Forbidden to the priesthood, some Catholic women find other roles | World news

By CLAIRE GIANGRAVÈ of Religion News Service and DAVID CRARY of The Associated Press

ROME (AP) – Women aspiring to leadership in the Catholic Church have long accepted the glass ceiling that exists in the male-dominated institution, but the wave of female appointments of Pope Francis in the Vatican hierarchy suggests that change, however small, is underway.

An increasing number of women are occupying important positions in the church and in the Vatican. But it is the roles that women occupy at the local level – in parishes, dioceses and universities – that suggest to Catholic women that despite the institution’s slowness to change, women are taking the lead, making new demands and inspire new perspectives.

Nuns in the United States were among those who set the tone. Several of them have played a leading role in activism for social justice; two others were recent leaders of the Catholic Church’s vast network of hospitals and health centers.

Women cannot be ordained and become priests, bishops, or popes in the Catholic Church. He teaches that because Jesus chose only men as apostles, only men can lead the church and perform the sacraments.

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This story is part of an Associated Press and Religion News Service series on the role of women in male-led religions.

What is new is that the emancipation of women is “more and more a problem carried equally by men, including priests, bishops and cardinals. Even the Pope, ”declared Sister Nathalie Becquart, the first woman to be appointed under-secretary of the Synod of Bishops.

This important post, assigned to Becquart by the Pope in February, had previously only been occupied by bishops. She coordinates the preparations for the summits of bishops in the Vatican called synods.

While synods have always been an exclusively male forum for the clergy to discuss pressing church issues, under Francis they have become a springboard for women. Sister Alessandra Smerilli, an Italian economist, was appointed advisor to the 2015 Youth Synod before rising through the ranks.

This year, Francis appointed a biblical scholar, Sister Nuria Calduch-Bénages, as secretary of the Pontifical Biblical Commission. On November 4, he chose Sister Raffaella Petrini to be Secretary General to the Governor of Vatican City, making her the most senior woman in the Catholic city-state.

The first woman appointed to a Vatican congregation was Sister Luzia Premoli, a nun from Brazil. She says her 2014 appointment by Francis to the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples demonstrated her commitment to including more women as decision-makers.

Premoli joined the Comboni Missionary Sisters at age 23, becoming superior general overseeing missionaries in many African countries.

Speaking by phone from his missionary post in the Central African Republic, Premoli said his appointment to the Vatican has been slow to occur due to a “mentality within the church” that disapproves of women in the most senior positions. students.

“But for Jesus it was different,” she said. “He invited the women to follow him.

The injection of women into positions of authority in the Vatican is already changing the outlook, says Becquart.

After being brought up by the Pope, Becquart lived for six months in a house for the clergy near St. Peter’s Square. The priests were hesitant at first, but after a few shared meals and conversations they got used to the new arrival. “Now they say to me, ‘We miss you. Come back !’ “, did she say.

Around the world, a growing number of women are chancellors in dioceses and members of episcopal councils. In January, Francis changed canon law to allow women to be readers and acolytes, officially recognizing female service during mass.

In the United States recently, some of the most prominent women on the Catholic scene have been nuns engaged in social activism. These include Sister Helen Prejean, whose campaign against the death penalty was featured in the film “Dead Man Walking”; Sister Norma Pimentel, renowned for her advocacy for migrants along the US-Mexico border, and Sister Simone Campbell, who has led “Nuns on the Bus” trips across the country highlighting issues of economic injustice and social.

Among the influential nuns is Sister Mary Haddad, who since 2019 has served as president of the Catholic Health Association of the United States. Its network of hospitals, health centers and long-term care facilities is the largest group of non-profit health care providers in the country.

In high school, Haddad focused on sports, not a possible career in Catholic organizations, and went to Southern Illinois University on a field hockey scholarship.

A leadership opportunity quickly arrived. At 22, with a newly obtained Bachelor of Education degree, Haddad became a substitute teacher at a Catholic school in her hometown of Gillespie, Illinois. The parish priest was so impressed that in less than two months he asked him to become the principal.

“I remember clearly thinking that I’m not qualified – but if he feels like I have what it takes, I’m going to do it,” she said. “It was my first entry into the leadership of the church.”

Haddad went on to earn two master’s degrees and joined the Sisters of Mercy of America, working in health care, social services, and education in the United States, Trinidad and Tobago, and Belize.

Upon joining the order, Haddad occasionally spoke with another novice who disliked the ban on the ordination of women and aspired to become a priest. Haddad says she never shared this frustration.

“People ask me what it’s like to be a woman in a male-dominated church, thinking that I must feel submissive, but I don’t feel like that,” she said. “I had the opportunity to demonstrate my abilities to serve the Church of God. “

“My dad died in a car accident when I was 3, and I watched my mom take on her roles – she did it all,” Haddad added. “There is nothing a man can do that a woman cannot do. “

Among secular women reaching positions of power in American Catholicism is Carolyn Woo, who served as Dean of the University of Notre Dame Business School for 14 years before being President and CEO of Catholic Relief Services. from 2012 to 2016. CRS provides humanitarian assistance in over 100 countries, spending over $ 900 million annually.

Woo is not keen on debating the ordination of women. This argument “has absorbed every ounce of oxygen,” she says.

Instead, in face-to-face conversations and in an upcoming book, Woo stresses that there are rewarding options for women beyond the priesthood.

“When I meet young women, there is an implication, ‘Women really don’t have much influence,’” she said. “It takes time to get involved, to explain, ‘No, there are a lot of opportunities for women to lead. “

In 2016, Francis created a commission to study the possibility of women deacons, who can preside over services except for Mass and cannot perform the sacraments. In 2019, Francis said the commission’s report did not provide a “definitive answer” and launched a new study that is unfinished.

“This is all part of a postponement effort so as not to solve the problem,” said Lucetta Scaraffia, professor of history at Sapienza University in Rome. In 2012, Scaraffia was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI to lead “Women Church World”, a magazine published alongside the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano.

In 2019, she and many of her journalists resigned after posting articles about clerical servitude and sexual abuse of nuns. Scaraffia says the Vatican hierarchy forced the resignations by applying a noose around the publication.

Scaraffia is nuanced in her discussions about the ordination of women. “I think women should have authority in the Vatican and in church departments as normal women, as secular women, who see it differently,” she said.

Scaraffia believes the recent appointments of women to the Vatican are “symbolically and publicly important”. But reflecting her own experience, she says that these women “chosen by the ecclesial hierarchy, competent but obedient, have no real chance of interfering with the decisions of the Church”.

Instead, she says Pope Francis should appoint members of the International Union of Superiors General, which represents more than 600,000 nuns around the world, to serve on the Council of Cardinals, a hand-picked group of prelates. by the Pope as advisers.

The cultural pressure needed for the Catholic Church and the Vatican to empower more women can only come from outside, Scaraffia said.

“The church does not change – the women in the church are changing,” she said, “including the nuns who were silent and obedient for a long time. Now they are no longer silent and obedient. Now they are moving forward with their requests, their projects, their identity.

Crary reported from New York.

The Associated Press’s religious coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment via The Conversation US. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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