A Vatican event Sunday saw a remarkably open and frank discussion among women about the limits on their participation in church structures in what may have been the first such public conversation ever to take place at the center of the Catholic hierarchy.
Among the topics the women discussed at the event, held to mark International Women's Day: the need for the church to practice what it preaches about full equality between men and women, to include women in every level of decision-making, and to use inclusive language in its worship.
The women also expressed a desire for a fundamental rethink regarding how church prelates and documents describe them, saying they are often pigeonholed as reflecting only the sensitive or tender half of humanity.
"I would like to see women have [the] opportunity to be strong, courageous, intelligent," said Ulla Gudmundson, a former Swedish ambassador to the Holy See, during the discussion. "I would also like to see men have the opportunity to be tender, patient, sensitive."
Turning a phrase often used by bishops to describe women on its head, Gudmundson continued: "Pope Francis is a shining example of feminine genius: patient, tender, showing mercy and love."
Expressing her dreams for how the church would treat women in the future, another member of the discussion presented a multilayered vision of a Catholic church where men and women are treated as equals at every level.
"I dream of a church where it won't matter whether you're a man or a woman and you just respond to God's call of service," said Astrid Gajiwala, an Indian biologist who has worked as a consultant for her bishops' conference.
"I also dream of a church where men and women would participate equally in all decision-making so that they both would contribute to the policies, the structures, the teaching, and the practice of the church," she said. "And both would engage in ministry."
Gajiwala expressed a desire for inclusive language "in our translations, in our liturgies, in our documents."
"When I speak of language, I also would love to see a church where God is liberated from male constructs," she said. "Women experience God so differently, and I wish there was a place for this, to expand our understanding of the mystery of God."
Gudmundson and Gajiwala spoke Sunday at an event known as Voices of Faith, which was put together as an opportunity for women to share their stories of faith from the Vatican on International Women's Day.
Organized by the Liechtenstein-based charitable trust Fidel Götz Foundation, the event was live-streamed around the world from the Vatican's Casina Pio IV, an iconic marble building that is home to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.
The panel discussion was just one part of the five-hour event and was moderated by Deborah Rose-Milavec, who is the head of the U.S.-based reform group FutureChurch. The other speakers on the panel were British-Zambian theologian Tina Beattie and Gudrun Sailer, a journalist for the German section of Vatican Radio.
The discussion, which lasted just under an hour, was remarkable for the breadth of subject matter the women addressed and for the apparent honesty with which they tackled topics that are normally considered off-limits in Vatican discussions.
For example, while the topic of women's ordination was only discussed tangentially, all four women addressed the jarring lack of women in ministry in the church and in leadership positions in the Catholic hierarchy.
"We are told that the question of ordination is ruled out," said Beattie, a noted theologian at the University of Roehampton in London.
"If we're asked to accept that and respect it, we have to see that in every single other situation, there is full and equal participation of women's leadership in the church -- that every single position that does not require ordination is equally filled by men and women," she said.
"What I would dream is a church that proclaims the full equality and dignity of male and female as made in the image of God should be an absolute beacon to the world," Beattie said.
Relating on a personal note, she continued: "Our daughters look at us and say, 'Mum, why on earth would you hang on in a church like that where everywhere else but the church you are recognized and valued for who you are?'"
"The dream would be that the dignity and the equality that we have being made in the image of God were the face that the church presents to the world," Beattie said. "And that would have to be an absolutely fully equal face in every aspect of the church for that to be credible."
While Gajiwala said she had some "wonderful" experiences working with bishops in the Indian church, particularly in helping draft her episcopal conference's 2010 gender policy, she also said the experience serving in the church is "rather mixed."
"I find it very frustrating that women are excluded from decision-making because all kinds of governance is linked with ordination," she said.
"The truth is that all we can do is make recommendations," said Gajiwala, who along with consulting for her bishops has served as vice president of her parish council. "We don't have a vote. There is no accountability. It's just that we recommend things."
Addressing also the process that women go through when a husband chooses to become a permanent deacon in the church, Gajiwala said although the husband and wife both go through all the deaconate training together, "at the end of it all, the husband gets ordained as a deacon and the wife doesn't."
"I don't see the logic of this," she said. "And now we have introduced one more layer – first you have the priests, and then the married deacons and, well, the women are one layer below."
"For me, this is problematic," Gajiwala said.
Sailer, who has worked at Vatican Radio since 2003 and has written several books on women at the Vatican, said the struggle to include women in church structures was not about imitating the secular world.
"It's about recognizing, realizing that excluding women from the church [does] not conform to the Gospel," Sailer said. "It's not what the Gospel wants."
Sunday's event was the second hosted by Voices of Faith from the Vatican in two years. In an earlier NCR interview, Fidel Götz Foundation executive director Chantal Götz said the Vatican's willingness to host the event was "important because it means the doors are open" for women.
Among other speakers Sunday were six other women from various places and circumstances around the world who addressed issues as varied as health care needs for women in India, creating opportunities for education for women in refugee camps, and persecution against Christians in the Middle East.
Voices of Faith also joined with Caritas Internationalis to award two 10,000 euro prizes to two organizations run by women that have developed best practices in addressing world hunger.
Those awards went to a Lebanon-based group called Basmeh & Zeitooneh that is helping Syrian refugees learn work skills and to Caritas Nicaragua, which is helping women to learn farming skills to help sustain their families and earn income independent of their husbands.
The only male speaker at Sunday's event was Jesuit Fr. Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator, a native Nigerian who recently finished serving as the provincial of the Jesuit order's province of East Africa.
Centering his talk on the April 2014 kidnapping of girls in Nigeria by the terrorist group Boko Haram, Orobator gave a commanding presentation on the discrimination faced by African women and girls.
Orobator said one of the sad realities of the kidnapping of the girls from the town of Chibok in Nigeria was that the government has not helped them appropriately simply because they are female – "people who society and culture actively conspire to downgrade their social premium and human dignity to that of second class citizens."
They are, Orobator said, "Children, as it were, of a lesser god."
"Any society that relegates women to a secondary status and allots them menial tasks, creates propitious conditions for gender-based violence and morally depraved ideologies to emerge and thrive," the Jesuit said.
He continued: "In the final analysis, I find profoundly disturbing not only the fact that the educated woman is perceived as a threat to such ideologies, but also the sad realization that such ideologies render the educated, independent and competent African woman an endangered species."
While the theme of women as second-class citizens was not addressed directly by the panel of women speaking about their roles in the church, Gajiwala said in a separate NCR interview last week that the church's link between ordination and governance leaves women without decision-making roles.
"I hope that some time, if the structure is going to remain the way it is . . . then at least that they will de-link governance and ordination so that women can be part of decision-making."
"Right now, what happens is that we are there mainly as consulters," Gajiwala said. "Yes, we do influence decisions, but the decision is not ours. This is a fact."
On Sunday, Beattie called for a church where women are full partners with men.
Beattie, a convert to Catholicism, said Pope Francis' apostolic letter, Evangelii Gaudium ("The Joy of the Gospel"), showed "the church that I dream of – the messy, free, faithful, joyful community that when I joined the church . . . I glimpsed very strongly."
"I just long for the day when women are full and equal partners in that struggle," she said.
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