· Vatican City ·

Open issues

Service not servitude: the debate about women in the Indian Church

04 September 2021

Pope Francis repeatedly says, “Service yes, servitude no” when discussing the question of women in the Church. His distinction here between service not servitude is not subtle in the least. The difference between the terms is a response to the mission of “loving like Jesus” and that of “submitting to the authorities”, including those ecclesiastical. This is Sister Hazel D’Lima’s opinion, who is one of the Daughters of the Heart of Mary in India. This stance she shares with Sister Noella de Souza, of the Missionaries of Christ Jesus, and together, they have edited the book, It’s High Time. Women Religious Speak Up on Gender Justice in the Indian Church.

The book -which was also the subject of an international conference organized online by Voices of Faith-, is the result of a two-year study commissioned by the Conference of Religious India – Women’s Section. The study contains the results of a questionnaire circulated among the superiors of the congregations present in India, where 90,000 women religious live and work. The questionnaires were sent to 500 mother superiors, and received 121 responses; 25% of the sample group, which is a result that Sister Hazel considers qualitatively valid. What emerges from the exercise is a picture of prevarication that often spills over into abuse. The episodes recounted go beyond a hasty impression of rebellion against authority, which is sometimes misleadingly confused with the question of the vow of obedience.

On the table is not the assignment of menial labor in the vestries. Instead, there are cases of work that is often unpaid and obligatory, or paid at low wages. There is - and the text contains detailed and documented cases - the retaliatory will of some priests not to administer the sacraments to those sisters who have openly expressed their dissent. For Sister Noella, this is “Sacramental blackmail”. In addition, there is also prevarication in matters of property rights with the removal of land from women’s congregations. As testified by Father Philip Pinto, of the Congregation of Christian Brothers “Even in this the negotiating capacity between congregations of women religious and the clergy is much more limited than for orders of male religious”. In addition, as Father Pinto writes in the preface to the book, “hearing the stories of these women religious, I went through the full range of emotions, from anger to disbelief at male arrogance, to frustration, pain and shame. I have accompanied superiors in their quest for justice and listening to male bishops and religious provincials. This is now a call to action”. This action passes through the desire to establish a dialogue with the Indian Religious Conference because as Sister Noella said, “when women religious are not treated as equals, the Church is unable to radiate its beauty in all its fullness”.

by Elena Di Dio
Television Writer for Tv2000