Catherine O’Mahony: ‘Silencing a feminist voice of reason is grim message from a Church that seeks only women’s obedience’
Late last year a small but compelling exposé ran in a little-known Catholic magazine called ‘Women Church World’.
It was called “The (almost) free work of sisters”, and it talked about nuns who serve meals to bishops and then go back to eat their own food in the kitchen. These nuns are paid more or less nothing for this service.
The article included the following impassioned quote from an interviewee: “Unfortunately behind all this lies the idea that women are worth less than men and, especially, that the priest is all whereas the sister is nothing in the Church. Clericalism is killing the Church.”
The surprise of reading about this kind of institutional sexism in a magazine that turned out to have been published by the Vatican was picked up on by the Associated Press and eventually by several mainstream media outlets including ‘The New Yorker’ magazine, which tracked down the magazine’s editor in Rome for an interview.
Lucetta Scaraffia, described by ‘The New Yorker’ as “a 70-year-old history professor who wears her white-blonde hair chopped short, like a monk with a chic hairdresser, and identifies as a feminist”, told the magazine about her views on various matters pertaining to Catholicism. She was no crazy radical.
She said she did not want women to be priests, but she felt abortion should be legal. She said Catholic women should make “concrete political moves” within the Church.
Scaraffia herself had founded ‘Women Church World’, (in Italian it’s ‘Donne Chiesa Mondo’) in 2012 as an add-on to the official Vatican newspaper ‘L’Osservatore Romano’.
So it was clear she had firm views and ambitions that were clearly at odds with mainstream Vatican thinking. She even made the suggestion that women could be made cardinals of the Church (not priests; she did not want that, but she said a layperson could be a cardinal).
Asked what she made of Pope Francis, she said he “is not a feminist” but a “good politician”. She had spoken to him only once, she said at the time, when he rang to discuss a book review.
Scaraffia continued to espouse such firm, but moderate views in her magazine.
For example, January’s issue was themed ‘Reforms, Not Revolution’ and its blurb ran as follows: “We do not need a revolution to give women the place they deserve in the Church, nor is it indispensable to grant them the priesthood or the diaconate so longed for but at the same time feared.
“Indeed a little courage suffices, along with the prophetic capacity for looking to the future with positive eyes, accepting changes which are often already written into the order of things.”
February saw a further furore after Scaraffia denounced in her magazine the historic sexual abuse of nuns and religious lay women by Catholic priests and bishops – and the abortions that have sometimes resulted.
Asked to respond, Pope Francis acknowledged the existence of that very problem, acknowledging “women are treated as second class” and adding: “I cannot say no, in my house we don’t have this problem.”
Scaraffia was delighted. Momentarily at the centre of a media storm in her Roman home she told reporters: “Finally, now many women will have the courage to come forward and denounce their abusers.”
But this week, Lucetta Scaraffia and the rest of the all-women editorial team at ‘Women Church World’ resigned en masse, citing an alleged interference with their editorial independence.
She said the new editor of ‘L’Osservatore Romano’, Andrea Monda, was attempting to “weaken” the magazine by bringing in external collaborators to control the editorial line.
In a letter addressed to Pope Francis but that was also made public, Scaraffia said: “We are throwing in the towel because we feel surrounded by an atmosphere of distrust and progressive delegitimisation.
“We often felt like miners who discovered precious metal strands and brought them to light and to the knowledge of all: a true human and universal richness, and in this sense ‘Catholic’.”
An as-yet-unpublished editorial for the magazine – which has been released by AP – added: “They are returning to the practice of selecting women who ensure obedience… They are returning to clerical self-reference and are giving up that ‘parresia’ (freedom to speak freely) that Pope Francis so often seeks.”
For a Vatican soused in scandals – and following a seemingly endless stream of revelations of clerical sexual abuse – this may seem like a relatively unremarkable series of events. But it shines a bright light on an essential – if inconvenient – truth about the modern Catholic Church, the same truth that was brought to the fore on International Women’s Day last year when former Irish President Mary McAleese was blocked from delivering an address at a Vatican conference.
It’s that – however progressive and kindly the rhetoric we hear from Pope Francis, however humble and apologetic he may be about the evils the Church has sanctioned over the years – change happens very, very slowly at the Vatican, if at all.
It is a place where women’s voices – however expert, however reasoned, however thoughtful and however interesting – struggle to be heard.
The reaction from the Vatican thus far has been to push back against the magazine editor’s allegations.
MONDA, who was appointed as editor of the Vatican newspaper by Pope Francis last December, said he was committed to the continued publication of ‘Donna Chiesa Mondo’ and flatly denied having threatened the editorial freedom of the magazine.
It seems improbable that there will be many repercussions.
After playing the lead role in barring McAleese from the Vatican conference last year, Dublin-born Cardinal Kevin Farrell was named the new Vatican camerlengo, whose function is to keep the Church running between the death of one pope and election of a new one.
It’s the highest office to which an Irish priest has ever been appointed.
All in all, Scaraffia’s take on what has happened makes for a grim read.
Her letter to the Pope states baldly: “Now it seems a vital initiative has been reduced to silence, and we return to the antiquated and barren custom of selecting, under direct male control, those women considered trustworthy.”