Are women’s voices being silenced at the Vatican?

Looking at Women Church World, a monthly women's magazine insert in the Vatican's L'Osservatore Romano newspaper. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters) Looking at Women Church World, a monthly women's magazine insert in the Vatican's L'Osservatore Romano newspaper. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters) 

The entire staff of Women Church World, the women’s magazine that comes out once a month alongside L’Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper, resigned on March 26.

Their reasons were numerous: The magazine’s editor, Lucetta Scaraffia, told the Associated Press that the new editor of L’Osservatore Romano, Andrea Monda, had attempted to take over her position; the editorial board wrote that L’Osservatore Romano had undermined Women Church World by recruiting women contributors who held competing viewpoints; and that these actions have led to “a vital initiative...being reduced to silence, to return to the antiquated and arid method of the top-down selection, under direct male control, of women who are perceived as being reliable,” according to an open letter to Pope Francis signed by Ms. Scaraffia.

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Mr. Monda stated soon after the reports emerged of the staff resignations that he had not attempted to undermine the publication and that it would continue to be published, though it is uncertain at this time who the new editors will be.

When I interviewed Ms. Scaraffia in Rome in February, before the news of her resignation, she drew a parallel between the treatment of women in the Vatican and the experience of the staff at her magazine. She described how that situation has been changing over the last year after Women Church World gained international attention for reporting on women’s labor conditions in the Vatican and on sexual abuse of women religious by priests.

Editor’s note: Ms. Dulle conducted this interview for Inside the Vatican, America’s Vatican news podcast, when she was in Rome covering the sex abuse summit, a few weeks before the Women Church World resignations.

Ms. Scaraffia described how the women—mostly religious sisters—working in the Vatican have often been overlooked or dismissed by the men they work for. Often these women are not compensated for their work or do not receive contracts guaranteeing their compensation. She said they are bound by an expectation of unconditional obedience that keeps the sisters and their religious communities in financially unstable positions that are vulnerable to abuses of power, particularly in the houses of bishops and cardinals where religious sisters do the cooking and cleaning.

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Ms. Scaraffia described the spaces women have carved out for themselves to speak freely as “a hidden schism in the church, where the religious are separating themselves from the church.”

The Women Church World report on women’s labor in the Vatican quoted one African sister who explained how “in some of these sisters, all this stirs up a very strong inner rebellion. They feel profound frustration but are afraid to speak out about it because behind it all there may be very complex histories.” The report cites as an example situations in which a particular religious community may be providing financial support for a sister’s family members.

According to the African sister, these women religious do not feel that they can speak up about their abuse for fear of losing financial support. “If one of these religious returns to her country, her family does not understand. They say to her: ‘But how capricious you are!’

“These sisters feel indebted,” the African sister said. “They feel bound and so they keep quiet.”

But since the report on labor conditions at the Vatican was published in March 2018, women have begun speaking up—many times in the pages of Women Church World.

The magazine published excerpts from a manifesto calling for greater respect and a “female alliance” of women in the church opposite its report on labor, and its report on religious sisters being sexually abused by priests in its February 2019 issue led Pope Francis for the first time to acknowledge the problem publicly and to say that preventing this abuse was a priority for the church.

This new willingness among women to speak out about their abuse—not only in Women Church World and the secular press but in YouTube videos that are “like a message in a bottle” on “the sea of the internet.”

Ms. Scaraffia described this new willingness among women to speak out about their abuse—not only in Women Church World and the secular press but in YouTube videos that are “like a message in a bottle” on “the sea of the internet”—as a result of the quiet freedom women in the Vatican have found precisely because they are overlooked.

She explained the phenomenon this way: “In the church up to now, it has been very easy for a woman to live autonomously because the priest does not see her. The priests don’t think the women are anything. And that’s a freedom for the women in a sense.

“The liberty is that they don’t exist,” she said. “So if they don’t exist, they can do anything. It’s the same story with Women Church World, our magazine, where we have had a lot of liberty from the L’Osservatore Romano.... The magazine wasn’t anything. It wasn’t important. And so we have had a lot of freedom.”

