The Roman Catholic Church and Women

Catholic hierarchy to be confronted over gender inequality

Rome conference to hear calls for bold steps towards equality in the church after exploitation of nuns at the Vatican is revealed

A fresco featuring cardinals in the papal apartments in the Vatican, which in previous years has been the venue of the Voice of Faith conference.
 A fresco featuring cardinals in the papal apartments in the Vatican, which in previous years has been the venue of the Voice of Faith conference. Photograph: Franco Origlia/Getty Images

“Powerful vested interests” within the Catholic church are being challenged at a conference in Rome on International Women’s Day as calls grow for women to be given positions of authority and influence in the church.

In a sign that a new assertive mood around women’s rights has reached the Vatican, the Voices of Faith gathering will on Thursday hear demands for bold steps towards gender equality within the male-dominated church.

Meanwhile a manifesto of women for the church, which calls for women’s roles that “are coherent with our competences and capacities”, is circulating on social media. It says: “As adult women we experience daily the subordinate role of women in the church.”

The rallying cry comes days after a magazine article exposed the exploitation of nuns at the Vatican. Headlined “the (nearly) free work of nuns, the article revealed dire economic conditions experienced by many nuns, alongside resentment about the low value placed on their vocations compared with men’s.

Women in religious orders work long hours cooking, cleaning and serving the cardinals, bishops and officials who run the church, it claimed. With nominal or no pay, and no contracts of employment, the nuns are barely acknowledged by the men whose needs they provide for.

Several nuns spoke anonymously to the magazine. “In the eyes of Jesus we are all children of God, but in their concrete life some nuns do not live this, and they experience great confusion and discomfort,” said one. Nuns were “rarely invited to sit at the table they serve”, she added.

Only a handful of women hold senior positions in the Vatican hierarchy, including Barbara Jatta, who in 2016 became the first woman to head its museums.

The exploitation of nuns is likely to be raised at this week’s Rome conference, whose theme is “Why Women Matter”.

In a statement, it organisers said: “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.

“The crises we must confront in our world today demand leaders, women and men, who are prepared to think the unthinkable and who will risk upsetting powerful vested interests and take bold steps forward for the greater good.”

In previous years, the annual conference has been held at the Vatican, but the organisers switched venues last month after the Holy See refused to give approval to Mary McAleese, a former president of Ireland, and two other speakers.

No reasons were given, but McAleese has spoken in favour of women’s ordination, which has been ruled out by the pope, and LGBT rights. McAleese has declined to comment other than disclosing she had written to him about the refusal.

Chantal Götz, the founder of Voices of Faith, told the National Catholic Reporter: “It is crucial for us to bring voices that represent perspectives often not heard at the Vatican.”

She added, as a non-Vatican entity: “Ultimately, we did not see a reason why these women should have to go through an ‘approval process’ by anyone.”

On the decision to relocate the conference, she said: “We feel that the authentic voices of all the women we are bringing this year are more important than whether our event takes place at the Casina Pio IV or at the Jesuit Aula — what matters is that everyone in Rome and at the Vatican can easily come to listen.”

The pope has been invited to the conference, along with several cardinals.

During an audience two years ago, he was asked directly whether the church could be “more open to receiving the genius of women”.

He replied: “It is true that women are excluded from decision-making processes in the church: not excluded, but the presence of women is very weak there, in decision-making processes. We must move forward.”

He also warned women in religious orders against drudgery, saying: “Your work, my work and the work of all of us, is one of service. Very often I find consecrated women who perform a labour of servitude and not of service.”

When nuns were asked to perform work that was “more servitude than service, have the courage to say no,” he added.


“In a sign that a new assertive mood around women’s rights has reached the Vatican, the Voices of Faith gathering will on Thursday hear demands for bold steps towards gender equality within the male-dominated church.”

This message, contained in this week’s ‘GUARDIAN WEEKLY’ by Religous Correspondent Harriet Sherwood, gives evidence of a new determination by Roman Catholic women – including Women Religious – to confront the powers-that-be in the Vatican with their demand for a more equable role in the administration and mission of their Church.

It is surprising that, given the respect shown to Mary, the Mother of Christ, in her given title ‘Mother of The Church’ (for Roman Catholics) that the hierarchy of the Church – especially at the Vatican – has not recognised the value and respect shown to women by the Head of the Church himself, Jesus, Son of Mary. After all, it was Mary of Magdala who was charged by Jesus to be his apostle to the disciples, telling of his resurrection. (Of course, we know that the disciples did not believe her – because she was a woman?)

As with certain other patriarchal branches of the Body of Christ, The Roman Catholic Church has maintained a male-dominated culture and administration – not to mention sacerdotal ministry culture  – that seems now to be completely at odds with the teaching of Saint Paul that, “In Christ, there is neither male nor female….”; addressing, perhaps inadvertently, the patriarchal culture of his own day when women were treated as second-class citizens – not only of earth but also of heaven.

With the Roman Catholic declaration of Mary as ‘Queen of Heaven’, one wonders why on earth, women are not trusted with the task of preaching, teaching, management and administration of the sacramental life of the Church in a world of women and men in almost equal proportions. If Mary was entrusted by God to bear in her womb the Saviour of the World, the Lord of The Church. why should a woman not be entrusted with bringing the Christ into being in the forms of bread and wine at the altar?

I’m sure that, if Pope Francis were allowed to follow his own heart and mind on this issue of the release of women into the fullness of life in the Church – and in consideration of his other initiatives to free the Church from outdated dogma – he would start the ball rolling.

“Hail Mary, full of grace, Blessed are you among women and Blessed is the fruit of your womb; Jesus. Holy Mary. Mother of Christ, pray for us sinners now and in the hour of our death. Amen.”


About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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