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Climbing higher

The topic of the presence of women in the Church is becoming ever more heated. Not that there was no discussion of it in the past, but the discussion was often limited to putting the question without going any further. Without going back to past centuries, John XXIII in Pacem in terris was already seeing the greater presence of women in public life as one of the signs of the times. It was obvious that the same question would also be asked in the life of the Church. With John Paul II, especially with his Apostolic Exhortation Mulieris dignitatem, the subject was introduced by the highest authority of the magisterium. Benedict XVI spoke of it several times, even in tones of the greatest concern, but did not have time to put his proposals into practice in structures and mechanisms. 

Stained-glas window made at the Studio Moretti Caselli by Maddalena Forenzaper, Santo Spirito Church (Perugia, 2010; photo: Michele Panduri-Metalli)

It is one of the points which with the revolutionary act of stepping down he bequeathed to his Successor. Pope Francis has several times taken up the subject with his customary frankness and spontaneity and many are expecting that in this field too he will proceed to important actions that will leave their mark. In his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium, the first long official document entirely by the new Pontiff, he declares with determination: “we need to create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the Church. Because ‘the feminine genius is needed in all expressions in the life of society, the presence of women must also be guaranteed in the workplace (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, n. 295) and in the various other settings where important decisions are made, both in the Church and in social structures” (n. 103). The concept is reasserted in the following paragraph too, in which the Pope also emphasizes that in the Church, “indeed, a woman, Mary, is more important than the bishops” (n. 104). At this point a great challenge faces the Church and, I would say, an effort of imagination – of which the Holy Spirit has always been a great protagonist in history and which, to this day, has been lacking – in order to find the most appropriate solutions. It is not a question of clericalizing women, as at times seems to be proposed by certain solutions. Rather, it is a matter of finding suitable places in which the charism of women may be expressed and appreciated, also in terms of their ability for decision-making and of their authority; or, as would be more consonant in the life of the Church, in terms of an authoritative service to the entire people of God. If women intend to acquire power in the Church simply by taking it from men and claiming their same roles, it is likely that they will always turn out to be losers. However, it is far from easy to identify authoritative positions, alternative to those occupied by men, suited to making the most both of the complementarity that women can and must put at the service of the ecclesial community and of their femininity. In this sphere too, women must express what men cannot offer, or cannot offer by themselves.

