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  • John Thavis

Vatican conference to examine new approaches to women’s issues

Updated: Feb 19, 2020

Even before it began, this week’s Vatican-sponsored meeting on “Women’s Cultures: Equality and Difference” sparked debate on a variety of issues: women’s specific characteristics, the meaning of “generativity” vs. “maternity,” and even whether plastic surgery represents a form of aggression against women.

At a press conference Monday, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, whose Pontifical Council for Culture is organizing the conference, waded into these and other controversies. He was navigating difficult waters. It is problematic, I think, for any Vatican official to talk about women’s equality when Vatican decision-making remains an all-male, all-clerical domain.

Nevertheless, Ravasi has opened some new and interesting areas of discussion. The meeting’s working document, for example, suggests that the church’s traditional image of women “does not correspond to reality” today, and that some women may be leaving the church as a result.

“Why with their great presence have women had so little impact on the Church’s structures? In pastoral praxis, why are we giving women only those tasks of a somewhat rigid scheme, the fruit of ideological and ancestral left-overs?” the document asked.

It concluded: “A realistic objective could be that of opening the doors of the Church to women so that they can offer their contribution in terms of skills and also sensitivity, intuition, passion, dedication, in full collaboration and integration with the male component.”

For the Vatican, however, collaboration and integration clearly do not include women’s ordination. The document underlined that in the meeting’s program, “there is no discussion here of women priests, which according to statistics is not something that women want.” Nor do most women want the bishop’s “purple biretta,” it said.

The real question in Rome is whether Pope Francis’ planned reform of the Roman Curia will bring women to executive roles in the Vatican, something that until now has been rejected because – as Pope Benedict once explained – decision-making in the church has been linked to holy orders.

The panel at the Vatican press conference included four women who helped prepare the document, all of them Italian and all of them successful in their careers. They offered some qualifications on the document’s assertion that non-therapeutic plastic surgery can indicate a “refusal of the body” and a denial of the natural aging process; the women said much depends on a woman’s motives and attitude toward such surgery. (For the record, the working document did not exactly assert that “plastic surgery is like a burqa made of flesh,” although it cited the line as an opinion worth discussing.)

The pontifical council deliberately avoided the term “maternity” in its working document, preferring to talk about what it calls a quality of “generativity,” which refers to the life-giving, nurturing and educating role of women – not only in bringing babies into the world, but also extending to other social relationships and even business activities.

The document insists that equality must not mean trying to erase real differences between men and women – differences, for example in problem-solving, emotional reaction and ways of cooperation. But it seemed to suggest that a favorite Vatican term used to describe the men-women relationship, “complementarity,” may be open to revision, asking: “Can the categories of ‘reciprocity’ and ‘complementarity’ be an interpretative key and possible way of life, or must we find other categories?”

The conference will also examine violence against women, including domestic violence, as well as selective abortion of females.

Pope Francis will meet with the conference participants on Saturday, and is expected to give a speech that will draw close attention.

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