vatican II to examine the real problems of the status of women and of women’s rights. “It is also because of this that in the Catholic Church nowadays there are female theologians: thanks to the Council the male monopoly on theology ended,” she explains. I would have reminded the Cardinals that Joseph Ratzinger has delineated the presence of women. The woman’s mark is more central and fruitful than ever”. This depends on the Church’s identity, which it receives from God and accepts in faith. “It is this mystical, profound, essential identity that has to be kept in mind when thinking about the respective roles of men and women in the Church”.


Ratzinger’s lesson has to be remembered: looking at Mary and imitating her doesn’t mean orienting the Church towards a passivity based on an outmoded concept of womanhood and condemning it to a dangerous vulnerability in a world where what matters most is primarily domination and power. “The way of Christ is neither that of domination nor the one of power as it is understood by the world”. This “passivity” is actually the path of Love, it is a royal power that defeats all violence, and it is passion that saves the world from sin”.

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