To mark International Women’s Day earlier this week, Voices of Faith, an international Catholic women’s organization sponsored a conference in Rome, entitled “Why Women Matter.” The event featured two Catholic LGBT advocates: Mary McAleese, the former President of Ireland, and Ssenfuka Joanita Warry, a lesbian rights advocate from Uganda.
McAleese’s talk at the evenprompted a civil exchange between an Irish bishop and herself.
McAleese made a series of headline-making remarks in the week leading up to and during the Voices of Faith event. Earlier in the week, McAleese said that a Church that is “homophobic and anti-abortion is not the Church of the future,” according to the BBC. The Catholic Church, she added, was “one of the last great bastions of misogyny” and “an empire of misogyny.”
In her keynote address, “Time is Now for Change in the Catholic Church,” McAleese sharply challenged the Church’s oppression and exclusion of women. You can find her full address at the Women’s Ordination Conference’s website by clicking here. Towards her conclusion, she offered a challenge that could be applicable to LGBT people as well:
“Today we challenge Pope Francis to develop a credible strategy for the inclusion of women as equals throughout the Church’s root and branch infrastructure, including its decision-making. A strategy with targets, pathways and outcomes regularly and independently audited Failure to include women as equals has deprived the Church of fresh and innovative discernment; it has consigned it to recycled thinking among a hermetically sealed cosy male clerical elite flattered and rarely challenged by those tapped for jobs in secret and closed processes. It has kept Christ out and bigotry in. It has left the Church flapping about awkwardly on one wing when God gave it two. We are entitled to hold our Church leaders to account for this and other egregious abuses of institutional power and we will insist on our right to do so no matter how many official doors are closed to us.”
McAleese has long pressed for LGBT equality inside and outside the Church, including recent criticisms of exclusionary censoring in the preparatory materials for the 2018 World Meeting of Families set to take place in Dublin this summer. The mother of a gay son, she previously endorsed marriage equality, and, in 2015, she said that Church teaching on homosexuality was wrong and that the Church’s language about lesbian and gay people is conducive for homophobia. In 2015, she addressed an international conference on Catholic LGBT issues, sponsored by the Global Network of Rainbow Catholics.
For four previous years, the Voices of Faith conference was held at the Vatican, but this year Cardinal Kevin Farrell did not allow it in part because McAleese and Warry were on the list of invited speakers. It is therefore notable that Dublin’s Archbishop Diarmuid Martin responded positively to McAleese’s sharp challenge to church leaders. The Irish Times reported his statement:
“‘Her challenge to the internal culture of the Church today was brutally stark. Some may find it unpleasant or unwelcome. I must accept the challenge with the humility of one who recognises her alienation. . .Probably the most significant negative factor that influences attitudes to the church in today’s Ireland is the place of women in the church. I am not saying that just because of the comments in these days by President McAleese. Indeed, I was happy to note that President McAleese quoted that exact phrase of mine in her speech.'”
Ssenfuka Joanita Warry also spoke at “Why Women Matter.” She heads the feminist LGBT advocacy group Freedom and Roam in Uganda, as well as a leader in the Global Network of Rainbow Catholics. Warry explained why she is committed to remaining Catholic and to her activism. The Huffington Post quoted her as saying:
“‘I believe it is my responsibility, my duty, my role to change the mentality that surrounds me because I believe I’m on a mission from God. . .There is much more I’d want to do in the church, but I’m often limited by my sexual orientation and gender, which was created by God. I believe things can be different. Women have a lot of roles they can do in the church. Let no one stand in the way of the holy spirit.'”
Crux reported that Warry also called for Catholic leaders to become active in the struggle for LGBT human rights:
“‘Our religious leaders hold the key to the protection of LGBT persons, and not only in Africa. Imagine if the Vatican took a stance against criminalization to stand up for these walks of life, then we have hope.'”
The Voices of Faith event is important for LGBT issues not only because a lesbian Catholic and the Catholic mother of a gay child were included, but because the root of injustice in the church against women and LGBT people comes from the same patriarchal teachings on gender. The causes of women’s equality and LGBT equality are intimately linked, and so LGBT advocates are wise to pay attention to the lessons from Voices of Faith.
Authentic dialogue cannot occur when restrictions are imposed on who can speak or what can be discussed. But “Why Women Matter” is evidence that taking risks to pursue authentic dialogue (even when that means rejecting church leaders’ approval) allows the Holy Spirit to speak prophetically through people of faith. Imagine what could happen in the Church if more spaces of dialogue and sharing were created, and bishops and other church officials took the approach of Archbishop Martin to humbly listen. The Catholic women involved with Voices of Faith have taken the risk to model a way forward. The challenge now is for more Catholics to go and do likewise.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, March 10, 2018