· Vatican City ·


The Interview
Women, brotherhood, and otherness. The perspective of the Archbishop of Algiers, Jean-Paul Vesco

“Yes, the Church has a problem”

02 March 2024

The Archbishop of Algiers, Jean-Paul Vesco, a French-Algerian at sixty-one, has reflected at length on the notion of brotherhood and otherness. This is one of the fruits of his experience in Algeria and his membership in the Dominican order, which permeates his thinking about women.

Does the Catholic Church have a problem with women?

The wording of the question is rather provocative, but yes, the Church has had a problem with women for centuries, as have the other two monotheisms in general and perhaps most religions. Nevertheless, this does not count as an excuse; it would have been so nice and legitimate if it had been different for Christianity from the very beginning! With a few happy recent exceptions, women are absent from the governance and commentary of God’s Word during the Sunday celebration, while elsewhere they are present everywhere. They are the “flesh” of the parishes, and often the soul of those domestic churches that are the families and it is always they, more often than not, who are in charge of catechism.

In our representation, the Church is by definition timeless, a patriarchal Church outside of the current trends, fashions and outrages of time. However, in the absence of greater involvement of women in roles of responsibility and visibility, our Church paradoxically runs the risk of becoming an obsolete Church, not timeless but anachronistic and outdated in her organization. The Catholic, i.e., the universal, Church, if not of the world, is nevertheless inscribed in the world and cannot take refuge in a self-referenced niche logic with respect to the world. The issue of the responsibilities of the laity, and therefore of women, was widely raised during the consultations preceding the synod, yet today the problem is plain to see. The war over altar boys’, which would like there to be only boys around the altar, as is the case in some places, is no longer thinkable. In the Vatican’s dicasteries, where women are beginning to be more numerous than in the past, and where they occupy positions of greater responsibility, the climate is completely different. It only takes a few women for the Curia to cease being that narrow clerical group that is unfortunately so easily stigmatized.

It is often said that today it would be impossible to convene a council at the universal Church level because of the practical difficulty of gathering more than 5,000 bishops; yet that is not the problem. The image of the Paul VI hall, during the synod, with cardinals, bishops, priests, men and women religious, laymen and women, around tables, on the same floor, shows a change of epoch, the realization that it has become impossible to decide only among bishops. In a way, the synod on synodality, in a very natural way, made the prospect of a Vatican Council III obsolete! Who could imagine today that the future of the Church could be discerned in an assembly of only bishops?

What is the role of women in the government of the Diocese of Algiers?

In our diocese, in addition to the various councils, I wanted to surround myself with a small team made up of the main leaders of the diocesan curia: the vicar general, the secretary general, the bursar, the assistant bursar, the person in charge of the diaconate, and myself. This team happens to be composed of four women and two men. Most of the decisions are made together. More generally, I live in an essentially female environment, and it is a daily joy! Which is not to say that there is not any friction. One day, one of them pointed out to me, “In the end, however, you make the decision!” True, that is a true observation. In our Catholic Church, the bishop who embodies them makes decisions. The model can undoubtedly evolve. In this regard, models of governance in religious life can be inspiring: many decisions are made by chapters or elected councils, and limitations on the decision-making power of superiors take nothing away from their symbolic power. That said, it seems to me that in most cases, the trust that arises from mutual acquaintance and the pursuit of a common project means that most decisions are made by broad consensus when not unanimity.  Moreover, in each case, the opinions of every one are heard and influence, in one way or another, the final decision. I think it is a powerful experience for each and every one, including me!

Behind the issue of women is that of the role of the laity...

Certainly! During the diocesan phase of the synod on synodality in the Diocese of Algiers, the Country’s native Christians clearly expressed their desire to participate in the life of the Church. They rightly consider the Church as their Church as Algerians. However, they feel marginalized compared to those of us who are “tenured”, whom are predominantly religious and foreigners. In fact, since the Country’s independence they have represented the essence of the Church’s vital forces. In fact, they were almost absent from decision-making bodies before. We have listened to their call and kept it particularly in mind in the composition of the different councils, episcopal, economic and pastoral. In the episcopal council, there are two priests, one religious, one focolarina, and five Algerian lay people, including two women. This creates a completely different climate. Again, we go beyond the inner circle. It is not always easy and nothing is obvious, but our codes, our obviousness, must be set aside. We must learn to understand each other and measure the gulf of misunderstanding that sometimes separates us and of which we were unaware because it had no place of expression. Our Church must become much less clerical; it is a challenge to the universal Church at every level and in every place. This challenge is not without a claim to power, with all that unpleasantness that it may entail. However, to reproach the other for wanting to take power often means exercising that power without necessarily being aware of it. This is why I have difficulty dismissing the claims of women in the Church with a “Why do they want power?”

