Creating global participation for our Church: new strategies for inclusion

By Zuzanna Flisowska, General Manager by Voices of Faith

Speech presented at the Andante Study Day 2019 in Snagov.

I would like to thank you very much for your kind invitation to Andante Study Days 2019 in Snagov. It is my great pleasure and honor to spend these days with you, to meet you, listen to your ideas and observe your discussions. To use the category proposed by Tina Beattie in her speech yesterday, you all are signs of hope for our Church. A sign of hope we need so much these days. In my speech I would like to present you the work and mission of the Voices of Faith and introduce you to our newest project.

We were all baptized as equal – in theory. We have all read these famous words:

“For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” [Gal 3, 26b-28]

Also in theory, we, the community of Christians, should not follow the power model exercised by other rulers of the world. We have all read also these famous word:

“And Jesus called them to him and said to them, ‘You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you […].’” [Mk 10, 42-43]

Yet the Church got into the logic of power. For centuries, its hierarchical structure has been built on the models known from civil empires. When Christianity became the dominant religion in Europe, instead of implementing the revolutionary message of Christ, we saw a construction of its own structures of power and control. True, it was an efficient tool of religious and cultural influence that shaped Europe and whole globe. Over the centuries though, this model has also led to oppressions and sufferings. This crisis we are now facing globally is about the abuse of power too. This power has been built on the image and likeness of humans – with inequality, violence, control – and with patriarchy.

That is why to make women’s voices heard we need to address also the issue of power in the Catholic Church. Till the Church is built on the image of civil society and ruled in many practical situations by its logic, we need to assume, that who does not participate in power, will not be heard and considered as equal. Isn’t it that we can observe it clearly in the case of women in the Church?

We all know how much wonderful work Catholic women are doing everyday, motivated by their faith: from religious sisters working with courage on the margins of todays world, to women engaged in and leading charity organizations and projects, to writers and theology professors, teachers and spiritual advisors. Yet, too many times their work, ideas, experience and wisdom is not taken into account when it comes to leadership and decision-making. Yet their problems and everyday struggles are simply not understood or just overseen by those who discern the future course of the Church.

We believe that a truly prophetic Church is one where all voices are heard and vocations respected. That is why Voices of Faith works to empower women and advocate for their presence in leadership and decision making roles in the Catholic Church. As you may know, one of our first steps is to make women’s voices heard in the Vatican.

Since 2014 Voices of Faith has organized the only International Women’s Day event ever held inside the walls of the Vatican. We brought together diverse and powerful voices of women to share their stories and perspectives through their work and in their faith journey. Moreover, in 2018 we dedicated our work also to deliver a platform for women’s voices in the abuse crisis. We opened an important discussion and drew journalists’ attention to the complex problem of violence against women in the Church.

The experience of these years has shown us that to change women’s positions in the Church structures we need a two step approach

1. Promoting concrete changes to the Vatican

2. Creating a global shift in the Catholic mentality and sense of participation.

As a young person from a country where the majority of the population are Catholic, I can observe that too often for my generation the only thing to do is either; accept the status quo with all things that are wrong or leave the Church. Lay people too often are waiting till bishops and clergy will resolve problems and when this doesn’t happen – frustrated, hurt, and demotivated they loose patience and quit. We know that women and young people are leading this exodus. We want to show them another way - to take the situation into our own hands. For the change we are advocating for is about taking responsibility and overcoming silence. It is about speaking up about what is wrong with our community and fixing it together.

This year we propose a tool to help developing such a global participation: the #overcomingsilence campaign. We created a website that will collect faces and messages from Catholic women and men globally who believe in our goals and the overall need for women in decision-making roles. We ask Catholics all over the world to take a small, concrete step: to upload their photo and a personal message about the importance of recognizing that half the Church remains silent so long as women are not invited to sit at the table alongside our Church leaders to help make decisions that affect the global Church. For those who just want to support the cause, but don’t have their own message ready, we suggest a simple line: “We need to talk honestly about women in decision making roles in the Catholic Church”.

The campaign has three goals that summarize the direction we advocate for – two more tangible and one forming part of a broader discussion around leadership in the Church.

1. Women have voting rights in future synods

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You may remember a campaign last year called “Votes for Catholic Women” developed during the last synod. In 2018, a coalition of groups calling for votes for religious sisters has gatherer over 9,500 signatures in just two weeks. It opened up a worldwide media discussion and also representatives of International Union of Superior Generals admitted in their public speeches that they are expecting a great hope for a vote at the next synod.

A precedence was set when Pope Francis named lay religious brothers as voting members of the 2014-15 Synod on Family and the 2018 Synod on Youth. Since then, voting in the Synod is no longer bound to the ordination to priesthood. Religious sisters have exactly the same standing according to cannon law as religious brothers, yet none of them was ever given the same voting right.

We firmly believe that this example can and must be extended also to lay women and men participating in the Synods. They should no longer be just observers, they should become full members with voting rights. Transparent procedures need to be developed to facilitate the selection of lay synod members. The Apostolic Constitution, which regulates how synods work, says that “like every human institution, the synod can be improved with passage of time.” Including women as voting members is a great chance for the Catholic Church to develop a mechanism that will make its decision-making more inclusive, more diverse and more responsive to the real needs of the faithful.

2 Women begin assuming Vatican leadership roles

The Vatican (more specifically, Roman Curia) is the administrative center of the Catholic Church where decisions for the global Church are made. Its official role is to help the Pope to exercise his supreme leadership role. The Roman Curia consists of offices called Dicasteries, Congregations or Councils. Within each office there are 3 levels of leadership roles: Prefect/President, Secretary and one or more Undersecretaries.

