My House, My Rules: 3 Women Speakers “Rejected” From Women’s Day Event at Vatican (on Full Inclusion of Women in the Church)

Image courtesy Women of Faith.

Why is this International Women’s Day in the Vatican different from virtually every other International Women’s Day in the Vatican? It isn’t. Women still have no power to make and implement decisions. The proof is painful, but clear.

For the past four years on March 8th, Voices of Faith (VoF), a project of the Liechtenstein-based Fidel Götz Foundation, has held a symposium on women inside the Vatican. Chantal Götz is the project’s director. This year, the theme is “Why Women Matter,” for which the answer seems to be, they don’t.

The group’s goal is “to bring together leaders in the Vatican with the global Catholic community, so they can recognise that women have the expertise, skills, and gifts to play a full leadership role in the Church. Why does the Church continue to deny women that right based purely on gender? We amplify the capability of women in education and programs of social transformation, especially in areas of marginalisation and extreme poverty. Above all we showcase the enormous and under-utilised potential of women to exercise leadership at all levels of the Catholic Church.” The Vatican’s decision to prohibit the participation of some of their invited speakers provided all the data needed to show the importance of their mission.

The first four meetings have featured speakers from around the world talking about relatively safe topics like immigration and education. Planners have studiously avoided the sticky wickets of women’s ordination, abortion, and same-sex love, not to mention the elephant in the Sistine Chapel, which is Catholic women’s lack of jurisdiction or decision-making in the church.

This approach, facilitated by the fact that the women in charge have (and/or have access to) considerable financial resources and clerical friends in ecclesial high places, has been touted as an inside strategy. Feminist groups like Women’s Ordination Conference, the Catholic pro-LGBTQ group Dignity, Catholics for Choice, and many other member groups of Women-Church Convergence have never had a prayer of getting a toe inside the Vatican for meetings. There’s an argument to be made about needing multiple strategies to change a two-thousand-year-old institution. But VoF women have now come up against the reality of male-only decision-making that Catholic feminists have been trying to change for decades.

The live-streamed sessions of Voices of Faith reveal cordial meetings of women articulating their values and hopes in front of modest sized audiences. But even in the short few hours of focus on women there is the odd choice to have men, especially Jesuits, lead panels, make opening remarks, etc. On the one annual occasion when the focus is on women by women these valiant efforts to avoid any suggestion of turning the gender tables for even a moment are understandable. But I’m not sure in the long run they’re very helpful unless the men involved take principled stances when needed. Where were they this time?

This fifth year, Cardinal Kevin Farrell, an Irish-born American who began his theological studies with the Legion of Christ whose leader Marcial Macial went down in sexual abuse flames, thwarted these women’s polite and inclusive efforts. Mr. Farrell rejected three of the announced speakers without apparent comment.

That the names were submitted to him in advance—perhaps a regular practice in earlier years even though allegedly no one was rejected—begins to show just how expensive Vatican real estate can be. Since the event was at but not of the Vatican, Ms. Götz observed, “Ultimately, we did not see a reason why these women should have to go through an ‘approval process’ by anyone.” So why did she submit the names in the first place?

At this writing, the only banned speaker known is Mary McAleese, the former President of Ireland. The other two are thought to be Ugandan LGBTIQ activist Ssenfuka Joanita Warry, and Polish theologian Zuzanna Radzik who specializes in Christian-Jewish relations. But it’s anyone’s guess who caught the cardinal’s ire and why.

There is no official confirmation of the reasons why Mr. Farrell saw fit to bar them. But it’s widely speculated that among Mary McAleese’s sins is her strong support for LGBTIQ rights, beginning with her own gay son’s right to be as Catholic as his mother. Like so many queer kids, he reported being bullied because of his sexual orientation. The Church’s teachings against him and all queer people are damaging. His mother, like any conscientious parent with a tongue in their head, would not stand idly by as someone else’s child suffered the same pain.

Perhaps the former president’s support for the ordination of women is in the mix too. Surely her studies of canon law make her someone who can’t be lied to in such rarified spaces. At least she will not make nice by ignoring the hard issues of male power and female subordination that are baked into the fabric of institutional Catholicism.

After efforts to reason with Mr. Farrell proved fruitless, Ms. Götz and her group decided to change the venue of the event from their customary room inside the confines of the Vatican to a Jesuit hall just outside the walls. Ms. McAleese, they countered, will be the keynote speaker instead of simply a panel member as she has been before. It’s one way for the women to make clear to the prelates that they can make their own decisions when they pay for meeting space. The Götz Foundation is a generous donor to the Jesuit Refugee Service so it’s safe to assume some influence there.

Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin made clear that he was informed of the dissing by Ms. McAleese, not by his Roman colleagues. In fact, she has remained silent publicly on the matter, awaiting response to her private letter to Pope Francis who is Mr. Farrell’s boss. I wonder if this time the men are a little over their skis. Stay tuned.

In an added twist, the same Cardinal Farrell is the Pope Francis-appointed head of the Vatican Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, which is sponsoring the World Meeting of Families on August 21-26, 2018 in Dublin. Pre-conference publicity included pictures of same-sex families, giving the impression that this would be a more inclusive gathering than the session held three years ago in Philadelphia where LGBTQ Catholics were made to feel as welcome as the flu. Alas, new, recently released materials from which all traces of happy, good, healthy and moral same-sex families were erased have superseded the earlier ones. The WMOF2018 promises to be another contested space.

What’s more, Ireland will have a May 2018 referendum on abortion. It’s difficult to predict whether the Irish will overturn Amendment Eight which bans abortions under virtually all circumstances and develop new legislation that will stipulate under what circumstances abortions will be permitted. For a country in which many people of my grandparents’ generation went to daily mass, Catholic influence is on the wane. Many Irish Catholics are so thoroughly disgusted with priest pedophilia, episcopal cover-ups, anti-LGBTIQ blather, Magdalene Laundries, and now the running roughshod over a once-popular president that the famous bookies of Dublin aren’t ruling out anything. Catholicism has lost its hegemonic sway over the culture.

Several points bear further scrutiny in this debacle. First, the notion that women, even those who pay their own way like the Götz group, can set the parameters of debate inside the Vatican is naïve, or at least premature. It was, in my view, only a matter of time and issues before the curtain came down even on the most cooperative of Catholic women.

Voices of Faith’s way is one among many strategies to transform the Roman Catholic Church from a kyriarchy into a “discipleship of equals” in the helpful terminology of Catholic feminist biblical scholar Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. A patriarchal pyramid of power that functions with this kind of impunity is the antithesis of justice and has no claim on the values it purports to represent.

The value of Voices of Faith’s method will be measured by how it uses its unique access, made possible by the wealth and connections of its leaders, to advance a holistic agenda with myriad voices involved. While this first foray into the hard issues of church power has been thwarted, the group aims for a church inclusive of women capable of mature discussion even when not everyone agrees on basics. The Vatican would do well to take a lesson, though I fear it will try to coopt them first.

Second, the move to the Jesuit location is a mixed blessing. Given the fact that there is a Jesuit pope, there will be some who see this as a way for Pope Francis’ supporters to appear to help women without rocking the big boat. But the fact that the same Götz Foundation gives substantial financial support to the Jesuit Refugee Service makes it clear that there is some leverage involved.

Jesuits have a long history, well before one of them became pope, of helping out the institutional church when it suits them. For example, in 2004 their Boston College in Massachusetts offered to buy more than 40 acres from the Archdiocese of Boston for over $100 million cash with proceeds going toward settling myriad cases of sexual abuse by clergy members.

I see no reason to laud them this time without explicit proof that they actually stood for women in the face of a patriarchal church. It would be a welcome first in my experience and reading of history. In fact, one interpretation of the move is that the Jesuits bailed out the Vatican, providing a place so near yet so far away, ostensibly supporting the women by softening the hierarchy’s blow.

It reminds me of a time some years ago when the local bishop ordered the Massachusetts Women-Church group off of ecclesial property, including Jesuit places where the women had met once in a while. The women’s group had about a dozen members with a median age of 74, obviously a dangerous crowd! One Jesuit suggested that they would still meet with the women at a Dunkin’ Donuts. What courage.

Third, the real story is what will happen for International Women’s Day in 2019. Will the women expect to be back inside the Vatican walls? Will they be able to set their own agenda, invite their own speakers, and come to their own conclusions? Time will tell, but meanwhile, their 2018 conference invitation is telling:

We live in times marked by change, but there are places where gender equality is being systematically overlooked. The Catholic Church is one of them. Today, women are asking why the Church is so slow in recognizing their value and opening governance and ministerial roles to them; roles that incorporate their faith, gifts, expertise and education into structures of authority at all levels. Our world is facing a future more meaningful by the inclusion of women in significant positions. We will not let gender inequality undermine the longevity of the Church. Our voices stir the winds of change, so we must speak. Will Pope Francis and our pastoral leaders listen?

For now, the answer is apparently not. Cold, hard real estate rights—my house, my rules—hold sway.

So March 8th 2018 at the Vatican will be like every other March 8th. The sacred real estate and its inhabitants will remain untainted by the demands of Catholic women for “a full leadership role.” If not even very well shod women can get a foot in the door, imagine how the cleaning women, cooks, and secretaries are treated.