· Vatican City ·


The role of women in the Society of Jesus

A necessary dialogue

 Un dialogo necessario  DCM-001
07 January 2023

Women religious perceive the Society of Jesus to be gender-sensitive and inclusive. Nevertheless, in quite the same breath, they are unable to agree that men and Jesuits are necessarily better suited than women to work and lead Jesuit institutions. Certain respondents also point out that, from their experience, they continue to experience male dominance and to have been treated in a condescending manner. These are the conclusions of a pilot survey, carried out in recent months that involved 192 members of the Society of Jesus throughout the world, which will be completed by February 2023. The survey is the Commission’s first initiative looking at the role and responsibilities of women in the Society of Jesus.

Catherine Waiyaki, from Kenya, 55, and mother of Kamaru, Wangui and Kinyua, is the moderator of the Commission, which is made up of six laywomen, one religious, four Jesuits and one lay person. Catherine first encountered Ignatian spirituality in the Communities of Christian Life (CVX), an Ignatian lay community. Today, she is occupied with Jesuit formation and various Ignatian forums and projects; and currently involved in strategy formulation and development, and project management.

Catherine, the working group you moderate was created by the General, Father Arturo Sosa, also in response to Decree 14 of the 34th General Congregation in 1995, entitled “Jesuits and the Status of Women in the Church and Civil Society”. What does the decree call for?

 “In paragraph 16, the decree stresses the need for “reconciliation between women and men as an integral part of the Jesuit mission”. It specifies that the Society of Jesus accepts this challenge, and assumes the responsibility to do what it can as faithful, in the changed consciousness of these times, to its mission; the service of faith, of which the promotion of justice is an absolute requirement. First, the document invites Jesuits to ask God for the grace of conversion and to react personally and collectively, doing what they can to change this deplorable situation in which they have been participating, sometimes unwittingly. It also expresses appreciation for the generous contribution of women, who work in their mission, who have become part of the Ignatian tradition, as directors of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius retreats, and who have helped to reshape their theological tradition in a way that has liberated both men and women. The decree invites all Jesuits to listen carefully and courageously to the experience of women, especially since many women feel that men simply do not listen to them, and commits the Society more formally and explicitly to consider solidarity with women as an integral part of its mission”.

How did this awareness of the need to rethink the Society’s relationship with women come about?

 “In the 1983 General Congregation, Decree 1, number 45 mentioned “the unjust treatment and exploitation of women”. The experience of several Jesuits between that General Congregation and the 1995 General Congregation led to a desire to look at the issue of women in a more specific and substantive way. After all, it is a central concern of every mission today that seeks to integrate faith and justice, has a universal dimension, crosses class and cultural barriers, and is of personal concern to those who work with Jesuits in their mission, especially women, the lay and religious. This awareness has been growing thanks to both women’s and men’s protests. The Church, through its social teaching, has also been responding to combat discrimination and prejudice. The Society of Jesus accepted this challenge by issuing Decree 14, in which, among other things, Jesuits are invited to ask the Lord for the grace of conversion to recognise that they have been part of the discrimination and prejudice against women”.

The investigation is only just beginning. How do you intend to proceed?

“To date, we just have the preliminary observations of a pilot survey, conducted to test the instruments of the actual survey. Our partner is the Philippine Cultural Institute of the University of Manila. We hope to conduct the full survey by February 2023. We intend to reach a minimum of 1,440 respondents in the six Jesuit conferences, covering education, social apostolate, spiritual life and other Jesuit ministries and apostolates. With the support of the General Curia, the Assistancies and all interested Jesuit institutions and collaborators, we hope to gain insights to help the Commission formulate appropriate (and, why not, revolutionary) recommendations on how to strengthen the Society’s mission with the active participation of women. This includes the creation of spaces and mechanisms and to encourage dialogue between men and women within Jesuit works; recommendations to enable the effective promotion of practices that embody mutual respect, care and solidarity between men and women in the works of the Society, in accordance with the teachings of the Church and what has been requested by the recent General Congregations”.

by Vittoria Prisciandaro
A journalist with the St. Paul's Magazines “Credere” and “Jesus”