Every Day Is International Women’s Day: A Discussion of Voices of Faith’s 2018 “Why Women Matter” Event and the Work of Feminist Ministries
Remarks from March 9, 2018 Teleconference (in order):
Kate McElwee, Executive Director, Women’s Ordination Conference (WOC)
Marianne Duddy-Burke, Executive Director, DignityUSA
Mary E. Hunt, Co-director, Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual (WATER)
Kate McElwee, Executive Director of Women’s Ordination Conference (WOC)
It is so wonderful to be with you all, and thank you for helping me continue to celebrate International Women’s Day, every day. I am glad we are referring to the Voices of Faith experience as an event, and not necessarily a movement or a strategy. That is where our conversation and our work begin.
As a personal history of the past five years of the Voices of Faith event: I have not shared this widely, but I was actually disinvited from attending its first year. This is an example of how cautious the organizers were, and the journey they have taken. I have since been able to attend for the past four years as a guest, and this year felt remarkably different: not just because the space had changed, but also because the discourse shifted. This was the first year that we heard words like lesbian, abortion, or period pain. The platform of Voices of Faith was used for good this year, and I think this is a testament to the critiques many of us have offered, but also the markers of a journey.
The opening words of Mary McAleese truly plowed the way for other speakers to be bold in their words. The room was remarkably quiet during her address, (whereas, if she had been speaking at a Women’s Ordination Conference event, there would have been many interruptions for applause). It wasn’t until Ssenfuka Joanita Warry, an LGBT Ugandan activist, spoke and shared her story so personally that the room moved. In the afternoon, there was laughing and clapping, and a great sense that “something was happening.”
Working for women’s ordination in Rome can be a lonely pursuit. Yesterday was different. It wasn’t perfect, but to be in a room with people who share my hopes for women in the Church and are willing to work for that change was a powerful experience. These voices have been raised, and it is the work of feminist ministers and feminist leaders to carry this message forth, and creatively take what has been said to meet the needs of the people of God.
As Mary McAleese cautioned: visibility without voice can reinforce one’s silence. This year’s event was a breakthrough for the group, bringing both visibility and voice together. It is our work to continue with this powerful combination to bring great change.
Marianne Duddy-Burke, Executive Director of DignityUSA
It seems that the visionaries who organize the Voices of Faith International Women’s Day event have learned that what’s true in real estate is also true in matters of the Catholic Church: location is key. The organizers’ widely applauded decision to relocate the event rather than submit to Vatican censure of some invited speakers meant resulted in an event that contained a level of honesty, vulnerability, openness and bold challenge to the institution that I definitely did not hear in the previous four events. There were many, many moments when I experienced that thrill of hearing a truth resonate, and at one point during Mary McAleese’s keynote, even my 16-year-old daughter was applauding.
Here are a few of the moments and images that I really appreciated and that seem to provide light for future action:
- Opening with live shots at the women at the refugee camp in Malawi – this dramatically demonstrated that Church teaching, policy and practice impact real women and families, and have global implications,
- The opening video’s imagery of strong, active, empowered women, the challenge to the institutional Church to catch up with global culture, and the call for change NOW – this was a stronger, clearer beginning than I’d expected.
- Mary McAleese: I have long appreciated how she has lived and led with such integrity as a woman, a wife, a survivor of The Troubles, a mother, an advocate for her gay son, and as a Catholic with a conscience. For a woman and world leader of her caliber to speak so forthrightly about an experience of exclusion shows just how universal this experience is for women. Her call for the words she spoke to be heard over the nearby wall has resonance for me as a US citizen, where walls of exclusion are a foundational component of current political discourse. Of course, her image of our Church as a “primary global carrier for the toxic virus of misogyny,”and the hierarchy’s refusal to utilize the easily accessible cure of equality is just perfect. I think we all understand the impact this diseased state leaves us in.
- Another important truth Mary McAleese spoke was: visibility and voice are NOT the same thing. Visibility without voice can actually reinforce one’s silence! I thought of this in the later discussion of women and the permanent diaconate. I’m sure we’ll circle back to this in our upcoming discussion.
- Although there are many more points from her talk that are vital, I’ll highlight just one more here. I thought it was critically important that she took on Cardinal Farrell’s excuse that gaining equality for women in the church is a process by calling for that process to begin in earnest, but that dialogue must be paired with measurable goals, regularly audited. This call for accountability rather than words is crucial.
- Polish theologian Zuzanna Radzik’s recognition of the danger laywomen pose to the institution because the official Church has no real authority over us, and her embrace of anger as propelling just change is worthy of deep reflection. I think this could lead to a sense of empowerment if we really understand the implications of these thoughts.
