Connecting The Dots – Patriarchy, Feminism and The Catholic Church

Author: Stephanie Lorenzo, Founder of PROJECT FUTURES

Today I am sitting on a rooftop in Sorrento, Italy after a packed 5 days in Rome for the Voices of Faith ‘International Women’s Day’ story-telling event in the heart of The Vatican. I was asked there to speak about my journey as a young Catholic woman who had created an outlet for other millennials to take action on the issue of human trafficking and slavery through PROJECT FUTURES. They asked me to reflect on whether my faith had played a part in my journey, the challenges so far, and what I had learnt.

I remember receiving the email with this request around October last year and thought ‘WOW, what an amazing opportunity, but I haven’t been to church in forever!’ I was so honoured to have been asked, but felt that I had drifted too far from the church, and while I still called myself a Catholic, I really didn’t do all the things that I felt and thought a good Catholic did; confess my sins, go to mass every Sunday or constant prayer (growing up my parents prayed the rosary every day, before every meal, in the car, like ALL THE TIME). The most frustrating part for me regarding the church also came more recently through the controversy surrounding the Royal Commission on Child Sexual Abuse within the Catholic Church. I even remember questioning my devout parents about this asking, ‘how can you be part of a religion where leaders aren’t even being accountable to the people they are meant to be helping?’ To me, it was nuts!

I thought maybe I could sort of pretend to be more Catholic than I really was, I mean who would know? I was working in the non profit sector after all, doing my part for social justice and peace! I was super excited at the thought of going to Rome and speaking at The Vatican, which, even if you’re not Catholic, is a pretty big deal! But weighing down on me was the fact that well, to be honest, I wasn’t proud to be a Catholic, I had drifted. I felt the institution of it didn’t appeal to me as a young, modern woman. So I hit reply and said I was honoured but wanted to chat to them about whether I was the right person. I needed to confess that I might not be the Catholic woman they were hoping for.

What followed was an inspiring and invigorating chat with the Director of the Gotz Foundation who funded and led this event, Chantal Gotz. She was not the typical Catholic woman I envisioned either. She was modern, strong, passionate, funny as hell and talked to me about their mission to bring stories of Catholic women who are living their faith through their work to the forefront, and show the Catholic church that women are imperative to a modern, inclusive faith, for the sake of the future of the church. I was gobsmacked, Chantal exuded a confidence and a determination I felt so inspired by. It was not about bringing together what I poorly generalised to be ‘Catholic woman’ but bombastic, courageous women who stir the waters, shake things up and are unapologetic and unafraid to do what they believe God envisioned for women!

I felt relieved we had spoken and was excited about the prospect of sharing my story, but had my faith played a part? I still wasn’t sure. Had what I had been taught at church and through my parents helped me to do what I do? I got to work planning the presentation and wanted to be honest and open about my experience and needed some time to reflect on whether I did truly believe my faith was part of the ingredients that made up PROJECT FUTURES.

So delving into the past, I reflected on my childhood being brought up by devout Catholic parents and going to a Catholic school. Watching my parents attend church every single week, feeling so embarrassed to hear my dad belt out every hymn at the top of his lungs. I smile when I think back to when my mum, my sisters and I would quietly laugh when my dad became an acolyte and would make so many mistakes and get in the way of the priest. I was lucky to go to a Catholic girls high school, Loreto Normanhurst and remember the school always promoting charity and social justice through the Mary Ward tradition and legacy. But my friends and I never paid much attention.

As I thought about these experiences, nothing necessarily struck me straight away, there was no lighting bolt moment. But about a week before I set off for Italy my school asked me to come back and give a talk on my journey. On arrival, I was immediately filled with a sense of nostalgia and fond memories of being a teenager. What struck me the most was that the school, 14 years later, is as focused as ever on promoting social justice, giving students the opportunity to lead these initiatives and have flexibility over what causes they support. It was inspiring and gave me a sense of pride to see so many years after my time there, that they were still leading by example and creating these broad opportunities for students.

Hindsight is a powerful thing, sometimes you won’t ever be given a chance to connect the dots of your experiences and understand what led you down a certain path. The connection for me was in the constant opportunities that my parents and my school presented to me throughout that formative time as a teen. Even though I may not have paid due attention, I realise the significance of this consistency, 10 years later, connecting these dots. I realised that faith and God was within me all along guiding the way. It just wasn’t the way I thought it had to look like.

I got to Rome and met the Board of Voices of Faith, as well as the other speakers from all over the world, including Burundi, Rwanda, India, USA and the UK. I was struck by how welcoming and joyful this group of women were and how they attended to the speakers with such care. It was like having a bunch of supportive mothers around you, making sure you were not only ok, but you were enjoying yourself, understanding the history of the place and sharing stories with us about how they had all come together. I could have listened to these women talk all night, they were empowered, insightful, strong and passionate people.

I learnt about the history of why Voices of Faith was so important. I thought it was simply a platform to share female voices of the church in an effort for them to be recognised and given the acknowledgement they deserve. I didn’t realise that the foundations of that stem from a 2000 year old institution that actually has not yet acknowledged the important role women play. It rejects the notion that women have the capacity and the right to be leaders of what is meant to be one of the most humanitarian organisations in the world, the Catholic Church. And yet we find women, leading at the fringes, across the globe working at the ground level, rising to the challenges faced in their communities, creating community, giving hope and service to those left behind. So it begs the question, why have we been cast out, left out of the highest layers of leadership that make up the heart of the Catholic Church simply because of our gender?

What these women envisioned was an inclusive and open dialogue with women playing a key role, having a seat at the table of major decisions that affect the Catholic Church. Indeed if women were part of this structure early on, maybe the abuse of power within the institution may not have ever occurred.

I was enlightened by Dr Scilla Elworthy and her work for decades on developing effective dialogue between nuclear weapons policy makers worldwide and their critics, and her passion to enable leaders to make wiser decisions so that there is less suffering as a result of war. She talked about when she first started her research and looked at who around the world were making decisions on nuclear arms. Out of 650 leaders in these fields, only 5 were women. She talked about the power of femininity as a strength and the history of destruction as a result of only men being at the top, rather than a collective embrace of male and female qualities and strengths. Every other industry in the world is making progress and recognising the need for female leadership – not because we are somehow owed this right (even though I think we have waited long enough), but because we are more than qualified and bring new perspective and insight needed to make this world a better place. Politics, the military, financial services and banking are all recognising this and shifting to this view, because it creates better results, so why not the Catholic Church?

Then the lightning bolt moment came. The Catholic Church was ultimately the last major patriarchal institution that had not yet understood or progressed on the need for female leadership. It was yet to break down its barriers and move into the 21st century, even for the sake of its own future. These women are fighting for women in my generation to be recognised, to be able to have a seat at that table, if we want to, and to see equality finally realised.

I thought, can you imagine if even half of the strong women I had met on my trip could be part of decision making processes for the church, how different the church might be? How understanding, empathetic, caring, inclusive, nurturing and powerful it would be. These women are fighting for history to be made and doing it not by force, but using their innate femininity, collective spirit and humility, which has inspired and reinvigorated a drifted Catholic to believe again.

The original article from Stephanie Lorenzo can be found here.