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Lucetta Scaraffia: ‘We need to win women back’

Lucetta Scaraffia would like to see more women teaching at seminaries and presiding over several Vatican departments

“It’s not possible to go on like this,” said Professor Lucetta Scaraffia in an interview with Agence France Press in 2012. “There is misogyny in the Church [and] women in the Church are angry!” Not surprisingly, her comments made headlines across the world and ignited a lively debate in the Church. And her criticisms didn’t end there: she also lambasted careerism among the clergy and argued that the sexual abuse crisis probably would not have happened if more women had been in positions of authority.

But despite her much-publicised comments, portraying her as a possible bra-burning Church feminist with little tolerance for opposing views, in person Scaraffia is softly spoken, thoughtful and good humoured. An associate professor of contemporary history at La Sapienza in Rome, she is one of the Church’s best known “Catholic feminists” and a regular contributor to L’Osservatore Romano, Corriere della Sera and Avvenire, the daily newspaper of Italy’s bishops.

We meet at her apartment in a Rome suburb, which she shares with her husband, the well-known Italian secularist intellectual Ernesto Galli della Loggia. Their residence is spacious but relatively modest and, as one would expect, the walls are lined with copious books on a wide variety of subjects.

I begin by asking about her concerns regarding women’s role in the Church. She answers by making an interesting observation, that until the 19th century, women were more respected in the Church than in society and that the emancipation of women even owes itself to Christianity. But now, she says, the situation has been “inverted”.

“Christianity is the only religion that has, from its origins, put forward an equal spirituality between men and women,” she explains. “This is the heritage of Christianity – and in particular the Catholic Church – in the past. But today, in society, we have a situation where women have become more advanced than the Church.”

She says the Church today “is too tired to accept this heritage” and to make itself part of this continued change. She says this is because women’s emancipation today “is measured along parameters that the Church cannot accept – that is, freedom for abortion” and what she calls “anti-conception”. This has led to a conflict, she says, between the emancipation of women as it currently stands and the Church. But she says she is in “absolute agreement” with other aspects of feminism, namely that the work of women “needs to be recognised” and that they should have “the same rights as men” and their role be valued.

A second hindrance, she says, concerns “gender” – the tendency to deny that which is specifically feminine, meaning maternity. The Church wants to value maternity, she says, and cites the 1988 apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem, but society generally does not. “So these are two very different positions,” she says.

Known for being fervently pro-life, Scaraffia says that the Church “is completely right” that the emancipation of women can be founded neither on abortion nor on gender. But in terms of in equality of opportunity, she says the Church must change. “Women should be able to carry out more roles within the Church,” she says. “I am against women priests but I think women should be given posts of responsibility in the Church.”

The head of a Vatican department does not, in theory, have to be a bishop or even a priest. So I ask whether she would like to see a woman leading, say, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. “Yes, absolutely, and more than one. Take a Mother Superior of an order,” she says, warming to a topic she has clearly often defended. “She has great experience, diplomatically, economically, and globally. I’ve known some of them. They’re extraordinary women. They could carry out this task very well indeed.”

Naturally, she is not prepared to say how soon that could happen, but says the likelihood is hindered by “the career wishes of priests”. They want to “make a career, become head of a dicastery and they become bishops, cardinals and so on”, she says. “This is the problem.”

She notes the many times both Benedict XVI and now Pope Francis warned clergy against careerism in the Church, and believes the presence of women in these positions would “disturb this struggle for power” because women “can’t make a career”. So does she think most male clergy want power? “No, of course there are very good priests, but some are like that.”

Scaraffia was heartened by Benedict XVI’s efforts to increase women’s roles in the Vatican, notably increasing their opportunities at L’Osservatore Romano. “By doing this, we can’t be ignored any more,” she says, adding that she believes the sight of more women working in the Vatican will bring about “a small cultural revolution”. The Vatican newspaper now produces a weekly supplement on women’s issues.

Scaraffia hopes Francis will continue where Benedict left off and values the new Pope’s emphasis on service rather than power. But she fears he will face “many internal obstacles”. She welcomes the Holy Father’s call for a deeper theology of women, and believes now is the time to “resume the debate begun by John Paul II, going beyond thoughts of reciprocity that he promoted, deepening the essential bond of maternity and the question of equality”.

On the question of misogyny in the Church, she doesn’t think it is widespread and says many priests appreciate femininity. “I don’t think women in the Church are necessarily victims of misogynists, but the organisation can be misogynistic. The exclusion of women from the organisation is what is misogynistic, from the highest ranks of the Church.” One way to combat this, she believes, would be to have women teaching in the seminaries because priests would be used to seeing members of the opposite sex in posts “more superior to them”. “Instead, young people going to seminary see women only as those who are preparing food or cleaning. This is very important – it’s very important to change this attitude to women.”

Her past assertion that more women in positions of authority might have prevented in the clerical sex abuse crisis raised eyebrows. When I ask her about it, she prefaces her answer by stressing that the abuse of minors has also taken place in the houses of religious women. But she adds: “I think that the attitudes of women are always more geared to defending children, so the presence of women, to a greater or lesser extent, serves to prevent sexual abuse.”

We turn to the problem of some women religious, most notably the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. A canonically approved body to support religious nuns and Sisters in the United States, the group has recently been investigated by the Vatican over doctrinal concerns. Does she agree that too little discipline and separation from tradition was a cause? “It’s a problem,” she answers. “Often in the Church the only women that are heard are those who protest the loudest, but they are on the margins of the Church. These Sisters have written things greatly opposed to the Church’s moral teaching. In this way, the Vatican thinks of women as a danger, because either they don’t stay silent, or they protest very loudly.”

But she stresses there are many women who are obedient to the Church and in agreement with it. “They could say things, but they are not listened to, and yet those women religious who protest loudly eclipse the voices of those that protest less,” she says.

Overall, Scaraffia says, there is “much to do” to improve the lives of women in the Church. The way forward, she proposes, “should include a historical reflection on the role that women have played in the history of the Church, which tends to be ignored or underestimated a great deal”.

Frequently, the subject of credibility comes up in our conversation. She says that the fear of giving women more leadership positions damages the Church “because when the Church is increasingly different to modern society, she becomes less

“Many things that the Church says on the moral level would be much more credible if they were said by women in important positions,” she says. “As they are not, it seems there’s a struggle, men against women, which isn’t the case. On the contrary, I think the Church at this moment defends women, for example from exploitation, such as artificial insemination. But the fact that these things are said always by men doesn’t convince others.”

This article first appeared in the print edition of the Catholic Herald dated 11/10/13