- Indian sisters Nivedita and Gaya had wonderful moments both in their talk and in the coffee break chat. Their representation of the ability of women, and especially millennials, to integrate multiple spiritual identities, was a statement of a reality the institutional church is ill-equipped to deal with, but that many Catholics live every day. It was great to have that named in this space.
- Ssenfuka Joanita Warry, whom I know as Warry from working with her and getting her to speak at the last DignityUSA conference, is my heroine. Her proud proclamation of her lesbian identity, her frank acknowledgment that LGBTI activists in Uganda face real threats to their lives (she referred to herself as “one of the few to survive”), and her laying blame for that squarely on religious leaders were a sobering reminder of the work we all have yet to do. I thought it took enormous integrity and courage to remind people that, while Pope Francis gets a lot of credit for challenging the death penalty for so-called sexual crimes, he personally labelled LGBTI people “criminals” during his pastoral visit to Africa, reinforcing the danger to this vulnerable community. Let us also recall her closing: “must my light stay hidden when the Gospel calls me to shine forth.” That must resonate with every woman.
- There is much more that could be lifted up. I’ll just close with the image Nicole Sotelo raised of women speaking of important things in whispers, out of fear that speaking loudly would disrupt the relationships central to their lives. It is so important that we recall how many women, in every area of the world and the Church, feel at risk, and experience the church as a place of danger rather than sanctuary, but who still find ways to make empowering connections. The obstacles are many, pervasive, and real.
Overall, I think each of the women who spoke exposed the reality that institutional Catholicism is guilty of oppression, endangering women, and ongoing failure to address these sins in any substantive way. Because they spoke outside the walls of the Vatican, I believe they were able to say these things more forcefully, more openly, and with more clarity than would have otherwise been possible.
Mary E. Hunt, Co-director, Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual (WATER)
I watched the Live stream of “Why Women Matter” over bagels and coffee in my office with four colleagues-- Diann Neu, my colleague and companion in 35 years of struggle for women’s equality in church and society, and three others in their 20’s, one with Catholic roots, the other two Protestant and Mennonite. I mention this good company because my remarks reflect my colleagues’ impressions, which I take seriously especially as they correct some of my biases. Protestant women pointed out, correctly, that I have more emotional investment on this issue than they, a helpful insight.
I congratulate Chantal Götz and her team at Voices of Faith for planning the event and for having the courage of their convictions not to disinvite their sisters after Vatican interference, rather to change venue. I wish we had heard from Chantal during the event, as her perspective is so important.
My question is where the whole event fits in the bigger picture of women and feminist ministry and what comes next.
1. Growing consensus that TIME’S UP—
Things are changing. The Voices of Faith meeting was an event not a movement. Movements groups like ours, Women’s Ordination Conference, DignityUSA, Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual (WATER), among other members of Women-Church Convergence, have led the way for decades. They are uplifted by the work of women scholars, especially theologians, who provide the intellectual foundation for imaging women’s equality.
Women now serve in the majority of ministerial positions in the United States, albeit none ordained licitly. Women are ordained and ministering through the Ecumenical Catholic Communion, Roman Catholic WomenPriests, and Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests, among others. Women-Church groups, Dignity chapters, Intentional Eucharistic Communities all engage in feminist ministries and are part of a movement in which the International Women’s Day event is set.
Older women are not taking no for an answer. Younger women are gradually finding better options and some are losing interest in the struggle. Vatican II begins to look like the Councils of Trent and Chalcedon. Post-modern Catholicism is not Vatican II but interreligiously engaged.
This is a liminal moment. A recent article by Marie-Lucile Kubacki about scandalous lack of pay and lack of respect for women working in the Vatican (“Il lavoro (quasi) gratuito delle suore”) was published in the monthly magazine Women Church World (March 2018) distributed by the Vatican’s L’Osservatore Romano. The scandalous expose of the indentured servitude of women in the Vatican (including those with advanced degrees in theology doing domestic work) reflects women’s general status in the church at large.
In the same month, dozens of Italian women signed the “Women for the Church Manifesto” calling for equality. They profess their love for the church and for themselves, and they include a call for ordination.
At the Voices of Faith meeting, former President of Ireland Mary McAleese, became the Vatican’s worst nightmare. She is a brilliant and passionate critic with the political experience, canon law credentials, Irish wit, experience as the mother of a gay child, and fire in the belly to tell it like it is in a memorable speech for the ages. Her own bishop, Archbishop Dairmund Martin of Dublin, called it “brutally stark” and said that he must “accept the challenge with the humility of one who recognises her alienation.”
At the meeting, LGBT Advocate Ssenfuka Joanita Warry of Uganda was courageous beyond imagining, powerfully articulate, and simply right. She showed that the problems are not for white western straight women only, but for all women, with women of color, lesbians, poor and young women at exponentially more jeopardy than I am. We are in this together. We need to think about how to support Warry as best we can given that she lives in significant jeopardy.
