The Table

The Pontifical University Antonianum, with the Embassies of Chile, Great Britain, the United States, and the delegation of the European Union to the Holy See hosted a full-day program on Tuesday 28 April, titled: “Donne nella Chiesa: Prospettive in dialogo.”  The event was in Italian and Spanish (except for two presentations in English). 

Sister Mary Melone, the first woman appointed as rector of a Pontifical University (Antonianum), welcomed nearly 150 people from 30 countries to the packed auditorium, uniting the group together by declaring our common love for the Church and our love for women.


Sr. Melone acknowledged that this is an audacious meeting, noting the prophetic nature and witness of women, but should be considered along the conversational lines of the recent “Women’s Culture’s” gathering from the Pontifical Council on Culture, and Pope Francis’ call for greater spaces for women in the Church. However, she emphasized, these conversations have been “in the pipeline” for some time now, (although unacknowledged in official circles), and we need to “be concrete” in our ways and means for greater roles for women in our Church: “this can no longer be postponed.”

Sr. Melone continued to say that these changes cannot be simply offering functionary roles to women, but must be complex and developed through dialogue. When we rethink the role of women in the Church, she said, men must also rethink their role in the Church.  Women can no longer be “mere guests,” for women are “drivers of change,” in the Church and the world.   

Cardinal Ravasi, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture, followed Sr. Melone by giving an ill-suited presentation of historical, Biblical and cultural sexism, offering damaging and uncomfortable quotes about women. He claimed that we must “go beyond” historical analysis, as “history should judge the past,” and our outlook must be for the future. It seem like this is something he thought the audience would want to hear.

However, he deepened his discussion by calling for an essential analysis about the “delicate” question of women, including: identity and difference; human nature; biogenetics; neurological differences; and cultural. Ravasi took this opportunity to tangentially talk about the “nightmare” of the “theory of gender” today, citing that in Australia there are 23 different genders, and on Facebook upwards of 50 options. This echoes harmoniously with some of Pope Francis’ strange proclamations on gender, likening it to “nuclear war,” at times.

Ravasi returned to his theme of an outdated past by acknowledging that history has eliminated women: “who knows what we have lost because of this!” He concluded with an outlook for the future, without a hint of how.

Then, my new personal hero, Professor Cettina Militello took to the stage with her prepared speech on models of the past and how we can carry them into the future. She said, what the Cardinal has just shared is Biblical misogyny, but we are far more interested in a discipleship of equals, the partnerships shared between the original apostles.  “A society of discrimination cannot be the society visioned by (Jesus) who removed all discriminations”

Militello deviated slightly to address the Cardinal’s understanding of gender, and called his presentation the “radicalization of theories of gender— a demonization of gender” — and attributed these attitudes to several of the last papacies.  She explained gender is not about the number of “types” of gender, but is to be consider an expression of nature, not a threat to nature. Confusion and fear around gender come from changing societal and cultural roles ascribed to men and women. Militello described that “gender theory” properly understood offers the advantage of acknowledging the phenomenon of humanity working together, rather than “constitutional identities.”

Full Panel

Cettina Militello, Cardinal Ravasi, Ambassador Michelle Bachelet, Sr. Mary Melone (L-R)

The bulk of her presentation truly captured me. She named our “new” openness to women, as an openness “not without shadows,” and combed through various Vatican documents where in some places they condemn sexism or acknowledge women’s increasing roles in society, but uphold damaging stereotypes of women and the sexism of the “founding fathers”; “the unfinished business of the Year of the Woman” in 1975; Ordinatio Sacerdotalis; Inter Insigniors and their devastating results.  I scribbled what I considered soundbites and themes, that I will share here. Hopefully her full presentation will become available:

