The Table

In it’s third year, the “Voices of Faith” project, hosted at the Vatican’s Casina Pio IV on International Women’s Day, brought together men and women in this Jubilee year, under the theme “Mercy Requires Courage.” I was honored to be included as a guest for the second time, and am continually grateful for the powerful platform that the Voices of Faith organizers have cultivated to bring attention to women in our Church and in the world. 

voices-of-faith1“Our speakers show that it takes courage to overcome adversity and become a leader. It takes courage to break through traditional barriers to access and provide education; to venture into war- torn countries; to help war victims believe in peace.” – Chantal Götz, managing director of Voices of Faith, an initiative of the Fidel Götz Foundation (FGF).

The first portion of yesterday’s celebrations presented powerful witnesses to women’s tenacity and strength despite every opposition. The depth of spirit and courage of these women and the witness of their experiences will continue to inspire me. I have never doubted the strength of Catholic women, and these women’s extreme circumstances and passionate resolve brought a stark and emotional reminder to the realities of many of our sisters around the world. 

For several of the speakers, the undercurrent of their story was access to education and opportunity – which often was coupled with an intervention or encounter with women religious or Jesuits. As many of us can relate: the prayerful relationships and the ministry of those on the margins is a saving grace. While we heard many “success stories” of women pursuing education, families resettled into safe housing and secure countries, speaker Cecilia Flores-Oebanda reminded us that it is, “back to the battleground…” — our work continues. Painfully, the justice in these stories seemed too isolated, often foundation-driven, and without systemic support. Several omissions were obvious, especially considering the number of times pregnancy and young mothers and brides were invoked without a sense of pressure toward the Catholic Church’s role in sexual and women’s health around the world. 

I was reminded of a brilliant paper given by theologian Nontando Hadebe during a meeting of  the “Theological Colloquium on Church, Religion, and Society in Africa,” at the Jesuit-run Hekima University College this past July. Speaking specifically about the kidnappings and violence of Boko Haram, and the Black Lives Matter movement:

“How outraged are we?… There just needs to be an institution that says no — no more! We need an institution that is outraged and that sustains that outrage as a prophetic teaching.” – Nontando Hadebe

After last year’s event I also wrote: “If only the church could institutionally and spiritually support these women in their work, and in the world. Imagine if the church hierarchy actually expressed faith in these voices.”

The second half of the afternoon was meant to “stir the pot” a bit more and focus multi-generationally and introspectively on the theme of expanding women’s leadership in the Church. Moderated by the international director of the Jesuit Refugee Service, Fr. Thomas Smolich SJ, five women had a conversation about “What women want.”

The first round of comments seemed to express a great satisfaction and pride with all of the ways women are the “heart of the Church,” working on the margins and taking leadership in their communities. A common statistic of women’s achievements in the Church was used, citing that several Catholic organizations and institutions around the world are run by women, and moreover 80% of parish work is done by women.  Dr. Carolyn Woo, president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services, USA and panelist, reaffirmed that “women’s impact is felt.”

At this time, I wrote in my notebook: “So everything is fine?”

The panel continued with some familiar but important sentiments of women feeling (or being told to feel) they are not Catholic “enough,” stories of questions and doubt in one’s faith (“Why can’t women do this?”), the realities of Catholic women feeling unwelcome. Here was an obvious absence of clear reasons why one might feel unwelcome in a parish.  However, very quickly the panel seemed to answer its own questions with the antidote that women have vital work in the church as consulters, advisors, role models, and mothers. There was great enthusiasm around possible ways to increase women’s presence through advisory appointments, consultative roles, and specific mention of the Pontifical Council for the Laity and the Family.

Living in Rome, I have come to observe this linguistic dance as “Rome double-speak” — praising women, naturally, and then engaging euphemisms about what leadership might be available without specifics. It sounds good: “visible at every level,” “women’s leadership,” but vague enough to let the listener imagine (or wish) the subtext.  In particular, the energetic remarks of Yale Divinity School student Nicole Perone, which championed that women can aspire and achieve any position in secular society, fell short in mentioning ministerial positions for women, or the “ordination requirement” to most positions of authority in the Church.

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“What women want: a multigenerational conversation on expanding women’s leadership in the Church”

Dr. Carolyn Woo then shared a powerful and frequent image of a closed door for women: women knocking, knocking, but someday “they will stop,” and we will have the silence of not knocking.  Dr. Woo then shared five points, which elevated the panel and, admittedly, broke some hearts:

  • Women in roles of authority in the Church must move from being the “exceptional to the habitual.”
  • Are women engaged as family, as guests, or as guest-workers in the Church? 
  • Are the voices of women seen as threatening or enriching?

“I think because so much of the conversation, particularly the dominant conversations and the loudest conversations, have focused on women’s ordination — which is off the table — but whenever women plead, or speak, or recommend, or propose there’s this skepticism or suspicion: Is this conversation leading to ordination? Is this a slippery slope so that everything women want is eventually to the priesthood?… I think that is unfortunate because along the way we fail to hear … the voices of the mothers, of the single mothers, of the lay pastoral associates.” – Dr. Carolyn Woo

At this point,  I was shocked at this hard line, which considering the coded language surrounding the rest of the panel, felt cruel to articulate.  Ordination for women remains an open, painful, and crucial issue for Catholics around the world. For those who care deeply about the Catholic Church, justice, and empowering women “at every level,” this anti-women speak is damaging to any collective vision and work for the equality and dignity of all women.

  • What is the feminine genius? Often it is confused with women’s sensitivity: “But what about women as social critics or social activists like Dorothy Day? What about women who are scandalous like Dorothy Day and Mary Magdalene and the woman at the well?”
  • A sense that we need to talk about women’s rights in the world, including owning land, and options outside of “being married off.” However, women should not seek titles or privileged statuses.

(What a rollercoaster!)

In an equally painful moment, Geralyn Sheehan later affirmed Woo’s point by saying that she doesn’t want to be a priest. This individual reasoning fails to grasp the broader scope of the discrimination of women in the Church, and frankly misses the point. 

While there were beautiful and empowering soundbites throughout the panel, an opportunity was lost to speak truth to questions surrounding why women (and men) leave the Church, namely by dismissing the vocation of priestly ordination (and its current link to roles of authority in the Church), skirting issues of LGBT Catholics, and omitting the reproductive healthcare of women. If women continue to speak in coded language about “what women want,” then I believe we are knocking on the wrong door. 

I encourage all of you to watch the recorded video and engage your communities in discussion. The Voices of Faith team use the hashtag: #AllVoicesCount, so in that spirit, please use that hashtag and share your reactions on social media.

Again, I am grateful for the platform Voices of Faith have continued to cultivate these past few years: it is an important witness for women everywhere and a step forward for the Vatican. We at WOC pray for the International Women’s Day where all voices count, and all issues are on the table.

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