In several societies, the functioning of the Church on these issues clashes with the democratic ideal.

The principle of hierarchical organization of the Church is monarchically inspired...except for hereditary succession! The human organization is the guarantor of unity and has proven it repeatedly. In any case, this is who we are. This does not exclude the presence within it of more democratic functioning and instances, as is the case in modern monarchies. Our brothers and sisters in the Protestant Churches have this democratic, that is, synodal, culture in their blood, and we undoubtedly have much to learn from them in this great movement of synodality in the Catholic style initiated by the Holy Father. The synodal dynamic will not stop, it will extend and spread to all levels of the Church without, however, calling into question her sacramental structure. Any step backward will immediately appear very anachronistic because the Church concerns everyone who has been baptized. I am deeply convinced that responsibility in the Church, of whom power issues are a distortion, increases as one shares it. Sharing responsibility means increasing it, and our Church suffers from a great deficit of accountability.

What are your thoughts on the female diaconate?

On a personal note, I strongly wish for it to come about! It seems impossible to me to deprive the faithful, and thus myself, of the female reception of the Word of God. None of the arguments put forward have ever convinced me. So yes, I would like to see the issue of the female diaconate advanced or at least one more step taken toward allowing women and, more generally, trained lay people, to comment on the Word of God as part of the Sunday celebration. Unlike the presbyteral ministry, the female diaconate is rooted in the tradition of the Church, and I struggle to understand the objections that can be raised, except that reserving the presbyterate, that is, the exercise of the sacred, for men. On this issue of ministries, as on that of governance, the horizon is revealed and broadened as we walk. What seemed unthinkable yesterday can thus easily become a fact tomorrow. An exclusively male presence in the presbytery, the great exclusively male entrance processions, all this seems natural to us today. Will it always be so or will it one day seem too anachronistic? Just asking the question already provokes a change of perspective....

Does not the problem stem from the fact that women’s vocations are often considered not of and in themselves, but in relation to men’s vocations?

Indeed, the female vocation in the Church is traditionally thought of in terms of complementarity. However, this is no longer enough; it must also be thought of in terms of otherness. The female vocation is valid in itself. This dimension of otherness is present in married life. Tasks are shared, both parents can work; take care of the children, etc. Each one performs them in their diversity of sex, of character. In short, they are the same tasks that are performed differently, which is true in all areas of society. How can one think that there cannot be an echo of this social evolution within the Church in the way charisms and ministries are exercised, respecting the tradition, which is not a dead body but a living body, at the same time immobile, yet always moving.

The question of otherness refers back to the question of brotherhood. In fact, brotherhood requires and at the same time makes otherness possible. The same cannot be said of spiritual fatherhood. I believe in spiritual paternity, as a Dominican friar in formation I have experienced it. Nevertheless, this spiritual paternity I received from a brother, from an alter far ahead of me in religious life, and in holiness too. If he had not passed away earlier, I could have been his prior provincial. I am struggling with institutionalized spiritual fatherhood as we experience it in the Church. The roles are never reversed, as is the case with fatherhood in real life, where the relationships between parents and children continue to evolve throughout life. One day the children take care of the parents. The same is not true for the patriarch, who retains his authority until death. In addition, in that sense, institutionalized spiritual fatherhood seems to me more like a patriarchal model than a paternal one. Brotherhood, as in a true fraternity, makes all forms of relationship possible. An older sister may for a time have a maternal role with respect to her younger brother. Something will always remain, but each will experience the fundamental otherness they received as both children of the same parents. Life will take it upon itself to evolve their bond and, perhaps, at some point, reverse it.

I deeply believe that our Church must think of herself more as a community of brothers and sisters. This is the highest witness it can offer to the world. More than a power struggle, there should be a necessary rebalancing between clerics and laity, between men and women, which is a matter of otherness and brotherhood. If I like to be called brother, rather than father or monsignor, it is not out of false modesty or vanity. Instead, it is precisely because of this question of otherness, which does not derive from a choice, but from a fact: I need the brothers and sisters of my diocese, just as I needed my Dominican brothers and sisters to be what I am for them.

Journalist, and the permanent special correspondent for “La Vie” in Rome.