The contributors and supporters of a collection of essays called, “Catholic Women Speak: Bringing Our Gifts to the Table,” gathered yesterday at the Pontifical University, Antonianum for the landmark launch of their book. The full day affair involved support from several embassies to the Holy See, and special guests Mary McAleese, Sr. Mary Melone, and Lucetta Scaraffia, one of the women invited as an observer to the upcoming Synod. Here is the program from the event, attended by about 100 people.
Originally a Facebook group, the “Catholic Women Speak,” (CWS) network was started by theologian Tina Beattie in January 2015. To date, more than 900 “self-identifying Catholic women” participate in this private forum, as a space to engage in intelligent, informed and respectful dialogue about issues relevant to the lives of women in the Church in different cultures, societies and contexts.
Over dinner in Rome in April 2015, Tina told me that she had met with a Vatican official, who suggested that there were not enough resources available on women for the Synod Fathers… (a curious consequence of an all-male clergy…) she has since quipped that perhaps he was joking, but she took on the task, nonetheless.
Within weeks, Paulist Press published this unique anthology of writings by 44 Catholic women from around the world, including well-known theologians and women telling their personal stories of faith and struggle. I only half-joke this is perhaps the most productive Facebook group ever. Here is the NCR review and the Daily Theology Blog review of the book.
As a moderator of the Facebook group, and feeling tangentially connected to the inception of the book (although not a contributor myself, just an observer to the tremendous talent), I am amazed at the intimacy that has come from this forum. Global friendships and support systems have blossomed from the CWS network. The outpouring of energy and gifts in this network is just a snapshot of the incredible loss of the hierarchal church as the result of institutionally and systematically excluding women.
The event at the Antonianum featured several panels: the Synod on the Family and Views from the Pews; Women in Church and Society: changing lives, changing roles, changing visions; Women and the Church of the Poor: speaking from the margins; and Women and the Forthcoming Synod: bringing our gifts to the table. After the panels there was an “Open Forum” where audience members were able to offer their insights and questions for the panelists, followed by a dance and musical performance. If only we had 3 weeks like the bishops to discuss these huge topics…
One of the standout presentations for me was given on the “Women and the Church of the Poor” panel by theologian Nontando Hadebe. She and I met in Nairobi this past July at a meeting of the Theological Colloquium on Church, Religion, and Society in Africa, where I first learned about the power of her narrative and theological sense. She called for contextualization and “interrogation” of our theologies, offering several points from African contexts:
- The multiplicity of family to be recognized as sacramental. The church idealizes the nuclear family, yet families are fluid and wide: “Jesus came into being in an extended family.”
- Ideals of church need to be tested in real life situations. We must test Catholic Social Teaching in the villages and with real people: “We must have reverence for life, not just reverence for what we are afraid of;”
- Violence against women and children in homes as a kairos moment for defining family in relational terms to promote equality, mutuality, and dignity. She shared the inadequate statements from the Catholic Church about “obedience” and “submission” that do not interrupt cycles of violence against women. Hadebe emphasized that in her encounters, she still tells women that the only “acceptable physical pain” in marriage for women is child birth;
- Analysis of the relationship between expressions of masculinities and violence.
Contributor Sr. Anne Arabome also shared very strong words on her panel, criticizing the practice of speaking of women as simply a “litany of beautiful words,” calling it an “insult” and “wrong” to be blind to the work of women in developing and keeping Church.
“A church that excludes women stands in the way of God.”
Former President of Ireland, Mary McAleese also offered incisive and bleak words on the Synod, calling the meeting itself, “part of the problem.” She went on to say that the family is not in crisis because of “secularism or television,” but because the Synod fathers have “battered” the modern family, so much so that families cannot go to Church together because they have been labeled, judged, and branded. As many of the women on the panels, McAleese spoke of being a mother and a grandmother, and said that a generation raised in the context and foundations of human rights law, will not stay. This sentiment was echoed during the Open Forum, when one of the contributors to the CWS book shared her anger: “I can’t believe we are having this conversation. I can’t believe I am raising my children in this Church.”
Virginia Saldanah ran into Cardinal Tagle at WOW 2015 and gave him a copy of the book.
In my work I have noticed a generation of activists and advocates who look for men to be in attendance at feminist or “women’s events.” It is a strange math for me, (even in the age of #HeforShe) as “Catholic Women Speaking,” in my mind, is not and should not be for the benefit of men. However, while this book comes from a women’s network, it is very much a tool and an attempt to speak to the men of the Synod. Contributors are asked to photograph their delivery of the book to bishops, and just one day before the Synod, organizers are still securing their way “in” to deliver the books. I struggle with this exercise, just as much as I struggle with the reality that women are not full and equal participants in the Catholic Church. But in some sense, I get the excitement, the closeness that the contributors feel, and the hope that this will make a difference. In meeting and spending time with many of the contributors from around the world, I can’t help but catch a bit of their fever.
The ongoing institutional sexism and exclusion of women and women’s experiences will not simply go away. This effort is only part of the remedy and part of the conversation that the hierarchical church must engage and reckon with. Yet I trust that the hundreds of books will find their way (from my apartment) into the hands of many of the Synod participants, and I trust it will live on far longer than the Synod. These are seeds, and we cannot know how they will grow. Many congratulations to the contributors and editors.