In 2004, Pope John Paul II appointed the first woman to be an Undersecretary at the Congregation for Religious. Pope Benedict XVI affirmed this practice when he appointed a female Undersecretary at the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in 2010. Pope Francis has appointed three female undersecretaries so far. Pope Francis has also made history when he appointed the first non-ordained man to lead the Dicastery of Communication in 2018, showing that even the highest positions at the Roman Curia are not reserved just to clerics. Yet, no woman has been ever appointed to one of the two top levels of the Roman Curia.

We call for overcoming this glass ceiling for women in the administration of the Catholic Church. We want to see transparent possibilities for Catholic women who are qualified in not only their skills and expertise, but also their faith to lead at the highest levels of the Church.

3. Global consultations to jumpstart an official process of change to bring women to leadership roles at all levels in the Catholic Church

The first two goals offer concrete ways on how women can become part of the decision-making of the Catholic Church right away. Yet, these are just first steps. We Catholics need to have a wide-ranging, comprehensive conversation about how our Church can continue transforming in the 21st century. We have to reflect deeply on how power is distributed and decisions are made. The statements approved at the latest Synod in 2018 saying that participation of women in Church decision-making at all levels is a “duty of justice” will remain hollow unless a global process gets underway to hear women's’ voices, discuss practical solutions and establish clear plans of how we move towards inclusion of diverse women´s voices in the decision-making of the Catholic Church.

It would be arrogant to say that we have all the answers. I believe that the shift in the role of women that we witnessed in the last 100 years is one of the most important sign of the times. We all need to learn how to interpret it. We need to challenge with courage and wisdom our cultural horizons and all that we do, not just be passive just because it has been always done this way. But to do so as a community, we need to design a concrete, serious and transparent way of consultation.

But that's not all we have prepared on the campaign website. An important part of our strategy are educational materials, which are being gradually published on the website. In the "campaign kit" section, you'll find a more detailed description of our goals, as well as an explanation of the issues they concern. We began with a brief explanation of the second goal, by showing how the Roman curia is constructed via the video you saw above. I encourage you to visit the website, which is available in five languages, to read and download our presentations.

It is a crucial part of our strategy as we want to provide a tool that will encourage regional discussions in parishes, schools, Catholic groups and comunities. The real goal of the campaign is not only to collect faces and messages on our website but also to have the issue of women in the Church disscussed globaly. We need to start to talk about women’s place in the Church, about how we imagine our community in the future. We need to learn that each and every faithful has its own place and responsibility in the Church. We can see already that not all our meetings or lectures lead to new messages on the website – but always to a discussion, when people start to ask questions and express their thoughts.

We would love to see Catholics around the globe owning our campaign and using it for their formation and discussions. That is why we prepared also a short material explaining, how one can become our ambassador, support the campaign and promote the cause of equality in the Church regionally.

At the same time we are aware that if we call for a global change within the community of faithful, then the part of this process will be a prayer. That is why we also incorporated into the campaign a prayer project of one of our partners, the Fahr Monastery in Switzerland. Every Thursday they pray for equality in the Catholic Church, so that all Catholics may be able to freely express their talents and vocations in their Church. This prayer can be downloaded via our tool kit on the website and we encourage this prayer of equality to be shared and prayed every Thursday.

Let’s have a quick look at examples of messages that have been already left. Many of contributions are just simple massages, quoting the text proposed by us. Yet to our joy, the campaign was joined also by many people deeply involved in the life of the Church and its ministry: theologians, teachers, activists, religious sisters and brothers, priests. Many of them prepared more elaborate statements. Whereas they all give different insights and perspectives, there are some major tendencies we can trace in these testimonies.

First group of messages address the contemporary values of modern society as a inspiration the Church should take into account. Participants of the campaign write about equality, human rights, cultural diversity, diversity of opinions, decentralization of power, tolerance etc. they are pointing out that the Church needs to be able to dialogue with those values if it wants to be a credible moral authority.

The second type of answer would be the one recalling the beginning of Christianity as a forgotten model for the contemporary Church. Citing Bible passages I have just recalled, pointing out the fact that Jesus’ approach to women seems much more revolutionary that the Church wants to see or the historical evidence of women deacons and leaders in the first Christian communities.

The third common argument for the equality in the Church is driven from our common baptism. This is perhaps the most powerful argument, yet very simple. Equality in the Church, meaning also women assuming leadership positions is not about copying secular society, it is about our baptism. It is all in our faith, in the core of Christianity.

Analyzing messages left on our website, we see also clearly, how the abuse crisis made clear to many of our participants, that we need urgently to address the problem of power in the Church. In these type of messages people are saying clearly: look, where abuse of power leads, having a closed, non transparent group of leaders.

We believe that to see a really prophetic Church where there is a respect for each experience and each vocation, we need to discuss and change the notion of power. We need to name and transform the structures of inequality and discrimination. Not because the modern society is done this way; but because it is a basic consequence of our baptism. To do so we need a deep, expert and critical analysis of the system of power in the Church and its historical and cultural background, as well as concrete changes in the Church structures and policies. But most of all, we need to open a global discussion and learn to take responsibility for our Church. We need to speak up about places where we experience inequality, we need to express our dreams about the future Church.

You may help us creating this global discussion by joining our campaign or by becoming our ambassadors in your communities. Please:

  • Join us in Prayer on Thursday

  • Share this campaign through your own words on your social media and invite your friends and family to join it

  • Create a discussion group in your community group using our resources to discuss women’s roles in the Church

I encourage you to help us overcome this silence together! Thank you