Ms. Scaraffia described the spaces women have carved out for themselves to speak freely as “a hidden schism in the church, where the religious are separating themselves from the church.”

“They create autonomous worlds. They try to have very little connection to...the official church. The only thing they ask priests for is to celebrate Mass. Only that. And everything else, they do for themselves, all by themselves,” Ms. Scaraffia said. She lamented this hidden separation as a sad result of the lack of collaboration between men and women in the church.

But that freedom to speak in places where few were listening may be ending precisely because so many more people have begun to pay attention. According to Ms. Scaraffia and members of the editorial board, it was only when the world began to notice the work of Women Church World earlier this year that the leadership of L’Osservatore Romano first attempted to replace Ms. Scaraffia and then began “the indirect attempts to delegitimize us,” as Ms. Scaraffia told the Associated Press.

The resignations of Ms. Scaraffia and her staff raise questions about the viability within the church of spaces like Women Church World in which Catholic women, especially women religious, feel they can speak freely about their experiences of injustice.

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Christopher Lochner
8 months 1 week ago

Pardon me, but, in reality, this situation is not as much of a rejection of the voice of women as it is a rejection by church hierarchical leadership of any viewpoints which are not in lockstep with the "powers that be". Any disagreement by the Faithful is now considered as scandal. This is why I had grave misgivings over the first Jesuit Pope. Not because he is Jesuit but due to The Order having a proclivity towards unquestioning obedience of authority in all of their affairs. Those who do question are thus struck down in one form or another. Current church leadership consider temerity to be as if questioning God. And, of course, this is neither from God nor is valid Christian teaching but is much more along the lines of the lamentable human quest for power. God and Caesar anyone?

Nora Bolcon
8 months 1 week ago

I agree completely Christopher. I can't comment at length at the moment but the laity need to hold Pope Francis accountable for his refusal to help this women and his refusal to place women in any real decision and leadership roles. He often still hires the layman and often a highly sexist Opus Dei type man for the main role and then hires a laywomen as some kind of deputy no authority figure next to them even when he could have easily put a woman in the main role. We need to wake up and demand change and stop funding patriarchy at all levels and that includes sacramental levels, i.e. priesthood, bishops, cardinals and popes now! Otherwise, we remain the bad joke in our own church.

Thomas Severin
8 months 1 week ago

As is the case in American politics, it will ultimately be the voices of women banning together to break the stranglehold that privileged white
men have over our democracy and our Church that will save our civic and ecclesial institutions from destruction. Male dominance in both our politics and religion has proven to be untenable in bringing about a healthy government or a truly Christian Church. Hopefully, the Holy Spirit will continue to empower women to give voice to their grievances and to demand equal treatment in both our public and private institutions. Without women's voices we will never achieve the stated goals of our democracy or our Christian faith,

arthur mccaffrey
8 months 1 week ago

"privileged white men"--you wouldn't be blancaphobic now, would you?

Christopher Minch
8 months 1 week ago

Seriously, your remark adds nothing to this discussion and is a way to attack the comment on a personal level rather than on its substance. Therefore a trollish attempt at humor to discredit someone or a serious discussion.

Phillip Stone
8 months ago

Brother, those of the faithful on earth are disciples of Christ - not a society or a nation or a race or a civilisation.
It is an absolute monarchy, Christ is the King. Almighty God crowned his mother Queen and together they are the only two glorified and immortal bodies in heaven.
Offices are distributed unequally: apostles, prophets, evangelists, teachers, pastors as are spiritual gifts.

Democracy has no place in the fellowship of believers, neither has politics.

Think hierarchy and complementarity as the norms.

Jose A
8 months 1 week ago

This is news?
Woman's voices have been suppressed ever since Mary Magdalene discovered the empty tomb announcing our Lord's resurrection. The men where cowing in a room while she was busy dressing of our Lord's tomb.
Our church clergy needs a to continue to reflect on woman's role in my church. I hope and pray our current Pope recognizes the need of woman not just their voices, but active participants in a church that is need of healing. We need woman more now than ever.

