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The most influential woman at the Vatican? An interview with Lucetta Scaraffia

Lucetta Scaraffia

Outspoken Vatican magazine editor Lucetta Scaraffia on the abuse crisis, abortion and her journey back to the faith

The #MeToo movement arrived in the Vatican with Lucetta Scaraffia, the founding editor of the monthly magazine Donne Chiesa Mondo (Women Church World), which is distributed with its daily newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano. Its February issue denounced the sexual abuse of nuns by priests. In a sign of the magazine’s influence, journalists questioned Pope Francis about the subject on his flight back from Abu Dhabi last week. He frankly acknowledged that it was a genuine problem – generating headlines around the world.

I meet Scaraffia – arguably one of the most influential women in Vatican circles today – in her book-lined Roman apartment, which she shares with her husband, Ernesto Galli della Loggia, who, like her, is a historian and prolific author. Scaraffia has written or contributed to 27 books, on topics ranging from eugenics to hagiography.

She tells me that revelations about the abuse of Sisters will deepen the abuse crisis.

“It’s a further consequence of the Catholic Church’s failure to address the sexual revolution,” she says. “From the 1960s onwards, the sexual revolution, which overturned previously respected moral boundaries, has become a mass phenomenon and the Catholic Church seems either the last bastion against it or a major impediment to sexual satisfaction.

“The Church rightly defended sexuality within marriage, which culminated in the papal document Humanae Vitae which, although very significant, was rather abstract as it did not reflect women’s experience.

“The Church was put on the defensive. It needed to take the new insights into sexuality and the family into account if it was to be more persuasive.”

Scaraffia came of age as the sexual revolution gathered strength. Born in Turin in 1948 to a Catholic mother and a Freemason father, she married a fellow student at Milan university to “satisfy my mother”, but it did not last. She obtained both a divorce and an annulment. For six years she then lived with a historian, Gabriele Ranzato, with whom she had a daughter.

She became a feminist, a Marxist and atheist. At university, she was encouraged to study female saints not for their religious aspect but their social importance. But when she read about Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila and Francesca Cabrini, the “saint of migrants”, she was won over by their spirituality.

Towards the end of the 1980s she witnessed a procession taking an ancient icon of the Madonna into Santa Maria in Trastevere, one of Rome’s oldest churches. She entered the church and felt “invaded by the Spirit, an undeniable influx of light and awe”. She returned to Catholicism.

Pope Benedict XVI encouraged Giovanni Maria Vian, then editor of L’Osservatore Romano, to include more women writers. Vian mentioned this to Scaraffia, who wrote occasionally for the Vatican broadsheet, and she suggested a monthly magazine. Benedict approved the proposal and in 2012 Donne Chiesa Mondo was launched. It has published hard-hitting articles ever since, including one which said that Sisters were tired of being exploited by Vatican dignitaries and other priests who use them as domestics.

Although she is mild-mannered in person, Scaraffia has raised hackles at the Vatican with statements such as “I’m a feminist fighting ecclesial patriarchy”. But she also endorses traditional stances, saying that birth control pills ruin female bodies and supporting natural options such as the Billings ovulation method.

She welcomed Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, including the controversial footnote.

“I think that’s part of the discernment that Francis recommends,” she says. “It would involve a priest ascertaining that the new partnership is a real family. Those who oppose it claim Matthew 19 shows that Jesus wouldn’t admit divorce. But in responding ‘No’ to the question of whether it is legitimate to divorce a wife, Jesus aimed to improve the status of women. What is now translated as ‘divorce’ was repudiation, not contemporary divorce based on parity between men and women.”

Scaraffia is convinced that civil society needs laws to regulate abortion and same-sex partnerships but opposes same-sex couples being able to adopt children.

“Doubtless abortion is a sin and, as such, it has to be condemned by the Catholic Church,” she maintains. “But this does not mean it should be punished as a crime by the state. For women, before anything else, abortion is a wound, both physical and psychic, inflicted on themselves which they will pay for, consciously or unconsciously, during their whole life. This is already sufficient punishment, above all if one realises that the man who has made her pregnant has nothing to pay, though he has the same responsibility.

