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Women of Rome
by Gordon Urquhart

This is the original of Gordon Urquhart's text published in slightly edited form by the Guardian at the time of the Bishop's Synod for Europe. Urquhart's book The Pope's Armada (London: Transworld, 1995 and Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 1999) is a critically acclaimed and terrifying portrait of several ultra-traditionalist movements in the Catholic Church. Published here with permission of the author.

At the start of the current Synod of Catholic bishops in Rome, in what was hailed as an historic move, John Paul II proclaimed three female saints – St. Brigid of Sweden, St Catherine of Sienna, and St Edith Stein – as co-patrons of Europe, joining their male colleagues Saints Benedict, Cyril and Methodius.  ‘I wished to include the same number of female saints,’  the Pontiff pointed out, in order to show that the church ‘has always acknowledged the full spiritual dignity of women.’  Celestial equality is all very well, but how does this latest proclamation alter the fact that women have little or no decision-making power in the Catholic Church?  Is it yet another empty sop to the growing army of Catholic women angry at their second-class status?  Or, to add insult to injury, does it imply, that, for the Holy See, the only good woman is a dead woman?

John Paul II has certainly made a number of attempts in the past to convince women that they have a vital role to play in the church.  He devoted an encyclical letter – Mulieris Dignitatem – to the subject and even addressed a grovelling apology to the women of the world at the time of the UN Women’s
Conference in Beijing.  He often talks of ‘the feminine genius’, his term for the unique contribution, never quite specified, that only women can give to the life of the church and humanity.  Yet these high-flown phrases have been seen as suspect, and not only by women.  At a Synod on the religious life in 1994, Archbishop Couture of Quebec, in a speech censored by the Vatican Press Office, suggested that the Vatican’s extravagant praise of women’s ‘dignity’ was ‘an elegant way…of excluding women from the roles in the Church traditionally reserved for men.’  He added that ‘the anthropological approach underlying these more or less official texts appears to be that women are so different from men that they don’t even have a share in human nature itself.’

Yet John Paul II’s tributes to women cannot all be dismissed empty rhetoric. Some of his best friends and closest confidantes are women.  And it is these, the flesh and blood Women of Rome, rather than the Brigids, Ediths and Catherines,  that give a real insight into the Pontiff’s true views.  He has personally appointed them to various Curial bodies charged with such subjects as the family, the laity, culture, ecumenism, the sciences and interfaith dialogue.  He has also included a substantial number of women, including lay and married women, in his personal nominees to the Synods of bishops.   So who are they, and what are they doing to advance the cause of women in the church?

The sad fact is that, the Women of Rome are enthusiastic proponents of Vatican policies which are most repressive to their gender.  Indeed, many of their views verge on the bizarre.   Mrs Mercedes Arzu Wilson, for instance, a consultant to the Pontifical Council for the Family, condemns family planning as ‘the cancer of today’s world’.  She has tirelessly promoted this view as a member of the Vatican delegation to a number of UN conferences. When not representing the Vatican, she has made sure her voice has been heard by having herself co-opted to the Nicaraguan delegation.  Not hard, as she is the sister of Nicaragua’s President.

Wilson’s colleague on the Council for the Family, Countess Christine de Vollmer, who holds a number of important consultancy positions in the Vatican, believes that ‘The work of women in the home is the basis for the happiness of the whole human race.’  A member of the secretive right-wing organisation Opus Dei, Vollmer is one of only three women on the 20-strong permanent delegation of the Holy See to the UN, whose policies on abortion and birth control have been a special target for her wrath. ‘How can we work for a world of peace when UN agencies themselves are encouraging mothers to kill their own children?’ she has demanded, while she has condemned sex education programmes produced by the UNFPA as ‘public pornography’ .

The Women of Rome take a dim view of feminists, often describing themselves as ‘new feminists’. Shortly before the UN Women’s Conference in Beijing, at which she led the Vatican delegation, Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon, gave her own weird take on the birth of feminism in the US in the
Seventies.  According to Glendon’s theory, women outnumbered men in the baby-boomer generation of the late Sixties.  They were therefore forced to seek partners among older men and turned to the husbands of the ‘[Bella] Abzug-[Betty] Friedan’ generation.  As a result, these women [Abzug, Friedan
et al] were ‘dead set against men and at the same time made liberal use of beauty products.’

Perhaps the most powerful woman in the Catholic Church today is Chiara Lubich, the 79 year-old Italian founder of the Focolare Movement, the largest single organisation in the Catholic Church.  As a woman, she enjoys a unique position as President for life of an institution which includes 15,000 priests, 60,000 nuns and monks, and – in a branch personally approved by John Paul II in 1996 – 750 bishops.  Yet she certainly does not see herself as in any sense blazing a trail.  In a TV interview in the eighties, she declared ‘I have never thought of myself as a woman’.   And her opposition to women’s ordination is implacable.  While receiving an honorary degree in Argentina last year, Lubich warned  that ‘[the ordination of women] would be a grave error…Woman has her own specific nature that allows her to have a very important role without imitating men.  She is “her” not “him”.’

Not surprisingly, La Lubich has equally firm and reactionary views on sexual matters.  On large families she points out that St Catherine of Sienna was her mother’s 23rd child:  ‘If ever there was a woman who could have said, “Enough!” it was certainly the mother of the virgin of Sienna.  But what a loss to the Church and to Italy!’  Her eccentric notion of sex education consists of advising adolescents to ‘throw themselves in the snow’ when visited by temptations of the flesh.

When asked by Vatican Radio for her views on the Pope’s proclamation of three female saints as co-patrons of Europe, Lubich opined that it was ‘an act of justice’. Surely justice will only be done when Rome gives women full equality not in heaven but on earth.  As matters stand, the Women of Rome, far from being a beacon of hope for their sisters, are part of the problem.

Gordon Urquhart

Other voices

Another Voice

Questions From a Ewe

Challenges Facing Catholicism
(Bishop Geoffrey Robinson in converation with Dr Ingrid Shafer)

Ingrid H. Shafer, Ph.D.
e-mail address: ihs@ionet.net
Posted 20 November 1999
Last updated 10 March 2001
Electronic version copyright © 2001 Ingrid H. Shafer
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