Catholic women working to change the church take inspiration from female saints

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Women in key roles at the Vatican and Catholic universities in its close orbit have been leading an effort to raise women’s standing and visibility in church governance, creating a growing network of experts, diplomats and scholars like them around the world.

“Today we still have a lot to do to promote women. There are still many areas where women continue to be discriminated against,” said Gabriella Gambino, a professor of bioethics and undersecretary of the Vatican Department for Laity, Family and Life.

Gambino appeared at a press event on Wednesday (Feb. 28) in Rome to promote “Women in the Church: Builders of Humanity,” a conference scheduled for March 7 and 8 at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross. The conference will focus on the lives and legacies of 10 female saints, who despite the challenges of their times and cultures left a meaningful mark in the church.

Among better-known canonized women such as Mother Teresa and Elizabeth Ann Seton, the conference is examining the life of Sister Josephine Bakhita, the first Black woman to be made a saint, who championed victims of human trafficking.

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The conference is meant “to put the lives of these women within the context of the concrete lives of men and women of our time,” Gambino explained.

The conference is a collaboration by several Catholic institutions and universities along with foreign embassies to the Holy See, which are represented today by a record number of women ambassadors. The 20 or so ambassadors are connected through an informal WhatsApp group created during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gambino holds to a different kind of feminism from the one many other women and even other academics espouse. The mother of five believes that womanhood and motherhood are intrinsically tied and that men must be seen as needing support along with women. “In the church, this is called co-responsibility,” she said.

Gabriella Gambino. (Video screen grab)

Starting with Pope John Paul II and increasingly under Pope Francis, women have been acquiring more relevance in the church, and currently hold many important Vatican offices.

Last October, at a summit of bishops and lay people at the Vatican to discuss the most pressing topics facing the church, the question of female roles was front and center. While some Catholic women propose that women be allowed to become priests or at least the lesser ordained order of deacon, others seek alternative ways for promoting women in the church.

“It’s about living out baptismal vocation to the fullest,” Gambino said, which entails “adopting within the church a new paradigm that is capable of understanding the female condition and can lead to the creation of roles for women in the church, especially at the local level, where they are often neglected.”

“The issue is how to get men interested in addressing the question of female leadership,” said Cristina Reyes, academic vice rector of the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, across the Tiber River from the Vatican. “That seems like a real challenge to me,” she said.

Changing the church culture toward women, the leaders of the conference seemed to recognize, was a slow process. 

Of the academic institutions participating in the conference, including the Catholic University of Avila, the Pontifical Urbanian University, the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum and Pontifical Theological Faculty Teresianum, all within a few miles of St. Peter’s Basilica, few have women deans. But Lorella Congiunti, who teaches at the Pontifical Urbanian University, said a growing number of female professors and students are already changing the face of Catholic education.

“Governing or being a rector is not the most important thing,” Congiunti said. “What matters is working alongside the students. It’s a fundamental relationship that is built into universities.”

Congiunti said that just standing behind a desk and teaching the numerous students and priests, often from African countries, who come to learn at her university can have a lasting impact on how they will perceive women in the future.

“One time, a priest from Asia told me, ‘You are the first woman I see speaking about philosophy.’ He probably came from a context where women don’t study,” said Congiunti. “This is very important.”

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