Hello. It looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best Tortoise experience possible, please make sure any blockers are switched off and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help, let us know at memberhelp@tortoisemedia.com

Sunday 3 March 2019

The Vatican’s stained-glass ceiling

  • The unheralded heralds of change at the Vatican’s summit on child abuse were women. Three women – a nun, a lawyer, and a journalist – made speeches which laid down direct challenges to the Catholic Church
  • In part, women’s prominence at the summit is an indication that the Church realises how grave a threat the child abuse scandal poses. But it is more than that; it is a reflection of changes that have been long underway
  • Women have been working their way patiently into positions of influence in the Catholic Church, often without the Church’s help. We may be witnessing the beginnings of a lasting change

By Catherine Pepinster

Little noticed by the outside world, women are – more by stealth than through active advancement by the Vatican itself – starting to make an impact on the structures, policies and theology of the Catholic Church.

It looked like business as usual at the Vatican. When photos appeared on the final day of the summit on child sexual abuse by priests, called by Pope Francis, he was surrounded by hundreds of cardinals and bishops at Mass, all of them men. But that image of an all-male priesthood did not tell the whole story. For as the members of the church hierarchy discussed the abuse crisis which has assailed the Roman Catholic Church across the globe and lacerated its moral authority, among the most powerful interventions at the summit were by women. Calling on them to speak at the summit suggested a recognition that the Church needs to rethink its response to abuse. But it was more than that.


Pope Francis with journalist Maria Valentina Alazraki

Three out of nine keynote speeches were given by women. First there was Valentina Alazraki, a journalist for a Mexican television broadcaster, who has covered the Vatican for many years. Alazraki warned the bishops that transparency, one of the themes of the summit, was vital because: “Those who fail to inform encourage a climate of suspicion and incite anger and hatred against the institution.” It made for uncomfortable listening for a Church where cover-ups about abuse have been the norm as part of a flawed attempt at avoiding scandal.

Extract of Valentina Alazraki’s speech to the Vatican child abuse summit

My point of departure, motherhood

I would like to begin precisely with motherhood in order to develop the topic entrusted to me, which is to say: how the Church should communicate about this topic of abuse.

I doubt that anyone in this hall does not think the Church is, first of all, mother. Many of us present here have or have had a brother or sister. Let us also remember that our mothers, while loving us all in the same way, were especially devoted to the frailest, weakest children, to those who perhaps did not know how to move ahead in life on their own feet and needed a little push.

For a mother there are no first or second-class children; there are stronger children and more vulnerable ones. Nor are there first and second-class children for the Church. Her seemingly more important children, as are you, bishops and cardinals (I dare not say the Pope), are no more so than any other boy, girl or young person who has experienced the tragedy of being the victim of abuse by a priest.

What is the Church’s mission? To preach the Gospel. But to do so she needs a moral guide; coherence between what one preaches and what one lives is the basis of being a credible institution, worthy of trust and respect.

For this reason, in facing criminal conduct such as the abuse of minors, do you think that to be true to herself, an institution like the Church can have another way if not that of reporting this crime? That she can have another way if not that of being on the side of the victim and not that of the oppressor? Who is the weakest, most vulnerable child? The priest who abused, the bishop who abused and covered up, or the victim?

You may be certain that for journalists, mothers, families and the entire society, the abuse of minors is one of the main causes of anguish. The abuse of minors, the devastation of their lives, of their families’ lives, worry us. We believe such abuse is one of the most reprehensible crimes.

Ask yourselves: are you enemies, as determined as we are, of those who commit abuse or who cover them up?

We have decided which side to be on. Have you done so truly, or in word alone?

Similarly tough words about accountability came from Linda Ghisoni, a canon lawyer who works as undersecretary in the recently created Vatican department for Laity, Life and Family; while Sister Veronica Openibo from Nigeria was one of 10 nuns who attended the summit – a tripling of the number who participated in a Synod of Bishops in 2018.


Sister Veronica Openibo with two clerics at the Vatican summit

Extract of  Sr Veronica Openibo’s speech to the child abuse summit

At the present time, we are in a state of crisis and shame. We have seriously clouded the grace of the Christ-mission. Is it possible for us to move from fear of scandal to truth? How do we remove the masks that hide our sinful neglect? What policies, programs and procedures will bring us to a new, revitalized starting point characterized by a transparency that lights up the world with God’s hope for us in building the Reign of God?

Throughout the time of writing this presentation, my eyes were cloudy and I wondered what this could mean. Then I remembered the first time I watched the movie Spotlight you all…some of you know it the 2016 American biographical drama about the investigation by the Boston Globe in the America’s Boston, the cover-up by ecclesial authorities.

At the end of the film was a long list of cases and the dioceses where they occurred and reading about the number of children affected (and also later seeing the vast amount of money spent on settlements), tears of sorrow flowed. How could the clerical church have kept silent, covering these atrocities? The silence, the carrying of the secrets in the hearts of the perpetrators, the length of the abuses we had one last night and the constant transfers of perpetrators are all unimaginable. Presumably there were significant signs in the confessional and in spiritual direction: I want to believe that. With a heavy and sad heart, I think of all the atrocities we have committed as members of the church: I am saying “we”, not “they”: “we”. The Constitutions of my own congregation reminds me: In Christ we unite ourselves to the whole of humanity, especially to the poor and suffering. We accept our share of responsibility for the sin of the world and so live that his love may prevail. I think all of us must acknowledge that our mediocrity, hypocrisy and complacency have brought us to this disgraceful and scandalous place that we find ourselves as a church. We pause to pray Lord have mercy on us!

