The following report was written by CWS member Tina Beattie on Sunday, 4th March:

[This post was amended on 5th March]

It was good to hear BBC Radio 4 dedicating time on its Sunday programme today to the ways in which women of faith are marking International Women’s Day. There was a voice-over which was taken from the promotional video for the Voices of Faith (VoF) event in Rome on March 8th (not acknowledged by the BBC!), followed by an excellent interview with Muslim activist Yassmin Abdel-Magied. You can listen to these by going to the BBC iPlayer link here – this section of the programme starts at about 19.07 minutes in to the programme. You can also watch the VoF video below.

Later in the programme, Luke Hansen SJ represented VoF in a debate with Catholic media commentator Caroline Farrow, chaired by presenter Edward Stourton. The topic was the decision by VoF to move this year’s event from the Vatican to the premises of Jesuit Refugee Service in Rome, rather than accept the Vatican’s refusal to approve some of the speakers – including former President of Ireland Mary McAleese, and Ugandan LGBT campaigner Ssenfuka Joanita Warry, both devout Catholics. You can listen to the debate on iPlayer at about 37 minutes into the programme, or you can listen to it here:

Farrow defended the decision to ban McAleese by arguing that, if allowed to speak, McAleese would focus on “female ordination”. She then proceeded to try to steer the interview towards that issue, suggesting that, if McAleese spoke, she would lead the discussion “in quite an unhelpful direction”. In fact, as a relevant aside, Farrow is wrong to say that the Vatican has ended any discussion of female ordination. There has recently been a Commission appointed by Pope Francis to consider the question of women deacons. Its findings have not yet been released, but the diaconate is an ordained ministry. The last three popes have tried to close the door on the ordination of women to the sacramental priesthood, but not on ordination per se. That is still open to debate—even in the Vatican. So if she wanted to address this issue, Farrow should have been more careful in her choice of words.

However, the point is that, as far as I know, not even the organisers know what McAleese will be speaking about, so I’m not sure where Farrow gets her information from. Moreover, I have heard McAleese speak many times and I have never heard her focus on women’s ordination. Perhaps Farrow mistakenly thinks that VoF campaigns for women’s ordination and that’s what the event on March 8th will be about, but as Hansen points out, VoF has no position on women’s ordination. That issue has never been raised at any VoF event. The Vatican doesn’t like McAleese for many reasons – she was a vocal supporter of same-sex marriage during the Irish referendum in 2015, as were many other prominent Catholics, and she joked during the Synod on the Family that probably none of the bishops participating had ever changed a nappy. As a barrister who studied for a doctorate on canon law and children’s rights at the Gregorian University in Rome, she is perhaps more theologically literate and she is most certainly more politically astute than many members of the Catholic hierarchy.

Hansen was measured, calm and persuasive in his responses. He gave a balanced representation of VoF, making clear that the organisation focuses on women’s leadership, not on women’s ordination. He also pointed out how often Pope Francis has encouraged open dialogue in the Church about contested issues: “Pope Francis has repeatedly emphasised the importance of dialogue and discernment. … He has emphasised that bishops should speak boldly, they should listen humbly, they shouldn’t be afraid to take positions that they think might not be in favour with the Pope.” The claim made by Cardinal Farrell earlier this week that anybody who speaks in the Vatican is presumed to speak in full agreement with the Pope was demonstrably wrong, as Hansen implies and as Robert Mickens argues in his recent Letter from Rome. This is a short video recording of Cardinal Farrell explaining his decision not to approve McAleese as a speaker and to withdraw his sponsorship of the VoF event. He was responding to a question by Mickens at an event to launch A Pope Francis Lexicon, edited by Joshua McElwee and Cindy Wooden, with 11 members of Catholic Women Speak among the contributors.

(Video by Claudia Giampietro)

The Catholic tradition is capable of accommodating a rich plurality of cultures, theological perspectives and voices of difference. If it were as fragile as the dictatorial custodians of doctrine and conformity suggest, it would never have become the most successful and dynamic institution in history. It is censorship, not dialogue, that is the greatest threat to the modern Church. If the Catholic Church survived Martin Luther, why do its leaders think it could be destroyed by devout women campaigning for more, not less, participation in the life, faith and leadership of the Church?

Every Catholic woman, whatever her views, should surely celebrate what McAleese represents, for she is living evidence of the extent to which Catholicism empowers women leaders through its values, ethos and educational institutions, often in spite of its hierarchical representatives!