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At the outset there was no hierarchy

· ​The interview ·

For Cardinal Oswald Gracias It is important for the life of the ecclesiastical community that women should take on roles of responsibility

We made numerous telephone calls to Santa Marta: we asked to speak to the secretary of Cardinal Gracias, who was in Rome for the meetings of the Council of Cardinals which helps Pope Francis “in the government of the universal Church”. On our umpteenth attempt, one of the reception staff answered us, explaining the difficulty in finding him: “His Eminence is on his own, no one is with him” – a first, resonant lesson. At the age of 72, after coming to grips with serious health problems, the current President of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, as well as of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of India – Latin Rite and one of the Cardinals who is closest to Francis, makes frequent trips between Rome and Mumbai (formerly Bombay) alone. A few days before our meeting he had come to take part in Mother Teresa’s canonization. We were seeking him for an interview with a view to this issue of women church world because Oswald Gracias, as well as having frequently spoken out in defence of women, is a canon law expert: after earning a doctorate at the Urbaniana [Pontifical Urban University] and a diploma in jurisprudence at the Gregorian [Pontifical Gregorian University], he was besides President of the Canon Law Society of India several times (1987-1991, 1993-1997), and consultor to the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts.

Guests of an anti-violence centre in India

At the beginning of our conversation the Cardinal explained: “When the history of the Church began, in Jesus’ time there was no discrimination: in Our Lord’s opinion everyone had his or her role without even the most minimal trace of hierarchy. It was only later that things in the Church changed: indeed, over the years women were relegated to secondary positions and roles. And this change occurred because the Church lives in the world and in doing so ends up by taking on the world’s mentality: and in the world women had second place”.

And we are still at this point….

However, things are changing, even in the Church! As Pope Francis often reasserts: for the life of the ecclesiastical community it is important that women take on roles of responsibility.

Today Catholic women indicate Canon Law as the reason for their exclusion: it is not in their view a theological issue or an issue of limitations indicated by Scripture, but rather a problem of Canon Law....

As a canon lawyer myself, I would like to defend Canon Law and to say that it bears no responsibility for this. Nevertheless I would not defend it to the point of maintaining that it cannot be in need of revision or modification. However, if we look at the norms in themselves, there are very few restrictions which expressly exclude women, such as, for example, the case of priestly Ordination. The real point, if anything, is something different: the distinction is between the clergy and the laity, between what the former and the latter can do. This could be revised. Yet when Canon Law speaks of lay people, I do not see any substantial difference between male and female. This does not remove the fact that perhaps the time has come for a positive action in order to show clearly that women are an integral part of the Church. We discussed this recently in our Bishops’ Conference. Things are of course very different, according to contexts and societies: in some Bishops’ Conferences women play roles which they do not have in others; there is a really great variation. Basically, however, it is necessary to be clear that since men and women are different, the specifically female characteristics are an enrichment for the Church’s life. It is important that everyone should understand this and that put it concretely into practice.

Speaking of canon law, the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy has just come to its conclusion: but if Jesus is mercy and the law is justice, how can we reconcile these two things?

This is a most interesting question. We organized a convention in Mumbai on this very theme precisely to investigate the relationship between them. The Pope has often drawn attention to both, to the use of mercy and to the application of justice. The fundamental question is whether or not there is any contradiction. I maintain that mercy and justice are not in opposition to each other because God’s justice is mercy. It is a question of giving freely, of forgiving, of reciprocal understanding – and, obviously, also of the fact that each person has his or her proper place. We must therefore redefine our concept of justice, for justice cannot exclude mercy. Otherwise it would be a defective divine justice, a spoiled justice.

Let’s get back to women: you have very often expressed yourself in their defence, especially in the context of the wave of rapes which occurred in India to which the media gave ample coverage....

I am deeply ashamed of the violence against women which is taking place throughout India. Episodes of rape are very numerous, particularly in certain parts of the country. What is really serious in this situation is the sense of impunity which accompanies the reception of the news stories of these horrors. Yet if there was any attempt to change the laws to make them harsher, we would realize that it is impossible to change society solely by normative dispositions: most people are convinced that the fault lies entirely with the women who provoke the men, that basically it is they who are truly responsible, that the victims of these episodes are “wicked” women, guilty because of their attitude. Thus in all its forms misogyny is minimized and trivialized. It is this that is learned at home and in society. And it is this that must change.

Is there anything that the Church can do?

For decades we having been working tirelessly for the emancipation of little girls and to improve the dignity of women through our educational, health and social-care apostolates: only when little boys and little girls are treated in the same way at home shall we truly be able to attack the problem of misogyny and violence at their roots. We must all work together at every level. Today, for example, we are perfecting a protocol on the behaviour of people who work in the Church, in the parishes, whether they are religious or lay people. Moreover, we have the model of the women’s congregations which in our country are truly moving mountains to help brutalized, raped, enslaved and impoverished women.

Did Mother Teresa’s canonization, which you indicated as a reference together with St Francis Xavier, signify something in this sense too?

Of course. Mother Teresa’s canonization was a source of enormous joy – she really was an example of Christianity. She is a gift of India to the world, to the Christian world and also to the secular world. She was beloved and followed by everyone without any distinctions. Even atheists loved her with a deep intensity. She was truly a model of compassion and of passionate love for the poorest and most marginalized people in general. She lived her life under the banner of mercy. Every single minute of every single day of her existence was a hymn of mercy. The canonization of Mother Teresa is thus a concrete appeal. She is a model for everyone in every field.

In this regard is there something that we Western women can learn from Indian women?

A certain gentleness, I would say. Some Western women fight for rights in a very male world and I believe that this is wrong.

Giulia Galeotti

Oswald Gracias

The Metropolitan Cardinal Archbishop of Bombay, India, was born in the Indian metropolis – today called Mumbai – on 24 December 1944. He comes from St Michael’s Parish, Mahim, where he grew up and was ordained a priest on 20 December 1970. From 1982 to 1986 he was the secretary of the Archbishop of Bombay and, until 1997, Chancellor and Judicial Vicar. He taught at various scholastic centres and contributed to setting up matrimonial tribunals in various Indian dioceses. On 28 June 1997 he was appointed titular Bishop of Bladia and was named Auxiliary of the Archbishop of Bombay. On the following 16 September he received episcopal ordination, choosing as his motto Reconciling all things in Christ . As auxiliary he was charged with the supervision of the particularly poor districts of Bombay. In that period he was also Episcopal Vicar for the Apostolate of the Family. Appointed Archbishop of Agra in the year 2000, he was promoted to the Archiepiscopal See of Bombay six years later. He has held many offices in the Indian Bishops’ Conference, especially in the juridical sector and in the sector of the media. On 13 April 2013 Pope Francis appointed him a member of the Group of Cardinals which advises him on the government of the universal Church and which is studying a project for the revision of the Apostolic Constitution Pastor bonus.




St. Peter’s Square

Oct. 24, 2019