· Vatican City ·

Religious education (re) in school

Inequality explained
by children

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06 February 2021

“If we’re all children, why aren’t nuns equal to priests?”


I am a Catholic Religion teacher at a Technical Institute and Scientific High School in Ferrara. Among my many classes, I have a class of all girls except one boy, and when I refer to the class, I use the collective feminine verb. In addition, this follows a specific reference to the only one who - by now laughing - point out that he is there too. “It’s the use of Italian grammar, it's not like you can address me as a female”, he said the first few times. Now he notices it, but he smiles, and I think he understands. Also because his classmates are no longer willing to be called “boys” in that situation: “Why do we always have to feel included and you don’t?” In mixed groups, I call them, and choose to use the correct gender.

Today - I say - let us discuss “women and the Church”. And from their screens of this distance learning class comes the chill of an icy response. The point here is the Church. They no longer go there and it does not concern them. No rupture, no conflict. Once catechism is over, that is it. “I wasn’t interested”, the usual, no-fuss response. One, maximum two per class attend the parish and sometimes Mass. They flare up, however, if you go from the Church to the street. The older ones know the Constitution well and list precisely the “obstacles” that still limit freedom and equality. In a punctuated and circumscribed manner, they speak of different salaries, a fear for motherhood... The girls speak, above all, but not only. They are informed, but I sense that they also report upcoming experiences. They may discuss religion at home and, perhaps, among themselves.

It is from the values of citizenship that they return to the matter of women “in” the Church. They do not understand why women cannot be priests. The Males and females agree. “They say we are all sons and daughters of God and then contradict themselves”. Being equal does not mean doing the same things, I venture. “Yes, Professor, you are right, but a woman can also be a priest” - they cut short. “In fact, maybe it would be better as well!”. Doing things right or wrong is not a matter of gender. “What I meant was that women are more used to listening”. I’ll make a note of that, “more accustomed”; that is astute.

All of a sudden, a debate enthuses. “What about nuns? I thought nuns were the same as priests”. “But where do you live? There are nuns, but they don't do important things”. “It's obvious that there are no women: we’re in church!”. Then what about me? I ask. I am a theologian, with a degree and a specialization in the Bible. "It's different for you”, says a spokesperson, “in school it's normal to see women behind the desk, but in church - when I went there - I never happened to see a woman behind the altar”. “Because God was a man”. Final answer. I do, however, make a mental note of the verb in the imperfect tense. Another student says, “Jesus was male, the apostles too”. “No, it is because in ancient times there was the conviction that women were inferior; but if they still think so, they are wrong: everyone knows that certain texts are influenced by ancient ideas and must be interpreted”. Stated like this, it seems all smooth sailing.

The women in the Bible? “I thought about this. It's always the men who are the protagonists. Mary only at Christmas. A simple, humble woman”. “Eve! I remember now! She was naked, she ate the apple. A superficial temptress." A girl then, digs up a memory from who knows where that illuminates her: "There were also women at the tomb, but no one believed them”. “True. Moreover, even those who comforted (sic!) Jesus and the men with their things, or am I wrong?”. “Magdalene: she helped the pregnant Mary”. Ah no, that was Elizabeth. “Magdalene I have heard, but I only know that she was repentant”. They also mention Rachel. In addition, Sarah “who was certainly the wife of someone, but now the name escapes me”. Matriarchs stand out among the rare recurring names. It is interesting that the little that remains belongs to the “original” stories and I reflect on how much it is precisely these founding stories that leave such profound signs.

“You know what underlies this Prof? That people who follow the Church are fine with things as they are, so they don’t change”. A girl in the class concludes: “This will be overcome with the issue of homosexuality. Yes, because they have problems accepting people who are different from them”. Who? “The priests, Prof., the priests”.

It took a while, but our lesson dedicated to RE has warmed up. They do not ponder “theology” - I do not know if that is good or bad - and they are not bashful about ecclesiological issues. However, they are clear, and speak without mediation. The Pope has said it is a priority to listen to their voices. I do it often, to take their pulse. Different classes, same words. Males and females in unison, and increasingly so. For them, there is no doubt in that men and women are equal. Equal.

By Silvia Zanconato
Biblical scholar and professor of Religion in secondary school. Teacher at the school of Theology for Laity "Laura Vincenzi" in Ferrara and engaged in biblical ministry.


The Data


The latest data from the Italian Bishops’ Conference shows that 86% of Italian students attend religious education (RE). This is a significant percentage, even if it has decreased by 10% over the last thirty years, since the reform of the Concordat between the Italian State and the Catholic Church. Those who attend religious instruction are not always practicing believers, and sometimes profess other faiths.  Even the teaching of RE is not the exclusive prerogative of Catholics or practitioners.