The international initiative Voices of Faith seeks to both shine a light on the contributions women are making in the Church and in the world and advocate for expanded opportunities for women at all levels of Church governance.
On March 8, 2016, from inside the Vatican, women from around the world shared stories of fighting human trafficking, poverty, child marriage and more during the 3rd annual Voices of Faith Event. A two-part event, the first half highlighted women leaders and experts from around the world who shared how their work helps curb the violence, exploitation and poverty women and children face daily. Their incredible journeys of faith, tenacity and courage are a witness to the Gospel message that overturns those cultural and societal norms that denigrate, de-value and de-humanize women and children.
During the second half of the event, a multi-generational panel of five women including Gayatri Lobo Gajiwala, Nicole Perone, Petra Dankova, Geralyn Sheehan and Carolyn Woo along with moderator, Tom Smolich, S.J., talked about the ways the Church has grown in terms of including women’s gifts, but also shared their ideas for expanding women’s roles within the Catholic Church. The panel discussion can be viewed at the Voices of Faith website (1:40 – 2:44). The transcript can be read on the FutureChurch website. The 2015 panel discussion transcript is also available.
Very often, people wonder if the expansion of women’s roles within the Church is connected to the plight of women in the world and the challenge of confronting violence against them with Gospel values.
The connection is strong and clear.
- The Catholic Church misses out on the wealth of resources women bring when it excludes them from decision making within the Church. Catholic women have been pioneers on the Catholic frontier since the beginning. Because they work closely with those who have suffered and those at the margins, they are effective in making the Gospel a reality. Their dedicated service is woven into the fabric of Catholic life, especially in areas such as health care, parish life, education, social services, poverty reduction, care for orphans and children and care for the planet. They are CEOs, presidents, CFOs, chancellors and provosts, yet they have no place at the table when it comes to the development of Church teaching, canon law, the choosing of bishops and many other areas that affect Church life. Those who live at the margins would benefit from the insights, wisdom, intellect and faith of Catholic women in the ongoing development of Catholic teaching, policy, doctrine, law and other disciplines that affect Catholic life.
- Effective governance pivots on the ability to have an inclusive and diverse governing body filled with people who have a stake in the outcomes associated with the mission. Francis has begun that work in earnest appointing bishops and cardinals from outside of Europe and the West to new posts. But that drive for diversity should not end with prelates. It should also include a healthy influx of women and laity from diverse regions of the world. When a governing body includes those whose wise counsel comes from experience in the field, the governing body builds its capacity to respond more effectively to those most in need.
- Models matter. And what the Catholic Church models matters. The Catholic Church has enormous influence in the world. It is a global player and its decisions affect the lives of women (Catholic and those who are not Catholic) everywhere. For instance, the Vatican has significant influence at the United Nations both helping and sometimes crippling the efforts to bring women into full equality worldwide.When Pope Francis decreed that women should be included in the foot washing rite on Holy Thursday, women in Kerala, India and in Washington D.C. were included for the first time. When the Church models equality; when it models justice for women and men; when it creates new realities for women based on the deeply egalitarian practices of Jesus — it serves as a counter-cultural model — a beacon of new life for women everywhere, but especially in regions that unapologetically view women as second class citizens.
- We need to move beyond the few to the many. Much of what the Church accomplishes is enormously life-giving, but it has not fully embraced or integrated women’s gifts, talents or faith into its governance structures. Panelist Nicole Perone stressed that most Catholics cannot name Catholic women leaders in the same way they can name Catholic male leaders. Carolyn Woo, President and CEO of Catholic Relief Services, pointed out, that while a few women have risen to the top of their field, these women are the exceptions and not the rule.
According to Woo, we need:
- The engagement of women as leaders in the Church to move from the exceptional to the habitual; from ad hoc to systematic.
- The engagement of women as family; not as guests or guest workers.
- To cast the feminine genius as more than simply being sensitive, intuitive and nourishing to include qualities such as entrepreneurial and persistent acting as a social critic and speaking truth to power.
- To make the Church not only a provider of services to women, but also an advocate for their rights.
The Church will be more credible as a teaching body and more effective in spreading the Gospel when it fully incorporates women into all levels of Church governance, ministry, leadership and life.
The Voices of Faith effort seeks to put a spotlight on the ways in which women are leading today while advocating for a new tomorrow where women will step up alongside their brothers fostering a richer brand of Catholicism and a more effective Gospel outreach for all people.