Rome conference to hear calls for bold steps towards equality in the church after exploitation of nuns at the Vatican is revealed
Harriet Sherwood Religion correspondent
“Powerful vested interests” within the Catholic church are being challenged at a conference in Rome on International Women’s Day as calls grow for women to be given positions of authority and influence in the church.
In a sign that a new assertive mood around women’s rights has reached the Vatican, the Voices of Faith gathering will on Thursday hear demands for bold steps towards gender equality within the male-dominated church.
Meanwhile a manifesto of women for the church, which calls for women’s roles that “are coherent with our competences and capacities”, is circulating on social media. It says: “As adult women we experience daily the subordinate role of women in the church.”
The rallying cry comes days after a magazine article exposed the exploitation of nuns at the Vatican. Headlined “the (nearly) free work of nuns, the article revealed dire economic conditions experienced by many nuns, alongside resentment about the low value placed on their vocations compared with men’s.
Women in religious orders work long hours cooking, cleaning and serving the cardinals, bishops and officials who run the church, it claimed. With nominal or no pay, and no contracts of employment, the nuns are barely acknowledged by the men whose needs they provide for.
Several nuns spoke anonymously to the magazine. “In the eyes of Jesus we are all children of God, but in their concrete life some nuns do not live this, and they experience great confusion and discomfort,” said one. Nuns were “rarely invited to sit at the table they serve”, she added.
Only a handful of women hold senior positions in the Vatican hierarchy, including Barbara Jatta, who in 2016 became the first woman to head its museums.
The exploitation of nuns is likely to be raised at this week’s Rome conference, whose theme is “Why Women Matter”.
In a statement, it organisers said: “We live in times marked by change, but there are places where gender equality is being systematically overlooked. The Catholic church is one of them.
“The crises we must confront in our world today demand leaders, women and men, who are prepared to think the unthinkable and who will risk upsetting powerful vested interests and take bold steps forward for the greater good.”
In previous years, the annual conference has been held at the Vatican, but the organisers switched venues last month after the Holy See refused to give approval to Mary McAleese, a former president of Ireland, and two other speakers.
No reasons were given, but McAleese has spoken in favour of women’s ordination, which has been ruled out by the pope, and LGBT rights. McAleese has declined to comment other than disclosing she had written to him about the refusal.
Chantal Götz, the founder of Voices of Faith, told the National Catholic Reporter: “It is crucial for us to bring voices that represent perspectives often not heard at the Vatican.”
She added, as a non-Vatican entity: “Ultimately, we did not see a reason why these women should have to go through an ‘approval process’ by anyone.”
On the decision to relocate the conference, she said: “We feel that the authentic voices of all the women we are bringing this year are more important than whether our event takes place at the Casina Pio IV or at the Jesuit Aula — what matters is that everyone in Rome and at the Vatican can easily come to listen.”
The pope has been invited to the conference, along with several cardinals.
During an audience two years ago, he was asked directly whether the church could be “more open to receiving the genius of women”.
He replied: “It is true that women are excluded from decision-making processes in the church: not excluded, but the presence of women is very weak there, in decision-making processes. We must move forward.”
He also warned women in religious orders against drudgery, saying: “Your work, my work and the work of all of us, is one of service. Very often I find consecrated women who perform a labour of servitude and not of service.”
When nuns were asked to perform work that was “more servitude than service, have the courage to say no,” he added.