God created men and women, two different but complementary genders and also equally necessary to the life of the Church. In the past great figures of women who moved Popes and institutions have never been lacking; just as in the Bible women are present who saved their people by intervening in crucial moments of the history of salvation: Judith, Esther, and Mary Magdalene, who “awakens” the Apostles by being the first to announce Jesus’ Resurrection to them. These interventions are frequently considered extraordinary, but in reality are closely woven into the biblical fabric and in particular, are an intimate part of Jesus’ relationship with women, as it appears in the Gospels. In ancient society and also in Judaism women had neither institutional tasks nor many rights. However society has profoundly changed since the times of Jesus and of the Church’s foundation. Legislation and culture have made a lot of room for women and for their charisms in teaching, culture, participation in politics and trade unions, but they have not always been able to organize suitable mechanisms so that women might effectively show their worth. The result is that in many sectors, for example, in public and business life, women are virtually absent from managerial posts. In the period that follows graduation, in fact, while men are cutting their teeth, gaining experience, making themselves known and thereby preparing for access to posts of responsibility when they reach the age of 35 to 40, women are busy forming a family and caring for their small children. When the children are a little bigger and can walk by themselves, women who enter a business or administration with full rights find all the places already occupied by men. Thus legislative measures that assure equal rights do not suffice unless there are adequate mechanisms to guarantee these rights de facto with appropriate measures, making them possible. In the Church this is certainly more complex because power, or rather, as the Pope prefers to say, the power of jurisdiction – which should be of service (to prevent its being mistaken for domination) – is reserved for those who are ordained, and ordination has so far been reserved to men. There is no doubt that deaconesses who also exercised acts of jurisdiction existed in the Church’s history. Nevertheless, whether they were deaconesses who had received a true and proper ordination or solely a blessing is still disputed. In any case the Church has always granted extensive autonomy and authority of management to women’s monastic communities and to their abbesses, prioresses, and superiors, even when civil society did not allow equal decision-making power to the women in its own institutions. However I do not intend to go into complex canonical and theological issues. I only want to recall that in her history the Church has always shown greater imagination than that which today we would like to encapsulate in canons or in rigid, unalterable norms. In fact, speaking of high positions, a female presence already exists in the Roman Curia and in many diocesan curias, which was once unthinkable. In particular, in the Pontifical Councils (22 in all) set up after the Second Vatican Council – livelier and less rigid than the nine Congregations that date back to Sixtus V’s reform – women are amply present, as in other Vatican administrative bodies. In the field of art, as in the Vatican Museums, the female presence has already reached 50 per cent of the personnel and not only executive. In the economic, administrative, university and communications sectors there are now many well- trained and qualified women who would be able to and in fact do also occupy managerial posts. The same thing is happening in numerous episcopal curias, also of large dioceses, and in Catholic universities. However it is not only a problem of structures but also of mentalities. I remember years ago that the archbishop (moreover famously open and a reformer) of a large city, who was having difficulties in obtaining from Rome the nomination of one of his trusted theologians as the rector of the Catholic university in his city and who told me, somewhat bitterly: “only think that in Rome they are having the writings of a sister read to evaluate their orthodoxy!”, as an obvious sign of the authority’s incompetence and bad management. As far as I know this was nonetheless a sister qualified in theology and a lecturer at one of Rome’s ecclesiastical universities. Then most of the basic work in the Church has always been done by women, to whom we are also indebted for the first Christian initiation of children of both sexes, which happens (or happened) in the family through the offices of mothers and grandmothers. It is not an exaggeration to state that without the contribution of women the life of the Church would grind to a halt and would suffer a decisive overall impoverishment. Moreover until a short time ago there were more than twice as many women religious as priests; but this fact does not meet with structures that recognize adequately the role women have played and that make them feel they occupy a worthy place in the Church, in the local Church or in the Diocese or Rome. The Church has characteristics of her own that cannot be made to conform with those of civil society, yet obviously the ecclesial community’s own organization and life-style have always been profoundly affected by what was happening around it. It suffices to think of how much of Roman law became part of Canon Law. If the civil government gives more and more room to consultation with the people and to mechanisms of group decisions, it is obvious that this also influences the Church which, not for nothing, has been speaking since the Second Vatican Council of greater collegiality (despite the resistance with which this is tenaciously opposed), which after all is nothing other than a return to the early centuries of the Church. It is unthinkable that women should not participate in this more collegial and more communal style. They can contribute to it with characteristics and qualities that God, not by chance, wanted to be complementary to those of men. I would like in particular to mention the aspect of motherhood, which has infinite nuances of tenderness and of giving which the Church needs too, for example, during the formation of priests. It is a matter of inventing ways for them and of not limiting oneself to spelling out the need for them, as has happened too often up to now. Evangelii gaudium notes “with pleasure” that many women already share pastoral responsibilities with priests, making their own contribution to the guidance of people, families or groups, and offer new contributions to theological reflection. Many women are qualified in theology and experts in Sacred Scripture with skills and publications that are not inferior to those of many of their male colleagues. Nor is the number of women who actively propose spiritual exercises and animate spiritual meetings by any means small. Actually women meet with a double difficulty: in making their voice heard and in carrying out important active roles; first of all that which is encountered by all lay people who, as Pope Francis recalls, “are the vast majority of the people of God” (Evangelii gaudium, n. 102) and who, despite their efforts, are still a “sleeping giant”, far from making the full contribution they could provide. In the second place the difficulty lies precisely in being women, whose access to roles traditionally reserved for men is still not easily recognized. When I was working a few decades ago in a high school run by religious (and then attended by only male pupils) the first proposals to take on women teachers too met with opposition. It did not come from the religious who ran the school but from the lay teachers, all strictly men, who evidently feared a fierce female competition, or quite simply that they would lose their post. Thus in many contexts the role of service carried out by women – as the Pope has reported – risks slipping into a role of slavery, at times with the full consent of the relative superiors, if they are women religious, who defend it as part of their charism. This does honour to women who seek the last places evangelically but it is up to the Church, or the communities, to call them, equally evangelically, to climb higher. It is well known that vocations to the religious and priestly life are going through a deep crisis, especially in countries with an ancient Catholic tradition. The problem is rather complex and there are many reasons for it. Yet in the case of women religious of active life one might wonder whether, at least in part, the phenomenon is due to the systematically subalternate roles carried out by the sisters. Today these roles may also be carried out by lay women, social assistants and teachers who do not give up forming a family of their own. The identity of the woman religious is not in fact as specific as it once was and overlaps with the tasks of lay women, even though they lack the consecration expressed by vows. Paradoxically too, this is also shown by the endurance of cloistered life which, on average, has not experienced the same crisis. Moreover the vocation to cloistered life is still clearly defined. The success of movements, however minor they may be in comparison with parish structures where women often hold managerial and crucial posts, seems to confirm it. As can be seen this is an extremely delicate area which concerns the whole Church but which cannot be eluded, and in which discernment, with the help of the Holy Spirit to whom the Pope as a good Jesuit often appeals, must be set to work courageously to make the face of the Lord’s Church more friendly and more credible.

GianPaolo Salvini (Milan, 1936) entered the Society of Jesus on 8 December 1954. A priest since 1967, he studied philosophy, economics and theology. In 1969 he joined the editorial staff of “Aggiornamenti Sociali” – of which he was later to become editor – focusing in particular on problems of underdevelopment and on Latin America. After living for several years in Salvador, Brazil, since 1984 he has been on the editorial staff of “La Civiltà Cattolica”, a journal of which he was editor-in-chief for 26 years (1985-2011). Today Fr Salvini is a consultor to the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.

GianPaolo Salvini




St. Peter’s Square

Jan. 26, 2020