Thursday, March 11, 2010

Vatican Daily on Abuse: "Where Were the Women?"

With the European outbreak of sex-abuse scandals turning a renewed focus on the Vatican and its response, today's edition of the "Papal Paper" -- the Holy See's daily L'Osservatore Romano -- features a significant, prominently-placed piece on the presence of women (or lack thereof) in church governance... and how, even with full regard for the integrity of orders as-is, an enhanced adherence to papal teaching on a female role in the "decision-making spheres" could've impacted matters to a more salutary end.

Appearing on the front page and above the fold -- the spot reserved for the paper's lead article -- the commentary was written by L'Osservatore's leading contributor of late, the historian/journalist Lucetta Scaraffia. As if the news context wasn't appropriate enough, the piece ran just on the heels of Monday's observance of the 100th International Women's Day.

Given its import, below is a full translation of Scaraffia's article, with thanks to the house's most cherished Sister-collaborator for quickly turning around an impeccable edit.

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Women and men in today's church

A collaboration ancient and new

by Lucetta Scaraffia

The changes in Western society that have allowed women to occupy spaces previously reserved only to men -- changes that are influencing other cultures in the world -- have provoked a revolution in the configuration of gender roles, also placing before the Catholic church the question of enlarging the role of women. It brings up a problem of equality on which the Christian tradition has been quite clear since its origins, sparking an authentic revolution in the clashes over ways of conceiving sexual differences. In its time, this radical change originated contemporaneously with the feminist revolution in Western society. But if, in centuries past, the church showed itself more open than the secular world in confronting the issue of woman, today the situation is turned on its head, and the external and internal pressure is strong and urgent for the Catholic world to tackle it.

Until now, the Catholic response has been articulated above all on the theoretical plain, whereas in secular society changes were theorized as they were taking place and, therefore, there was little awareness of the risks that many of these revolutionary innovations could bring about, for example, the demographic collapse. The Church’s posture offers an initial advantage, because the trajectory by which it must move to a greater feminine presence is clear: John Paul II's Mulieris dignitatem indeed reminded us that women must be attributed roles of equal importance, albeit of different nature, to those of men in the life of the Church, a principle likewise recalled by Cardinal Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in his Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and the World.

The problem, however, is that this important theoretical articulation was not also followed up with as clear a transformation in the female participation in the life of the church, or at least, a participation which, even if significantly broadened, has been almost always kept outside the spheres of decision-making, and the areas of cultural expression. It can be understood, then, that the stress on exclusion -- often without merit and subtle though it is -- can be felt. It is not just a problem of social justice, or of "equal opportunity," for the church thus often risks not yielding fruit or of making a contribution of prime importance.

One example suffices: in the sorrowing and shameful situations in which the molestation and sexual abuse by ecclesiastics on the young entrusted to them come to light, we can hypothesize that a greater, non-subordinated feminine presence would have been able to rip the veil of the code of masculine silence ["omertà"] that in the past often covered over in silence the denunciation of misdeeds. Indeed, women, religious and lay, would be by nature more inclined to the defense of the young in cases of sexual abuse, ridding the church of the evils that these guilty attitudes have procured for it.

In some way, this was perceived in the second half of the nineteenth century by Daniele Comboni, who was beatified and canonized by John Paul II. Assuming the highly-difficult task of organizing the Christian missions in the present-day Sudan, where almost no European had previously adventured, he quickly understood that his project couldn't be realized without the presence of women religious. He sought then, amid thousands of difficulties, to found a congregation of female missionaries prepared to place themselves in very savage and dangerous locales. His choice was motivated by many reasons: religious women, in fact, were tougher and inserted themselves more easily into different cultural contexts.

The great missionary was likewise convinced that the presence of Western women alongside that of his male missionaries would help to maintain appropriate behavior, and above all would keeep them from violating the vow of chastity, a danger not infrequent in isolated places, where sexual promiscuity, and above all power-roles in interacting with women and children rendered the temptation likely. Comboni wrote, in fact, that the sister is "essential" for the missions, because "she is a defense and a guarantee for the missionary." This historical example indicates a possibility, realizable among many others, of the collaboration and reciprocal aid that women and men can exchange in the life of the church in the service of the human person. In fact, it's almost non existent among congregations that along with a male branch also exists a female one: a sign of that intuition that foresees in the specific role of the consecrated woman a gift that only she is able to bring.
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