On Tuesday, September 20, 2016 I was honored to be present at a special forum at the United Nations entitled, “Keeping the Faith in Development: Gender, Religion & Health”. As President of the Women’s Ordination Conference Board, I went to support the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research, as their director, Dr. Luca Badini Confalonieri, participated in this panel and presented a summary of the recently published Statement on the Ethics of Using Contraceptives.
The streets leading to the extreme east side of mid-town New York were vibrating with the kind of excitement that only the coexistence of a sunny day in Manhattan, the convening of the UN General Assembly, the President being in town, and a street bombing just two days before could produce. A similar vibration of anticipation filled the hall where we gathered to hear ten interfaith panelists discuss the intersection of human rights, religious traditions and the UN’s goals for sustainable development.
Earlier in the morning, as I boarded the train from Connecticut, I had wondered to myself if the trip was really “necessary” and within the parameters of the mission of WOC. Although the link between supporting a document that champions inviolacy of conscience and WOC’s advocacy for women whose conscience calls them to priesthood seemed important to me, I could also see that some might see this as a peripheral issue and, perhaps, even a distraction.
Once the panel presentations and discussion started, however, I was in no doubt that I should be there and that pieces of WOC’s vision and values were on the table. My eyes were opened to a much larger theater than I had imagined, where “gender equality” is not a hashtag or placard in a march, but the reality of one toilet for women in a village of 16,000 people. My notes are filled with phrases like, “religious authority”, “sustainable goals”, “promoting health care”, “culture”, “dignity”, “scientific evidence”, “human rights” – but if we could make a wordle from that afternoon, the phrase that would dominate our cluster would be “GENDER EQUALITY”. These eminent scholars, authors, religious leaders and development experts from around the globe all used the phrase and emphasized that gender equality is the transformative vision needed for all societies. While undoubtedly there would be disagreements about the process of achieving this, there was unanimity in admitting the primacy of this goal.
I left the auditorium somewhat discouraged by the enormity of the challenge, but also proud to be part of WOC’s efforts to change the oppressive hierarchical and patriarchal system of the Catholic Church. We know that not practicing gender equality in the church contributes to the contexts and cultures around the world and here in the U.S. that tolerate oppression of women in very fundamental ways. As Azza Karam, the moderator of the panel said at one point, “Faith communities are signals of hope and therefore very necessary – but this also creates a deep need to interrogate the structures of patriarchy in faith spaces.”
We can all feel proud of WOC’s forty years of “interrogation” and, as we celebrate our 40th Anniversary, we look forward to renewed efforts to take the challenge of creating gender equality in our church and world into new places of collaboration and accomplishment.
Note: For a full account of the proceedings of this event, please see Jamie Manson’s article in NCR.