Cardinal Pietro Parolin at a UNESCO conference in Paris

Women in leadership

 Women in leadership  ING-043
28 October 2022

“Reversing the embarrassing and asymmetrical relationship” that exists between “funds allocated to armaments” and “public spending on education”, especially of women, at a time “when education is at the mercy of a profound crisis with an uncertain future, exacerbated by the devastating consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic and an extremely dangerous geopolitical scenario, where too many girls and women continue to pay the price”. This was the bold challenge Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin presented to States at a conference organized by Caritas Internationalis at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris.

Thirty speakers were invited to join in a conversation on the theme, “The Full Face of Humanity: Women in leadership for a just society”, over two days of discussion sessions, that concluded on Friday, 28 October. Sr Alessandra Smerilli, Secretary of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, also gave an address.

They were two intense days to make a point about the condition of women around the world and to consider questions relating to their rights. To that end, Cardinal Parolin noted that “UNESCO represents a privileged forum for reflecting on the indispensable value of women in society and in the Church. As such, it brings us to the primordial centrality of education as the key to the development of each person, as well as the main way to address consciously the structural inequalities that undermine civil coexistence”.

Regarding the rest, the Secretary of State explained that “without the right to education, any discussion on the promotion of women risks being an empty exercise in rhetoric”. Promoting education instead, means “emphasising the fundamental importance of the processes of human, spiritual, intellectual and professional growth that enable them to insert themselves in society on a par with men”.

The Cardinal focused especially on inclusiveness as a mean of education. “The ability to include”, he said, “is not an innate predisposition, but always requires an effort to step out of the comfort zone of one’s own security in order to make room for the novelty and richness of the other”. This, he continued, “is generally the fruit of an ongoing training in the culture of dialogue”. Thus, inclusion “requires an open heart and a vision free from stereotypes and conventions that exclude or confine people, classifying them into categories or distinguishing them into ‘superior’ and ‘inferior’ classes, more or less worthy of attention and protection, more or less authorised to make their voices heard in public space”. Moreover, he added, being “intellectually honest, one must admit that the noble goal of inclusion is not always immune from reductive and distorted interpretations of the human person, which sometimes go so far as to hold that religion is an obstacle to the absolute freedom of self-determination of the person, and of women in particular”. He called it “a radical way of thinking”, which he said “also emerges in the latest UNESCO report on Education”. From here stems the Holy See’s concern with “certain ideological drifts”, which, “under the pretext of ‘responding to certain sometimes understandable aspirations’, actually end up demeaning the very understanding of women and their rights”.

Therefore, in order to guarantee “women’s genuine emancipation”, said the Cardinal, “we cannot be content with offering abstract and simplified answers, which do not have the courage to consider fully the complex and painful situations experienced by millions of girls and women, in very different geographical and cultural contexts”. For Cardinal Parolin, “proposing a one-size-fits-all, or partial and exclusive solutions, which may only apparently be easier and more immediate” is not the answer. “Inclusion as a method rather should spur us on, with patience and determination, to generate educational processes that are not merely standardised or coming down from above, nor limited to their utility or results”. He continued, “inclusion must be willing to interconnect all the components of society to offer creative and responsible paths of human maturation, which are appropriate to the dignity of women”.

He then further explored the question of inclusive education, reminding those present of “the high percentage of girls who, in many developing countries, where a large proportion of the population already lives in extreme poverty, is marginalised or has more difficulty in accessing education than their age peers”. The Cardinal explained that it is precisely in these places that girls who drop out of school are most likely to become mothers at a very young age or “to marry before they are physically and emotionally ready”, leading to “a wide range of negative repercussions” on their health and in their “inclusion in the world of work as well as within their families and communities, where they are often exposed to stigma, violence and abuse”. However, the Secretary of State noted that this is also the case “in developed countries, where educational disparities are often linked to income, race and various situations of vulnerability”.

Cardinal Parolin lamented the use of religion “to hinder girls’ full participation in education”. He then expressed his hope that women will be given access to quality education capable of transcending “the territorial, social, cultural and political barriers that prevent truly equal access to the various levels of school education”.

In sum, education, according to the Cardinal, can be considered “inclusive and of quality” only “if it is able to provide critical thinking” and propose “criteria of social justice aimed at assisting the weakest and most defenceless from inequity and waste”; and only if it “engages in the personal and family history of each child, promoting respect for the other, unmasking the multiple forms of violence, abuse and prevarication of women”.

In the final part of his address, Cardinal Parolin focused on the “values of femininity as a gift for humanity”. In fact, he commented, “whenever there is a need for formative work, one can see the immense willingness of women to commit themselves in this effort, especially for the benefit of the weakest and most defenceless”. Moreover, he added, women “realise a form of affective, cultural and spiritual motherhood, of truly inestimable value, for the impact it has on the development of the person and the future of society”. For this reason, “society is largely in debt to women”.

The Secretary of State spoke too of the Church and the Holy See’s institutional commitment to women’s leadership. Bravely admitting the “delays and shortcomings” in said commitment, the Cardinal expressed his hope for an end to “unjust discrimination”, replaced instead with respect for “each person beyond differences”. Since the Second Vatican Council was opened 60 years ago, “many women, both consecrated and lay, have been progressively involved in the collegial and decision-making bodies of the Roman Curia and the universal Church, to the point of holding positions of responsibility once reserved for clerics”. Nevertheless, he observed, this process of inclusion “cannot be reduced to a redistribution of roles, but must be extended to a dutiful understanding of how to make room for female originality”, as Saint Paul VI, Saint John Paul II — and now Pope Francis — inferred, because women have an “innate capacity to ‘give life’, to ‘make others be’ and to take care of them”. And, concluded the Cardinal, “although reflection on the advancement of women has contributed to great successes, much remains to be done”.