Dialogue must serve truth, Catholic leader says in response to women's conference

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A women's conference in Rome this week called for changes in Church teaching that organizers say would promote equality, but the head of a Catholic women's organization cautioned that true equality must adhere to truth.

First held in 2014, the "Voices of Faith" conference has taken place annually on March 8 in honor of International Women's Day. The title for this year's event was "Why Women Matter."

The event is known to annually include at least a few speakers who oppose Catholic teaching on key topics such as homosexuality and women's ordination. This year, however, a dissenting tone was much more prominent among conference presenters.

Past events have featured also positive stories about women and the Church, such as a testimony last year from a Rwandan genocide refugee who received an education with the help of Salesian missionaries.

This year's event, in contrast, focused heavily on a push to change Church teaching, with not a single speaker defending Church doctrine and practice.

Former president of Ireland Mary McAleese, herself a Catholic, delivered a keynote speech accusing the Church of maintaining a misogynistic attitude, saying Church leaders are trying to drown women out due to fear.

"We are here to shout, to bring down our Church's walls of misogyny," she said, and, referring to the Church hierarchy, added that "I hope that all the hearing aids are turned up today!"

McAleese, who has previously advocated publicly for same-sex marriage and women's ordination to the priesthood, argued that "misogyny and homophobia" have been present since the Church's establishment and have "kept Christ out and bigotry in."

The Catholic Church "lags noticeably behind" other nations in the advancement of women and uprooting of discrimination, she said, calling this "a disgrace" for an organization "that claims to be created by God."

Although new jobs and positions have opened up to members of the laity, both women and men, since the Second Vatican Council, McAleese said that "these have simply marginally increased the visibility of women in subordinate roles, including in the Curia," and have "added nothing to their decision-making power or their voice."

Ultimately, she said, not allowing women to be ordained to the priesthood, "has locked women out of any significant role in the Church's leadership, doctrinal development and authority structure since these have historically been reserved to or filtered through ordained men."

Other speakers took up similar topics, focusing on exclusion and calling the Church to change its teaching on homosexuality.

However Mary Rice Hasson, fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington D.C., warned that events such as the Voices of Faith conference do not effectively foster dialogue if they openly reject Church teaching.

"Dialogue and accompaniment have to be a walk towards the truth, in confidence that living in the truth is what brings happiness," she told CNA.

Hasson, who was not affiliated with the conference, stressed that women should certainly discuss differences and try to understand points of conflict. But she cautioned that true constructive dialogue about women's role in the Church "needs to take the Church's teaching as its starting point."

McAleese also complained that no cardinals or members of the curia were attending the event, despite a social media campaign by Voices of the Faith calling on them to do so.

"No Church leader bothers to turn up not just because we do not matter, but because their priestly formation prepares them to resist treating us as full equals," she said.

More in Vatican

In past years, a few Vatican officials have attending the Voices of Faith panel. This year's event, however, drew controversy over some of the speakers.

The event has traditionally taken place inside the Vatican's Casina Pio IV, headquarters of the Pontifical Academy for Sciences. This year, however, Cardinal Kevin Farrell, prefect of the Vatican dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, objected to two of the speakers: McAleese and Ssenfuka Juanita Warry, a LGBT advocate in Uganda.

The event required the cardinal's approval in order to take place at Casina Pio V. Rather than adjusting their roster of speakers, Voices of Faith opted for a change of venue, and held the gathering at the headquarters of the Jesuit Curia in Rome rather than the Casina, which is located inside Vatican City State.

At the March 1 launch of the book "A Pope Francis Lexicon," edited by Vatican journalists Cindy Wooden and Josh McElwee, Cardinal Farrell responded to a question about the dispute, saying events held within the Vatican are "presumed to be sponsored by the pope" and people assume that the pope "is in agreement with everything that is said."

Farrell said that when he found out what the conference was about, "it was not appropriate for me to continue to sponsor such an event."

In comments to CNA, Hasson said the Church is not just a human institution, but a supernatural gift, meaning its teachings "are true."

"Unfortunately, the question of women's ordination hijacked the conversation about women and the Church for decades," she said. "It's time to move past that."

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Similarly, Hasson said the Church's teachings on marriage and sexuality will not change, "so agitation for change in those areas is counterproductive and is more likely to confuse people or give scandal."

Hasson is also director of the Catholic Women's Forum, an international network of women dedicated to amplifying the role women both in the Church and in society in support of Church teaching.

"Women are already contributing to the Church's evangelical mission in significant ways – and have for centuries," she said, but acknowledged that there is a need for women to be included in more high-level conversations, "because the Church needs our insights and gifts in order to accomplish its mission."

In her opinion, Hasson said Voices of Faith "is, in part, a well-intentioned effort" to acknowledge both the gifts of women and the valuable role they play in the Church. She pointed to how previous events have drawn attention to the work women have done to assist the poor and marginalized.

Where Voices of Faith fails to serve the Church well, she said, "is in its support of advocacy agendas, proposed by women who dissent from the Church's teaching."

She pointed to the presence of McAlesse at this year's conference as well as the inclusion of Sr. Simone Campbell, known for her involvement in the "Nuns on the Bus," who works in legal advocacy for the poor yet supports the legalization of abortion, contraception and has pushed for women's ordination.

Hasson said the organization's demand for power is also problematic, since, as Pope Francis has emphasized, "participation is not a question of power but of service."

She said she does not find it helpful "to measure women's participation in the institutional Church by corporate measures," such as keeping a tally of the number of women in leadership roles and how many of them have power and authority.

At the same time, Hasson said it is good "to open the Church's consultative structure to make room for women," but to do so in ways that recognize the unique needs of mothers.

Addressing the argument made by Voices of Faith conference participants that young women are leaving the Church in droves because they can't find adequate leadership opportunities, Hasson said she doesn't buy it.

"Women, especially young women, are leaving because they have not been brought into relationship with the Lord," she said. "Their hearts are not converted, they don't know the faith and don't see the Church as a supernatural gift from God to help us live better and more fully human lives."

"A woman who loves God doesn't leave the Church because she doesn't see a career path for herself in the Church."

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