Women have long been the Catholic Church’s bedrock at parish level. But it is only recently that they have been listened to in the Vatican. Changing attitudes – and language – is a slow process. Pope Francis, though considered a liberal, described women in 2014 as “the strawberries on the cake”. At the abuse summit he said a woman was an image of the Church, alluding to the imagery often used in the Catholic Church of the institution itself being a spouse and mother. They are metaphors which many women find disturbing, indicating that a woman should be a pliant handmaiden.

Alessandra Benedetti – Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images

St Peter’s Square at the Vatican, Rome

Francis’s comments about strawberries came as he was advocating the need to involve more women theologians in the Church, not on the grounds of justice and equality, as secular organisations do, but because of what he and other senior church officials perceive as women’s complementarity to men. “By virtue of their feminine genius, [female] theologians can detect, for the benefit of all, some unexplored aspects of the unfathomable mystery of Christ,” he told his advisers at the Vatican theological commission.

Yet a year later, barely any women were involved in the Synod on the Family, called by the Pope to look at issues such as marriage and divorce, so a group of female theologians joined forces to both produce a book about the family and organise a fringe symposium just before the Synod. That they eventually got their book into the Synod to be offered to participants was down to understanding how Rome works. After the Synod organiser, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, rejected the book, they asked the Chilean Ambassador to the Holy See, Monica Jimenez de la Jara to help. Jimenez is one of several women ambassadors who play their own part in influencing Vatican thinking; others include Callista Gingrich, wife of Newt, from the US and Sally Axworthy from the UK, who has found common ground between Britain and the Holy See in combating human trafficking. Jimenez succeeded in getting the women’s volume into the Synod Hall.

Franco Origlia/Getty Images

Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, left, refused to allow a book on the family produced by women theologians into the Synod

One of the most eminent of Vatican women is the British sociologist Professor Margaret Archer, who is president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences think tank. Someone else who matches her in academic reputation is Baroness Sheila Hollins, former president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, who has long been a Vatican adviser on child sexual abuse.

But women have a long way to go before they fully smash the stained-glass ceiling. The Church continues to appoint only clerics to its highest offices in the Roman Curia, which rules out women. Either that has to change or women have to become eligible for ordination. The first stage of that reform is to allow women deacons (deacons are assistants to priests). In any move as delicate as that the Church tends to search for precedent – if there were female deacons centuries ago then they might be more easily accepted now – so in 2016 Francis commissioned a study to see whether there was a precedent set in the early church for female deacons. But that study has stalled.


Abuse survivor Marie Collins during Mass

According to Lucetta Scaraffia, editor of the Woman-Church-World supplement of the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, it is not necessary for women to be priests or deacons to be more involved in church governance. The 1983 Code of Canon Law made it possible for all lay people to be more involved and, according to Scaraffia, “the impediments lie only in the refusal of many to make real an equality already recognised and accepted in theory”. Appointing just a few women to mid-level management positions is a fig-leaf, she says. If there is any promising sign of change, it is that Scaraffia is given the freedom to write such critiques from within the Vatican.

There are other ways to challenge the dominance of men and bring about change in the way the Church thinks: by being the grit in the oyster, or campaigning long and hard from outside the Vatican.

Abuse survivor Marie Collins joined the Pontifical Council for the Protection of Minors, but quit out of frustration at lack of progress. She continues to hold the Church to account through her articles, blogs and tweets. Mary McAleese, the former President of Ireland, trained in canon law in Rome after she left office and regularly produces powerful critiques of the Church, using her expert knowledge to dissect issues such as the treatment of gay people.


Sister Helen Prejean in 2018

For decades, Sister Helen Prejean, a nun from Louisiana, has dedicated her life to fighting the death penalty. She travelled the globe putting her case, and the movie Dead Man Walking, starring Susan Sarandon as Sr Helen, highlighted her cause. Last year Pope Francis announced that he was changing church teaching, making capital punishment inadmissible because it attacks the inherent dignity of all people. Sr Helen has shown that being a campaigner can cause change.

Women around the world will be watching to see if an even greater change – a moment of great reform – is possible for their own role in the Church.


Further reading

Catherine Pepinster’s The Keys and the Kingdom, a history of the British and the papacy from John Paul II to Francis, is published by Bloomsbury.

Catholic Women Speak: Bringing Our Gifts To The Table Edited by the Catholic Women Speak Network, Paulist Press (31 October 2015), £11.99


Visions and Vocations: Women Responding To God’s Call Edited by the Catholic Women Speak Network, Paulist Press (30 September 2018), £17.58

Two volumes of essays by some of the most eminent Catholic women theologians working across the globe today.

Quo Vadis? Collegiality in the Code of Canon Law Mary McAleese. Columba Press (1 October 2012), £15.58. Former Irish president Mary McAleese’s critique of canon law, its impact on the Catholic Church and the need for reform

Pope Francis – Untying the Knots: The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism, Paul Vallely. Bloomsbury Continuum (27 August 2015), £16.54. The authoritative biography of Pope Francis, explaining his origins and the key experiences that made him who he is, plus insightful analysis of his papacy

Betrayal – The Crisis in the Catholic Church: The Findings of the Investigation That Inspired the Major Motion Picture Spotlight. The Investigative Staff of the Boston Globe. Back Bay Books (27 October 2015) £14.99. The full account of the Boston Globe investigation that lifted the lid on child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church and revealed the cover-ups