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To change the world

· ​Humanizing culture ·

Many years ago, at the end of a lecture I had given at an ecclesial meeting a retired bishop approached to congratulate me, saying: “What a surprise it was for me to meet an intelligent woman!”. I managed with a great effort to answer him: “Monsignor, the surprise is all mine in knowing that I am the first one you have met in your life”. That meeting with a kind pastor and a man of undoubted good faith gave rise within me to the question of the kind of training priests are given that leads them to have such a vision of the world

Antonio Berni, “Jujuy” (1937)

The habitus, the interiorization of the practical logic of male chauvinism, is born in the seminary, the place where priest are socialized: a world apart, made up solely of men, with the exception of the women – almost always religious – who cook, clean and wash their clothes for them.

Why not consider making the presence of women among their teachers customary, so that the young seminarians, future priests, could develop a normal relationship with them, mediated by trust, respect and the spirit of collaboration in one and the same Church?

In Latin America popular piety has not disappeared, the Catholic Church continues to enjoy credibility and trust, that is, a symbolic capital, both within her and outside her. This is not so much of an interpersonal capital (with the exception of Chile), as the survey undertaken by Latinobarómetro in early February reveals. If we examine more thoroughly the information this survey gives us we see that the Church’s social mission is growing (to a large extent associated with Pope Francis and his Magisterium), whereas the transmission of the word is diminishing. This leads us to affirm that the new socio-cultural horizon gives priority to living charisms and experience as compared to discourse, testimonies as compared to teachers.

Social commitment is not a consistuent part of the Catholic faith of the majority of Latin Americans (Paraguay and Mexico, nations with the greatest percentage of Catholics in the population, come last for social commitment, which should give us food for thought... Uruguay, Brazil, Argentina and El Salvador, for example, are far ahead of them).

As has already been demonstrated by the survey “Creer in México” (Instituto Méxicano de Doctrina Social Cristiana [Imdosoc], 2013), it is women religious who are the most appreciated for their commitment to people, for the horizontality of their relations, their work capaciy, their spirit of service and their resistance in the face of an adverse clerical structure and precarious working conditions. We know that, together with the consecrated life, they have freely taken on the option of minority in the Church and in the world, which neither implies nor justifies the fact that their work is not appreciated as it should be and that their contribution to society and to the Church is rendered invisible. The commitment of these women religious in apostolates on the frontlines is considerable: migrants, prostitutes, street people, those suffering from Aids, human rights, support for the families of the victims of femicide and for the survivors of human trafficking. They are the best face of the Church in Mexico and in the whole of Latin America and, in these times of social and cultural crisis, are undoubtedly the best resource the Church has at her disposal.

I interviewed one of these extraordinary religious on her place in the Church. She answered me in serene tones: “We are not part of the structure of the Church, we are the infrastructure”. I reflected at length on the meaning of these words. The infrastructure is the part that cannot be seen but that holds up the whole construction.

Following a centuries-old tradition, faith in this region is passed on by the female line: from mother to son or – because of the socio-democratic change experienced by societies in recent decades – from grandmother to grandchild, when the mother has to work outside the home to support the family.

In the case of Mexico, for example, the transmission of faith by priests and bishops is equivalent to about seven per cent: I shall not dwell on the significance of this fact. Here it serves only to emphasize the weight of women in the generational transmission of Catholicism. Everything that constitutes an important pastoral bonus goes hand in hand with a reality present throughout the region: for women between the ages of 16 and 45 years (a period that corresponds to their fertile age) there is sufficient evidence to say that they disobey the Church en masse in the matter of birth control. If we were to base ourselves on doctrine taken literally we would have to recognize that more than 50 per cent of Catholic women live in mortal sin or are in fact excommunicated.

It is within this age group – more precisely from 25 to 35 years – that the tendency to desert the Church is seen. In other words, if the transmission of faith comes through the women and mothers, the same is true for the abandonment of the Church.

It seems important to me to specify the reasons that women give to explain this distancing: a lack of recognition of themselves and their work, a physical and symbolic space and a community space gradually denied them, perhaps because – I am seeking an explanation – of the transformation of the parish in these past decades.

We should ask ourselves whether it was the women who left the Church or whether it was the institution which forgot her daughters.

We may mention here two historical processes which happened within the Church in parallel with globalization and which had an important influence on women leaving the Church in Latin America. The first is the decisive support given to religious movements over and above the parish structure. I can understand the reasons for this decision in the face of the ideological radicalization both within and outside the Church: their charisms have enriched the Church’s spiritual patrimony and their indisputable fidelity to the Magisterium has guaranteed discipline and ecclesial orthodoxy.

The parish had become a place which regulated the administration of the sacraments and planned in advance ceremonies requested by the faithful (funerals, anniversaries, diplomas) – mere ritual, emptied of meaning and of any profound significance.

A Church which goes out to people, like the one which Pope Francis proposes to us, must rethink the parish, the place, the times, social ministry and its activities and the welcoming of the weakest people. The Church must be a house with wide open doors which little by little heals her wounded heart.

It is necessary to change the world because as it is, it is not God’s plan. And we women understand this well, both in the Church and outside her.

As women we are called – as we already were in other important periods of history – to play a significant role in today’s world.

The vocation of a woman is not fulfilled only in her family and social functions, but also and above all in her humanizing role. Her field of action is not so much civilization as rather culture. “Her soul” says St Macarius, “becomes the eye that captures and emits light. Here lies her prophetic mission, since her values expressed in life and in culture are counterposed to today’s civilization, to its disaffection, to its emptiness and its coldness. The woman is a living integration which can be set against the work of dehumanization in which this century is becoming engaged.

María Luisa Aspe Armella




St. Peter’s Square

Nov. 21, 2019