(By Lucetta Scaraffia, Italian historian and journalist, former director of Donne Chiesa Mondo, the feminine supplement of official Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano)

Some historians, questioned in recent months by the crisis that the Catholic Church is going through, have recalled that in its millenary history this institution has been deeply renewed every 500 years, finding again a new capacity to spread its message and to influence the social fabric of that time and of successive centuries.

It seems that precisely in the last few years we have reached the right moment for a new change, five centuries after that key moment of the fracture of Western Christianity between Catholics and Protestants, a break that has contributed to generating great flows of renewal for both parts.

When examining the current conditions, and when identifying and proposing active and creative currents of change within the institution, curiously, women are not taken into account, even though they are an essential, if silent, presence in the Catholic community.

Although the historians mentioned point out precisely in the currents flowing from the grassroots, and not from the clerical and intellectual elites, the possibility of an innovative impulse, today everyone speaks of young people, immigrants, recently evangelised peoples, but without gender distinctions.

In other words, these intellectuals seem to be unaware of the great crisis that is shaking the institution in Western countries: that is, the enormous distance between a society where women have achieved equality with men and a community – that of the Catholic Church – where they are not respected, where their word is not heard and their abilities are restricted only to menial tasks.

In short, a community where women live in a state of inferiority that mainly affects, as is obvious, religious women.

The absence of women in relevant places [in the Church – ed.] is considered so consubstantial to the Catholic world that even from outside almost nobody questions it: this situation is taken for granted not only in the present but also for the future.

However, it is a serious mistake: within the Church, women are reacting in different ways, becoming aware of their situation of marginalization and, above all, of the deep injustice of the place of inferiority to which they have been relegated. It is an injustice in terms of what Jesus teaches in the gospels.

Indeed, the first rebellion of women was the intellectual one, that is, against their exclusion from the study and the commentary of the sacred texts.

Women’s access to exegesis, which came in the 1970s as an effect of the Second Vatican Council, meant the discovery of the plentiful female presence in the evangelical narrative: although transmitted by men, the life of Jesus revealed his revolutionary attention to the women who followed him, with whom he met (for example, the Samaritan woman) and even the frequency with which he held up poor and marginalised women (widows and prostitutes) as an example for powerful and cultured men.

They were obvious aspects, in everyone’s eyes, but they had not been read them for what they were; that is, proof of the restorative glance that Jesus gave women in a rigidly patriarchal society.

It was the female academics who discovered these aspects, empowering female Christians to claim, in short, a respected and recognised role in the Church.

The internal battle, carried out by combative and tenacious minorities, has as its objectives, in the first place, the access of women to positions of responsibility and power, and almost always the request of priestly ordination where clerical power resides. It’s a demand to which the institution has always had a strong negative response.

Are we sure that this demand is the right way to change things?

Women’s access to the priesthood, in a strongly clerical structure, runs the risk of clericalising them also, of cancelling their innovative edge; in short, of perpetuating a system that no longer works.

The roads to travel are others, all yet to be discovered.

In these years of intellectual ferment many religious congregations emancipated themselves from ecclesiastical guardianship, thus creating spaces of autonomy and, in some way, taking distance – albeit tacitly – from ecclesiastical hierarchies.

Thus they opened very interesting innovative paths, but those remained in the margins, ignored by the official life of the Church. That did damage to the entire Catholic community.

This underground but real unrest is accompanied by the growing fall in female vocations – especially women religious in active life, considered by today’s young women as “servants of the priests” – and this phenomenon in the coming years will empty the Church of an indispensable reserve of work, of humble and tenacious commitment, and especially of tangible examples of Christian conduct.

However, it does not seem that ecclesiastical hierarchies realise, accustomed as they are to not noticing women beyond considering them a silent army of humble helpers who will always be there.

On the contrary, a profound transformation is taking place.

Young nuns are no longer willing, in general, to do domestic work for free, without a timetable or vacations, serving priests or ecclesiastical organisations.

Above all, they do not want to accept a life of mortifications for an all-powerful clergy that considers them their right and, not infrequently, as sexual objects.

The appearance for the first time of clear complaints about these abuses was revealed as the tip of an iceberg; that is, as a structural phenomenon spread not only in the poorest countries, but also in the most advanced ones, a situation allowed by the condition of marginalisation in which nuns live.

Reporting these situations is the first step for all women in the Church to find dignity and respect.

Something today is changing in the world of nuns, and changing deeply: on the one hand, rebellion in the face of a condition of oppression and contempt; and on the other, the emergence of feminine ways of evangelising, of active intervention against certain frightening realities such as human trafficking; also emerging is a new biblical exegesis that enriches the traditional and banal manner with which the male clergy disseminates the evangelical spirit.

From women – from women who work in the Church as laypeople – a profound change can come that can put an end to a fossilised clerical power with hypocritical tendencies, which is otherwise being renewed only superficially.

In the Church, but also outside it, few realise that.

In fact, widespread is the opinion that Pope Francis’ great symbolic gestures in favor of women is enough to meet the needs of change – gestures such as the proclamation of Mary Magdalene as apostle just like the male apostles, or the end of serious injustices that made abortion a sin that only bishops could forgive.

The beautiful homily that the Pope delivered on the first day of 2020, centred on Mary, was also positively valued when he affirmed that the body of a woman is sacred because it is the site of motherhood, the encounter between God and man.

That was undoubtedly a positive way to rehabilitate women’s bodies, so often considered in the Catholic tradition as a source of temptation and sin.

Beautiful and timely words that certainly – or let’s hope so – can bring about the long hoped-for change in the sexist mentality that prevails in the Church.

But they are always words, only words. Concrete women – with their demands, with their intelligence and their desire for participation and respect, who want to be heard and not spoken for by men of power – are never there.

One example made a particular impression on me: a few hours before his homily on Mary, the Pope reacted sharply to the attempt, clearly inopportune, of an Asian woman who tried to stop him to speak to him while he greeted the faithful after visiting the manger in St. Peter’s Square.

The video went viral and the Pope humbly apologised after the Angelus on the first day of the year, but without apologising in person to the woman. He apologised, in general, for having lost patience and set a bad example.

It is understandable; it happens to all of us. But that woman who came from far away and who was surely there for hours for the chance to speak to him did not receive a word of apology. Concrete women do not exist.

On the other hand, the anathema that the Pope pronounced against those who desecrate a woman’s body by subjecting her to sexual abuse remains an empty invocation when it is not followed up by a strict controls, including within the Church: when they do not open investigations and punishments are not doled out to those guilty of the sexual abuse of religious women.

A few days later, at the end of the speech to the diplomats, the Pope cited the fourth United Nations World Conference on Women, which took place in Beijing in 1995, in the hope that it could end all forms of injustice towards women.

“Acts of violence and exploitation directed at women are not merely wrong; they are crimes that destroy harmony”, he said.

But the Holy See was the only nation that did not sign the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. A document that should inspire states for a new path of respect between the sexes and fight against discrimination against females.

Only a brave intervention by women can lead the Church to move from words to deeds. And to put an end to a position that in theory is high, but which in practice reveals precisely the opposite.

(Source: Lucetta Scaraffia – Italian historian and journalist, former director of Donne Chiesa Mondo, the feminine supplement of official Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano – in Revista Criterio; translation: Novena)

Novena, with the women of the world on International Women’s Day:

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Progressive Catholic journalist, author and educator. Working on social justice, equality and Church renewal.