  • Inequality has a religious context that is not just held by fundamentalists.
  • As Christians we are equal in our baptism – and must be equal in the fullness of the Eucharist. The subordination of women reflects the misogyny of the “founding fathers.”
  • There have always been women carrying out ministries with unique qualities; women have always had the gift of prophecy.
  • Any effort to safeguard “women’s nature” is an attempt to safeguard male authority.
  • When only men can reflect the Christ and women can only reflect “the feminine,” we become defined by our sex, not our humanity.
  • Women cannot just supplement the ministries of men. People suggest women to become secretaries of pontifical councils, undersecretaries, but these are not yet leadership roles. Women must be liturgically tasked: women are called to play a role.
  • It is an abused stereotype to say that women are different at an ecclesial level.
  • Ordination needs development in our church. It cannot be just a claim to power, but we need a reformation of the Church that removes obsolete models of power.
  • We must move from subordination to co-responsibility.

I tried to take pictures of Cardinal Ravasi during this presentation, but it was hard to capture his discomfort completely.

Following a short break we came back for a panel, moderated by Flaminia Giovanelli, the only woman secretary of a Pontifical Council (Justice and Peace), and featuring 5 women from different regions of the world. Giovanelli spoke only briefly, but called for women’s contributions to the Church to be considered an advantage, and women must follow their vocations and be who they are called to be. 

Africa: Sr. Gloria Wirba (Cameroon)

Latin America: Carolina Del Rio (Chile)

USA: Sr. Carol Keehan

EU: Maria Giovanna Ruggieri (Italy)

Asia: Sr. Helen Leung (China)

The presentations of the panelists were all very strong, some more general than others. I found Carolina del Rio’s presentation especially illuminating, as she described the dual forces of Machismo and Marianism in Latin America. Del Rio also spoke adamantly against the “exaggeration of motherhood,” and the need to rework our symbolism to include the many roles that women play. She noted that any solution cannot be simply magisterium focused, and suggested efforts to “talk less on women and more with women.”

Sr. Carol Keehan and Flaminia Giovanelli

Sr. Carol Keehan and Flaminia Giovanelli

Sr. Carol Keehan began her presentation by acknowledging that it is hard for Catholics in the U.S. grasp that we are only 6% of a global church (admittedly, something that I have been thinking about as my perspective of the U.S. Church shifts in light of greater distance). Sr. Keenan admitted that she doubted anyone cares what at 71 year old sister thinks, so she surveyed and spoke with high school and college girls and women from Georgetown and DePaul Universities. (Something perhaps more “decision-makers” in the Church ought to do…)

She found the students love Pope Francis, but are looking for more meaningful, decision-making roles for women in the Church: the church is “only using half of its talent” and “undervaluing God’s gifts.”

Taking this research, Sr. Keehan offered a few points on the “how” question – how to increase roles for women in the church. Getting the “o”-word out of the way, she began by suggesting that ordination is not essential for every leadership role. (Moving on….)

  • We must abandon tokenism – women cannot continue to be listened to or participate in “second class” roles
  • Many of the students she spoke with expressed frustration about being excluded from “decision about issues with which they have experience: marriage, family.” These decisions are being made without the input of women from the Vatican to their parishes. Can there not be a Synod of Women? A Synod of Families?

IMG_4288She concluded by reemphasizing that “our Church is better served when the gifts of men and women are used.”  Any changes must be accompanied by prayer, dialogue, discernment, and a willingness to do this differently.

The afternoon was filled with language “working groups” discussing and developing ideas heard in the morning sessions.  As events “on women” seem to be trending now around Rome, this was by far one of the more thoughtful and authentic I have attended or read about.  We await the day when this is not newsy nor novelty, but today I think we can applaud that a public conversation — largely “on women,” by women — happened at a Pontifical University, with many diplomats and leaders in the Church present. I genuinely sense a greater comfort around Rome in claiming and vocalizing the need for decision-making roles, authority, and a rethinking of power structures to include women. While these conversations may seem typical or tired to many readers, I celebrate this as an effort at the Vatican level to mainstream discussions of women and gender. 

(All photos by Patrizia Morgante, used here with permission)