Then seminary opened
to a young laywoman

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06 February 2021

Women and the Church: an educational alliance is needed
The analysis and personal experience of a theological writer


Women and the Church, over and over again. Perhaps one day it will be neither an issue nor a problem, but for now, it is. The “Global Compact on Education”, launched by Pope Francis in September 2019 and relaunched a year later in the midst of a pandemic crisis, calls for a new educational alliance. This approach also commits the Church to look inward and question the educational model it officially or implicitly proposes to boys and girls in parishes and in its own governance structures.  

In 1960, Furio Monicelli published Il gesuita perfetto (The Perfect Jesuit), which is the story of a vocation. We meet Andrea who leaves the family home and travels by bus, on a rainy “pungent and sad as remorse” morning to Galloro, in the Castelli Romani area, to the Jesuit novitiate, and we leave him there to become a Jesuit.

In between, there is the diligent personal and spiritual formation, the relationship with the other novices, the splendid and intense dialogues with the priest-teacher, a confused perhaps falling in love with a confrere who then dies, an equally splendid intellectual exchange with another confrere who then leaves in the name of the freedom of the faith. There are no woman in this story. There are no women in the formation of the perfect Jesuit, not even in memory. Just a moment before the end of the story, Andrea encounters a nun with “a short, fat nape of her neck, leaning forward like a withered dahlia” in a church. Of course, this is literature, while Furio Monicelli had indeed experienced the novitiate with the Jesuits.

Almost twenty years later and a Council (Vatican II) later, Bishop Arnoldo Onisto opened the diocesan seminary to lay and religious men and women who wished to attend the institutional course of Theology for the Baccalaureate.  The formation of priests was then taking place programmatically in the total absence of women. Absent, simply but not trivially, as classmates and students, also absent as teachers and trainers. Only nuns were present in the kitchen and involved in other services. Otherwise, just absent. As if outside they do not represent a little more than half of all humanity and a lot more than half in the believing Church. As if their talents and preparation could not in any way be useful, opportune (necessary?) in the formation of priests.

I know all about the diocesan seminary in Vicenza because I was among those who was able to experience it firsthand. From between the ages of nineteen to twenty-five, up to the Baccalaureate I was there, and followed by the Licentiate at the Lateran in Rome.

When someone says that the theological faculties have been open for years, they know that they are not telling the truth. This is because there were (actually are) very few in Italy, while the pontifical faculties are concentrated in Rome. You had to be fairly well off, not be able to work for five or seven years if you wanted the Licentiate, and not have a family because you had to move. This was almost impossible for a woman. Seminaries at the time were in every major city and all had their own theological institute. Opening them to lay men and women was a choice that we could define as theological and political, as it meant making theology more accessible to the people of God.

What was behind Bishop Onisto’s decision? Monsignor Luciano Bordignon, who was dean of studies and then rector of the seminary at the time, describes the Bishop as neither naïve nor revolutionary, by nature or design. He says this of a man of faith who had intimately accepted the Council and had faith in modernity, which he accompanied with his choices. There was an idea of normality in his openness to laymen and women. He never made a banner of his decision. He said yes to the first layman who asked and yes to the first religious and then to the first laywoman. As students on all courses, there were four of us in 1979, and there probably was not even the specific term to describe us at the time. That was an experience.

The reasons for making unusual choices at a very young age are never very clear, and it is not even important that they are so.  There were no models of women involved in theology. The first female theologians certainly existed in Italy, but in the countryside around Vicenza, the people there did not even know what a female theologian was, and I had to explain twice when they asked me what on earth I was studying.  Later on, it was important to be able to talk about and perhaps inspire certain choices.

The foundation of the Institutes of Religious Sciences (ISR) and the three-year courses aimed at teaching religion in schools in 1986, and then of the Higher Institutes of Religious Sciences (ISSR) in 2008 obviously has taken women (together with men who were not oriented towards the priesthood) out of the theology of the seminaries. Women and men, however, can only enter the Institutes with a “Letter of Introduction. For lay people, a declaration from their parish priest (in particular cases from another priest) attesting to their suitability and the possibility of attending the Institute; for religious, a declaration from the Major Superior authorising their attendance of courses” (from the website of the ISSR of Vicenza).

However, if there is a lack of women as a normal, equal presence in the theology classes of seminaries, it is not possible that there should be no female model to inspire their training.

We look for this in the Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis (2016) which follows and renewed that of 1970, and which was amended in 1985. This Ratio is about the general guidelines for the formation of priests, which must be “unique, integral, communal, missionary” (n.3) in the Seminaries.