J. Calpezzo
8 months 1 week ago

Piety and tokenism doesn't cut-it these days.

Lucie Johnson
8 months 1 week ago

Maybe the hierarchical Church should realize it is in danger of becoming irrelevant to the lives of women.

Nora Bolcon
8 months 1 week ago

Yep!

Tatiana Durbak
8 months 1 week ago

I find it a never-ending source of amazement that these men who claim to be talking in the name of God. who is the source of all goodness and truth, are so arrogant, misogynistic and homophobic.

Thomas Severin
8 months 1 week ago

As is the case in American politics, it will ultimately be the voices of women banding together to break the stranglehold that privileged white
men have over our democracy and our Church that will save our civic and ecclesial institutions from destruction. Male dominance in both our politics and religion has proven to be untenable in bringing about a healthy government or a truly Christian Church. Hopefully, the Holy Spirit will continue to empower women to give voice to their grievances and to demand equal treatment in both our public and private institutions. Without women's voices we will never achieve the stated goals of our democracy or our Christian faith,

Thomas Severin
8 months 1 week ago

As is the case in American politics, it will ultimately be the voices of women banding together to break the stranglehold that privileged white
men have over our democracy and our Church that will save our civic and ecclesial institutions from destruction. Male dominance in both our politics and religion has proven to be untenable in bringing about a healthy government or a truly Christian Church. Hopefully, the Holy Spirit will continue to empower women to give voice to their grievances and to demand equal treatment in both our public and private institutions. Without women's voices we will never achieve the stated goals of our democracy or our Christian faith,

Colin Jory
8 months 1 week ago

We all know that "more power for women" is actually language code, meaning "more power for contraceiving, child-aborting, sexually sub-moral, Western middle-class feminists and career-first women." Understood is that women with natural values, natural priorities in life, orthodox Catholic beliefs, and happy families won't get in the door, anymore than they ever do anywhere that the feminists gain power.

Judith Jordan
8 months 1 week ago

Colin Jory---
Those of us who have been involved with the Church and women’s rights do not at all see what you are suggesting. Once feminists work to open the way for women, then the path is open to all women. Feminists were the ones who fought for a woman’s right to vote. Today any legally eligible woman may vote. I recommend you learn something about the women’s movement that does not come from the right wing.

Nora Bolcon
8 months 1 week ago

Well Cory,

We can only hope and pray you are correct that voices of all women not just house wives are heard and plenty of housewives abort as well as use contraception so you are living in a stereotyped fantasy to begin with.

Actually, I don't have a problem with home makers male or female and it is natural to both to want to raise and teach And nurture their children. However, I have big problems with men who think they have the right to tell all women what they should want in life. I doubt you would like my deciding for you what roles I feel you are right for in this world.

Craig B. Mckee
8 months 1 week ago

Women's voices being silenced?
Since WHEN?
https://www.etsy.com/listing/590921612/women-and-the-resurrection-cartoon?ref=shop_home_feat_2
Of course, this article assumes that women's voices were actually, really ever listened to in the first place.
Just another symptom of the original sin of CLERICALISM:
https://www.hprweb.com/2019/03/clericalism/

Crystal Watson
8 months 1 week ago

Women's voices don't matter in the church. Yes, we can kvetch amongst ourselves, but the guys at the top won't change anything. I don't understand how those priests and bishops who are good people (there must be some) live with themselves, knowing that they are treating over half their congregations as second class citizens. Is job security really the most important thing in the whole world to them?

Phillip Stone
8 months ago

I am impressed that the new editor acted quickly to correct the infiltration of the media by political activists posing as the voice of the church. Well done.

After more than 75 years of hearing female voices quarrelling, complaining, nagging and hectoring I am certain that the burden of their song was not "listen to me, my point of view is important and needs to be discerned" but was "do as I say, and I will keep on about it until I wear down all objection and resistance until my will be done".
At the same time, my female medical colleagues, some nurses and some nuns and my wife and my daughters just get on with the job and accomplish wonders with good grace.

[Explore America’s in-depth coverage of Pope Francis.]

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