Virginija Langbakk – a native Lithuanian, married to a Swede – was the first managing director (2010-2020) of the European Gender Equality Institute (EIGE), the EU agency established by the European Parliament and the EU Council which has led the development of EU gender equality policy for the past decade.
Langbakk agreed to answer some questions for Novena on gender quality from the perspective of the Catholic Church.
Novena: The Catholic Church has started a debate on gender quality in the Church: to bring more women to serve in the Vatican, on local Church boards or in other services. How would you assess these attempts of Pope Francis? What else could be done?
Virginija Langbakk: Getting more women in the service of the Vatican is a good step forward. Depending on their positions, they can either bring more humanity to the mission and functioning of the Church, or their potential can be simply wasted.
Considering the broad variety of interpretations by its servants worldwide regarding the role of the Church, employing women in all Catholic countries and at all levels would give a strong and coordinated signal.
Improving your language to equally respect women and men is crucial in all sectors of human activity that are dominated by men. For the Church, which was run by men since its birth, cleaning its written and oral language from the sexism that was and is downgrading women’s status is paramount.
The ducation of priests to understand the benefit of gender equality and to respect and communicate it in their work is crucial for the future of its existence, I think.
If earlier, to be pious and to follow the word of the Church was the only model of life, today people find other, more modern advice and other religions that better answer their needs.
Finding a new face and modern communication messages that attract women and men in their complex entirety would be crucial for the Church and Pope Francis and that road can only be followed if women are an active agent of the reform of the Church.
Pope Francis, as well as the Church in general, speaks clearly against violence against women, whether at home or at work.
Do you think there is an opportunity for a more coordinated response from the Holy See towards the ever-increasing inequalities suffered by women? Would you recommend the establishment of an advisory body to the Pope in matters of gender equality?
Violence against women is rooted in gender inequality, where women are expected to be submissive to their partner, where having independence or opinion of your own is frowned upon and where family chores are placed entirely on the mother.
In a society where women are given less value and fewer chances to leave abusive partners, tolerance to violence against women is high and acts of violence are often justified as an acceptable reaction to the woman’s ‘inappropriate’ behaviour.
Efforts of one actor alone would never be sufficient to uproot this phenomenon, but the Church could contribute a lot in changing social attitudes to help uproot the acceptance of violence. It could join government services in working with perpetrators and it could support specialised shelters for victims of violence that are insufficiently funded.
The Church could be a champion in breaking the silence and encouraging people to talk about and report violence, which would enable us having a better picture of its scope.
Considering the complexity of gender inequalities and obvious lack of professional knowledge of both gender equality and violence against women among the servants of the Church, the Holy See would need a permanent advisory body to give regular advice in designing and implementing a sound response to this horrible phenomenon.
The Church is committed to seeing the role of women through the image of Mother Mary – mercy, love and care, values. In your opinion, what is the validity or otherwise of this image?
The role of care, love and mercy inside the family has always been assigned to women by the Church. This gender stereotype justifies and normalises the multiple hours of unpaid care that women are expected to handle for the family. It also supports attitudes that condemn a woman if she does not fulfill expectations. Furthermore, this stereotype punishes men who are progressive and who care for their families and want to be a part of caring and loving.
Engagement in caring for children gives men better health, decreases the pressure to work overtime and in this way releases the stress. It establishes both parents as equals in the eyes of their children and this is what the family is about.
During your time as director of EIGE, did you ever face the question of gender equality in Church? What was your most remarkable experience at EIGE?
As the Church is not a part of any formal governing structure, as far as I know, it has not been subjected to any form of the common legal framework of the EU. The level of its interference in the governing and its functioning differs in the EU member states, which makes it very difficult for the EU agencies to get engaged.
In some of our studies the influence of the Church on gender equality was noted, but actions were not taken and I believe it would be would be meaningless until the Vatican and the Pope are ready to start moving in the right direction.