[This statement was edited to make it shorter and more focused on 10 February 2018]
Members of Catholic Women Speak (CWS) are deeply concerned by the controversy surrounding the Voices of Faith (VoF) event in Rome on 8th March to celebrate International Women’s Day, as a result of some speakers not being approved by the Vatican. We understand that this was not the only reason for the move to the nearby aula of the Jesuit curia. Nevertheless, we want to express our support for VoF in not succumbing to censorship, and our appreciation to Jesuit Refugee Service for partnering VoF and agreeing to host the event in the aula, with all the proposed speakers included in the programme.
CWS does not campaign on any single issue, other than that of ensuring that women have a right to speak and be heard in the Church as much as in any other institution. Mary McAleese, former President of Ireland, is an internationally respected world leader. She is a barrister who studied for a doctorate in Canon Law at the Gregorian University in Rome, and a leading light of Ireland’s beleaguered and alienated Catholic community. We believe that it brings ridicule and disgrace upon the Church to refuse to allow a person of her stature to speak at an event in the Vatican. Ssenfuka Joanita Warry is a devout Catholic and a leading advocate for LGBT rights in Uganda, where she risks imprisonment for speaking out for justice for all in a gender-inclusive vision of leadership in society and the Church. Again, it beggars belief that any member of the Catholic hierarchy could refuse to allow such a person permission to speak in the Vatican.
These are women who in their different ways are living witnesses to the kind of evangelizing faith Pope Francis is calling for. In Evangelii Gaudium he writes:
An evangelizing community gets involved by word and deed in people’s daily lives; it bridges distances, it is willing to abase itself if necessary, and it embraces human life, touching the suffering flesh of Christ in others. Evangelizers thus take on the “smell of the sheep” and the sheep are willing to hear their voice. An evangelizing community is also supportive, standing by people at every step of the way, no matter how difficult or lengthy this may prove to be. (EG 24)
This is the Church to which we dedicate ourselves, and this means speaking out, taking risks, being free to challenge, to dare, and to make mistakes. Pope Francis also writes that
God’s word is unpredictable in its power. The Gospel speaks of a seed which, once sown, grows by itself, even as the farmer sleeps (Mk 4:26-29). The Church has to accept this unruly freedom of the word, which accomplishes what it wills in ways that surpass our calculations and ways of thinking. (EG 22)
How can the “unruly freedom” of the Word of God be heard, if the Church exercises a regime of censorship and silencing with regard to women’s voices? This militates against becoming the kind of Church that we believe might truly have the vision, the power and the joy to transform our world from violence, competition and conflict to a more harmonious and just way of being together in God’s creation.
Many CWS members know all too well how costly it is to stay loyal to the institutional Church and the hierarchy when so often our energies are sapped, our endeavours are rejected and our voices are silenced or ignored. Every month we hear stories of women who have given up and left for less oppressive and controlling faith environments, and we know that these are only the tip of the iceberg. Women are abandoning the Church in droves, and when women leave, the next generation goes with them.
For this reason, we must speak out when we see women being marginalized and rejected because they are not regarded as safe conformists by those who seem more concerned with protecting the status quo than with addressing the deep injustices that still go unchallenged within Catholic institutions. These include the misogyny that flourishes when women are treated like children, as subordinates to be ruled and not as fully equal participants in the life of the Church.
We urge those members of the hierarchy who share Pope Francis’s vision to stand up and be counted, to declare that they too are willing to work towards a Church of equals in which nobody will be silenced because their faith is too radical, their vision too dangerous, their witness too effusive. Pope Francis refers to Catholics in whom “A supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads … to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying.” (EG 94) There should be no room for such behaviour in the Church of today, and those who fail to challenge it become complicit by their silence. How might you show your support? You could start by attending the VoF event if you’re in Rome on 8th March!
We are Catholic women and we shall continue to speak. We refuse to be cowed into silence, and we refuse to be bullied into leaving quietly. We are staying in and speaking out. We are staying in and standing up.
Listen to Tina Beattie’s interview with Roisin McAuley of BBC Radio Ulster about the VoF event (starting at about 10:28 minutes in to the programme).