“To punish the woman, and only her and not the man who shares the responsibility, is therefore a grave injustice. As a result, I am in favour of the decriminalisation of abortion.

“Moreover, as a historian I’m aware that abortion entered civil criminal law for the first time with the Napoleonic Code, and the motivation was not moral but linked to the new state need: obligatory conscription, which required an ever-growing supply of subjects/citizens to replenish the army.

“I recall also that the crime of abortion was cancelled from state laws in the West after World War II when it was understood that [wars] were no longer fought by soldiers but by warplanes, and so many soldiers were no longer needed – as shown also by the abolition of compulsory military service in many countries.”

Scaraffia does not have a blueprint for a feminist Church – if women are heard and heeded, the changes will be salutary, she says.

One change she hopes to see is the inclusion of women in Pope Francis’s small group of cardinal-advisers. At one time laity could be made cardinals, the electors and advisers of popes, but less than 50 years ago John XXIII decreed that cardinals must be bishops.

“That’s not dogma,” says Scaraffia, “Francis could change it.”

She adds: “There are women in Vatican offices but they are co-opted and are a minority usually kept in secondary positions. Instead of selecting a few individuals, the Vatican should incorporate the leaders of female religious orders who are democratically elected. They are ignored: the International Union of Superiors General has its offices opposite the Vatican. It is a hive of activity and initiatives but is rarely even consulted.”

Scaraffia says that Sisters are angry at their treatment by clerics and this revulsion is particularly strong among younger women, which accounts for the decline in female vocations. When I point out that enclosed female religious orders still report many vocations, she argues that this is because, although they accept priests to say Mass, otherwise they are increasingly autonomous.

I suggest that hers might be a one-sided view. The Catholic Church honours Mary to such a degree that it startles some other Christians. It has created many female saints and the Vatican’s cultural office recently has appointed a group of female advisers.

“Of course,” Scaraffia replies, “the creation of female Doctors of the Church, such as Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila and Hildegard of Bingen, was important. There are welcome gestures such as Francis putting Mary Magdalene liturgically on the same level as the Apostles, and many fine declarations. But they are not accompanied by acts showing willingness to take women seriously. It should be made as easy for women to undertake theological studies as it is for men. But, in many cases, when they don’t have financial backing they have to combine study with domestic tasks. Have you ever seen male theological students waiting on tables?

“There should be more women with important roles in seminaries, roles of leadership and teaching, so that seminarians know women not simply as servants. Sisters take vows. They are consecrated laity. They’re not ordained like priests, and I think aiming now at their ordination sets unrealistic goals. But with more realism much else can be achieved.”

I ask her why she thinks the next phase of the abuse crisis will focus on female adult victims. “It has already begun with the case of the Indian nun who accuses Bishop Franco Mulakkal of raping her repeatedly [he denies the accusations]. That suggests Sisters are now willing to ignore their superiors’ warnings such as that going public on such matters can bring reprisals – for instance, cutting funds.

“Further, one of the first initiatives of Sister Véronique Margron, who heads all Religious in France, has been to ask for reports of sexual abuse. The reports are being prepared and, if they are released in France, it will encourage Sisters in Italy and elsewhere to speak up.

“Incidentally, that will weaken the argument that homosexuality is the cause of abuse and favour those, like Francis, who say excessive clericalism, a feeling of superior status and power, is the basic cause.”

Does she agree?

“It’s a complex question, but briefly, yes. Some clerics think that celibacy induces neurosis: marriage is denied but they feel entitled to sexual relations. In the abuse of Sisters, a further factor is the prejudice that women are synonymous with temptation – even some victims share that outlook.” What has been the reaction to her writings in the Vatican?

“A couple of cardinals have paid sympathetic attention but that’s about all. The Vatican likes to employ people who are obedient and intelligent enough to know that they need the protection of higher-ups.”

There have been many replacements at the top levels of Vatican communications recently. Would she be surprised if they get rid of her?

“We’ll have to wait and see,” she replies.

Desmond O’Grady is a journalist, author and playwright living in Rome