The candid and forward-looking conversation among the young women speakers during the break was one of the most dynamic and hopeful aspects of the event. They deserve to be listened to and taken seriously.
2. Ask the right questions—
I applaud this event on International Women’s Day near the Vatican. But neither the time nor the place is as significant as the fact that living one’s faith is a human right every day, every place, and that right is annulled for Catholic women.
With all due respect to the meeting’s panel, the moderator’s question, “Are we happy Catholics?” is hardly the point. This is not about emotion but about justice. Who can be happy when they or others are being discriminated against? I am not happy and I hope others are not happy either until justice reigns.
Likewise, the question “will the institutional church survive?” is not terribly important. The answer is I devoutly hope not in its present form. But underlying this work in a dangerous time in the world--the Trump administration takes oppression and injustice to a qualitatively new level--something far more important is going on. As we say in women-church circles, “Let the needs of the world not the failings of the church must set the agenda.” That is what the Gospel invites.
3. “Be careful what you pray for” regarding the permanent diaconate--
I understand people wanting some symbolic assurance that the words women speak in frustration are being heard, that something is being done. But I fear that this 2000-year-old ecclesial institution has survived by cunning. What could be better, given the current state of the church, than making a splash by ordaining women as permanent deacons to be of service and have no decision-making power? Even worse would be ordaining women to some kind of deaconess position that would consign them to minister to women and children. Francis said clearly on his U.S. trip that deacons should work so as free up priests to preach, that is, to shape minds. What a “brilliant” patriarchal solution to the alleged problem of priest shortage: channel women’s good intentions, talents, and energies into the institutional roles of servant.
Do not fall into this trap! Mary McAleese says debate it. But I remind that without creating new democratic structures there is no place to have debates that would make any difference in decision-making. The permanent diaconate could well be foisted on women with no recourse. This would once again prove that clerics will find jesuitical ways to solve their problems without substantive structural changes. No thank you! I caution that diaconate for women could come quickly and be seen as a great step forward. Be forewarned.
4. Words without actions are worse than no words at all—
We heard often in the meeting that the church, which should be a place of sanctuary, is really a place of danger. The very place where we got values of love and justice is where they are honored in the breach. Just as with all domestic violence where the home is a dangerous place, so, too, with spiritual domestic violence, the church is a dangerous place. Action is all. Some, especially men, will do well to keep silent.
Note how the Voices of Faith program devolved at the end with a priest in a disappointing crescendo in the usual role of mansplaining a tiny fraction of what the women had said. He never uttered the hard words like ordination, abortion, period pain, justice, or lesbian as if to do so would render him somehow out of the club that holds the whole sinful structure together.
Part of the problem is that many women want and feel they need such affirmation and cooperation from men if we are to get anything done. Well, it has not worked and until men can simply say, “What she said” and sit down, at least in the short run, we will not get over that unhelpful dynamic. It is time to trust women as authorities in our communities, something most of us Catholics did not grow up learning to do. Women said it all yesterday.
I am not suggesting that there is no role from men, or that it is time to turn the tables. There is plenty of work for men to do. It is time for the men, even the supportive ones, to talk with each other and figure out how they will literally divest of their privilege so we can all start again. For a man to know what one man on the Voices of Faith panel claimed to know about women’s suffering and still get ordained is beyond me. It is delusional to think that working in a craven, corrupt system is helpful to anyone.
Otherwise, as in the #MeToo movement, women will carry the burden of justice and men will continue along the same path unjustly. The best of them will be unsure, unaware, and afraid to speak for fear of making a mistake. I understand that. But TIME’S UP. They can practice by engaging in hard conversation, uncomfortable conversation with one another. They can learn not to personalize what are structural problems, but to assume responsibility for what only they can do which is to give up power. It reminds me of the title of Marie August Neal’s book about liberation theology for people from developed countries: A Socio-Theology of Letting Go. That is their job.
We are always happy to talk as equals. That was what Mary McAleese did in the meeting when she addressed Francis as Francis. But I am not willing to talk as an inferior. It is too bad Francis was out of earshot. He owes her a serious explanation and an apology.
5. Immediate next steps for us—
Every day is International Women’s day for our movement groups. We need to keep on doing what we are doing but with international emphasis and intersectional analysis.
Voices of Faith knows that we are happy to work with them and share our valuable insights. We appreciate what they are trying to do.
In parishes, it is time to demand justice. Do not be patient for one more moment. The faith of our children and grandchildren is in the balance.
Service and power are not opposites but twins. The power to make decisions corresponds with responsible adult membership and service in a community.
We must all start or continue living new ways of being church. There are many options from withdrawing money to withdrawing time/talent until structural changes take place. And there are lots of other religious options as the Hindu Catholic sister demonstrated at the meeting.
Celebrate every day as International Women’s Day because every day is!