No. 95 states: “The first place where every person learns to know and appreciate the world of women is naturally the family; in the family, the presence of women accompanies the whole of the formative process and, from childhood, constitutes a positive contribution to integral growth.  The presence of women in the family accompanies the entire formative process and, from childhood on, constitutes a positive contribution to the integral growth of women. An analogous reflection can be made on the witnessing presence of female consecrated life”."

Prayer and service in pastoral work, a spirit of sacrifice and self-denial, care and tender closeness to others. In fact, it corresponds to the model of women believers still offered to a girl or a young man in the parish: catechists, coadjutants of various kinds, domestic helpers in the parish churches, church cleaners. Even when they animate prayer or are extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist, they represent a female model of support for the priest's pastoral action. The ‘woman in the shadows’ is the stereotype of women in the Church, and the stereotype orients what is possible in the people who are part of it. It tends to reproduce limited opportunities.  Sometimes it harbors the hidden violence of gender relations in the Church. This means that some young women may by chance meet or through the richness of the Spirit choose to become theologians and seek different forms of participation, but ordinarily it will not even occur to them. Here too it can obviously be objected that today there are women who teach in theological faculties, women who write books on theology, women who go to dioceses to hold exegesis meetings. However, for a model to be a model it must be present, widespread and visible. It must have faces and names. Like that of Mary Melone, who was elected rector of the Pontifical Antonian University in 2014; and, that of Myriam Cortés Diéguez, who was elected rector of the Pontifical University of Salamanca the following year.

It is really impossible not to notice how n. 96 of the Ratio, or what immediately follows, deals with the “weaknesses” and “moments of crisis of the seminarian” which “if adequately understood and treated (...), can and must become occasions for conversion”. The association is woman-weakness-overcoming-conversion. On the other hand, the “community of formators” (n. 132) “is made up of chosen and well-prepared presbyters”. Moreover, “it is preferable that the majority of the Faculty body be made up of presbyters” (n. 146). 

In the Ratio, the decisive chapter dedicated to the formative value of women is however n. 151, and reads as thus: “The presence of women in the formation process of the seminary, or among the specialists or in the sphere of teaching, the apostolate, families or service to the community, has its own formative value, also in order to recognise the complementarity between men and women. Women often represent a majority presence numerically among the recipients and collaborators of the priest’s pastoral action, offering an edifying testimony of humble, generous and disinterested service”. The recognition of the role of women in the Church is something so obvious and evangelically serious that there is no point in going over the foundations here. Theologians have been doing this in a public, competent and systematic way for at least sixty years. What would the Church be like if women were present in the decision-making framework in a systematic manner, according to precise procedures, not just occasionally by paternal co-option by some enlightened bishop? One has to wonder whether the paedophilia scandal involving priests would really be so widespread, long lasting and incapable of resolution if women were co-responsible in the governance of the Church. A “suspended thought”, Monsignor Luciano Bordignon defines the question of women in the Church today. Even in Vicenza, that unthought-of opening, strenuously defended by Bishop Onisto, has not led to a new opportunity. Women who have obtained a license and a doctorate have not been called upon, involved, enabled to be co-responsible in training and not even in theological instruction. At the most, here and there as “workers”, says Bordignon.

As Elizabeth Green writes, the Church was able to cross ethnic boundaries early on, but has not yet managed to cross gender boundaries, even if this means depriving the believing community of talents and services. This is a scandal today, and as if this is not enough, one reads in it a betrayal of the Gospel. The Church seems to be a self-destructive patient. Imprisoned in its denial. Hierarchical structures are always self-referential; they do not reform from within. Paradoxically, it is women believers who have never truly and meaningfully held positions in the Church's hierarchical structure, which can help it emerge from the crisis that is emptying churches and seminaries. It is precisely from their position of a non-hostile, friendly, allied outsider that this could be reversed. It is worth continuing to try.

by Mariapia Veladiano
Writer, graduate in philosophy and theology


Elena is denied her degree


Elena is remembered as the first woman in the world to graduate, but she was unable to study theology, as she would have liked. Elena Lucrezia Corner Piscopia (Venice, 5 June 1646 - Padua, 26 July 1684), an erudite Benedictine oblate, had studied philosophy, theology, Greek, Latin, Hebrew and Spanish and at some of most important academies. When her father Giovanni Battista, an enlightened man, asked that his daughter be allowed to graduate in theology at Padua university, Cardinal Gregorio Barbarigo objected on the grounds that it was “an absurdity” that a woman could become a “doctor”, because it would mean “making ourselves ridiculous to the whole world”. Instead, in 1678, at the age of 32, Elena was awarded a degree in philosophy, but she could not teach because she was a woman.