[Editor’s Note: This is the fifth in a series of articles by Inés San Martín exploring the state of the Catholic Church in Pope Francis’ home continent of Latin America. The fourth can be found here.]
SANTA FE, Argentina — María Luisa Aspe, a Mexican historian who is a member of the Vatican’s commission for Latin America, says when it comes to women, the Catholic hierarchy “tries,” but doesn’t always understand their importance in the Church and in society.
Two years ago, she was one of 13 Latin American women invited by the Pontifical Commission for Latin America to discuss the role of women in the Church. From the outset, she said, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, who leads the commission, told them that issues of female priesthood and gender ideology were out.
“And we agreed to play in that area,” she said. Node Thursday. But leaving that aside, she said, there is a lot to be done in the “conservative traditionalist” Church in Latin America, where cardinals, bishops and priests still believe the role of women is in the kitchen.
By “conservative traditionalist,” she means that issues such as the role women can play in parish councils, in social ministries, and in diocesan structures are seen as out of the question, because “the hierarchy follows the traditional magisterium of the Church, that is to say the privileged place of women, is in the private sphere.
“The idea of the working woman, who can be both in the parish and with the children, who cares about women’s issues and presents a Catholic feminism is slowly registering in their minds, but Mexico is still very hierarchical”, Aspe mentioned.
Aspe is the former president of the Mexican Institute of Christian Social Doctrine. With a long experience of working with and for the Catholic Church, she learned that “no one will give you the place in the Church: you must occupy it”.
“It’s like humidity: sneaking in from below,” she said.
Hope has a female face
Aspe firmly believes that, both in the Church and in society in general, hope has a feminine face. She said this is especially true when it comes to the role that nuns and consecrated women play in the Church.
In 2014, while she was still leading the Mexican Institute for Christian Social Doctrine, they conducted the largest survey at the institutional level focused not on what Catholics believe, but on how they live what they claim to believe.
“In this poll, it was very clear: in Mexico, but also in all of Latin America, the most appreciated religious agents are undoubtedly the nuns,” she said, noting that this applies both to those in the apostolic life and to those who live in cloisters.
As an example, she cites a nun who works in a marginal neighborhood in Mexico City with sex workers. The nuns, the sister argued, “are the infrastructure of the Church.”
“And what is the infrastructure, you might ask,” Aspe continued. “It’s what, although you can’t see it, keeps the structure standing.”
On the other hand, at the level of the laity, women play a fundamental role in the transmission of the faith. Mothers and grandmothers are the ones who pass on the faith.
However, there is a challenge to this: “In Latin America, women of childbearing age – between their 20s and their early 40s – have stopped practicing their faith, and this is a statistically visible phenomenon in the region” .
They no longer practice faith, Aspe said, “because their faith tells them very little about their daily lives. When we met in Rome, I told the cardinals and bishops of Latin America who had gathered for the assembly of the commission, that I could not find a single homily or pastoral letter dealing with violence domesticated. And they all agreed.
According to data from the Pan American Health Organization, in Latin America and the Caribbean, one in three women has experienced physical or sexual violence in her lifetime. In Mexico, an average of 11 women are violently killed each day by their male partner.
Women leaving the Church
“Women are clearly migrating from the Church because the Church no longer speaks to them,” she said. “And that has to change.”
Working to be the change she wants to see within the institution, Aspe is a member of the Women’s Network of the Latin American Academy of Catholic Leaders. Their mission is to promote, develop and implement concrete actions for a new feminism in the current context, based on the Social Magisterium of the Catholic Church, for all men and women of good will.
Knowing that without women – who are the infrastructure and transmitters of the faith – there would be no Church is not enough, Aspe acknowledged: “Women are leaving the Church. According to the 2020 census, the Church has lost 5% of its faithful. And it has to do with the fact that the Church, beyond Pope Francis, speaks very little to them about everyday life.
“It is valid for a lay person to ask: what does my faith and the fact of being a member of this Church or not add to my life,” she said.
“The paradox of what we are experiencing is that it is the woman who sustains, who is the hope of the Church, but she comes out of the institution, and I believe that this is a challenge linked to hierarchy,” she said.
“It’s the problem of priests telling women they don’t want to see them wreak havoc in parishes and should go home to take care of their husbands,” Aspe said. “It is a problem of the bishops who consider that this issue is on the agenda of Pope Francis and that as such it must be taken into account, but it is difficult work, so they do not give no further.”
The problem, as in many cases, is cultural, the historian said. Steps must be taken to ensure that women are included in parish councils and in social ministries, because “it is us, the women, who do these ministries. In the most violent regions of Mexico, those who work for reconciliation and the reconstruction of the social fabric are women. Why can’t they actively participate in the council that allocates resources to these programs? »
The “leftization” of the Church
Many Latin American bishops, Aspe said, do not understand the difference between liberation theology and people’s theology, which is the one favored by Pope Francis.
“They believe Francis will lead to the ‘leftizing’ of the Church,” she said. “But from an ecclesial point of view, being ‘leftist’ means recognizing social commitment as a constitutive aspect of our faith. If we don’t have that engagement with the marginalized that is part of the magisterium, then what we have is something other than faith.
The historian also believes that due to globalization, the “reductionist categories” of left versus right no longer apply to understanding reality.
“I would talk about commitment to the gospel, which includes commitment to the poor, ecology, sustainability, orphaned children and more,” Aspe said. Women in particular, she argued, have a fundamental role to play in these social spheres, because “no one wants to do this work, but it is essential”.
Caring for those on the margins of society by following the social teaching of the Church, she said, does not mean leaving aside the sacraments, the commandments and the liturgy. It is not a question of choosing between one and the other, but of living both. Loving those on the peripheries does not make a Catholic, nor does he love the Latin Mass, such was his argument.
She added a salvo, however, saying that in Latin America at least – but also beyond – the “restrictive” meaning of pro-life, i.e. only the protection of unborn children, has also had an impact in this polarization.
“We are pro-life, but as the magisterium teaches, from conception to natural death,” Aspe said. “The problem in our countries is that people die too early. People die of poverty, of treatable diseases or of being killed violently.
Finally, she says, “we catch more flies with honey than with gall”, and the fights to assert one position over the other, as if the Church were more or less victorious and defeated, cannot simply not be accepted.
“The best thing to do is to work from training spaces, to listen, to try to understand where the other is coming from,” she said, repeatedly emphasizing the importance of formation in all aspects of the faith. “You have to dialogue with respect, without narrative radicalism, and knowing that it’s complicated to work with the hierarchy.”
An opposing radicalism
Just as, according to Aspe, there is right-wing radicalism today that resolutely tries to protect tradition, there is a risk of liberal radicalism, rooted in the lack of training on both sides present. This could happen, for example, with the Church’s ongoing Synod on Synodality, a global consultation launched by Pope Francis ahead of the 2023 Synod of Bishops on this issue.
The pontiff has repeatedly said that a synod is not a parliament, and that synodality does not mean democracy, but many see it as such.
“There is a temptation to say that Francis changes the doctrine of the Church, that he opens the institution, and that he does not change the teachings,” she said. However, giving the impression that he is can lead to both disappointment and fear.
On the one hand, people will realize that the Argentine pontiff does not change the teaching and leaves, because the institution does not live up to expectations. On the other hand, she argued, people panic because they are told he is trying to subvert tradition.
“There is an ideologization of Pope Francis’ message, and the risk is huge,” Aspe said.