On Monday, the leaders of two Catholic groups dedicated to the ordination of women in the church reminded Catholic cardinals not to ignore their “sisters on the outside”, as the cardinals gathered to discuss reforms of the church.
Earlier this year, Pope Francis appointed two women to a dicastery, or papal committee, which selects new bishops in the church. However, Monday’s closed-door gathering of cardinals excluded women.
As the cardinals gathered inside, a small group of women from the U.S.-based Women’s Ordination Conference and Women’s Ordination Worldwide stood at the entrance with bright red umbrellas bearing messages that included ” ordained women” and “more than half of the church”. They spoke with the incoming cardinals and gave them a letter explaining their recognition efforts. Within 10 minutes, the police arrested the group, detaining them for about four hours. Officially, the group was detained for demonstrating without permission.
Kate McElwee, executive director of the Women’s Ordination Conference and one of the women at the protest, spoke to Mitchell Atencio of Sojourners hours after her release. She spoke of her hope for the ordination of women, of Francis’ attitude towards the reforms and of the symbolic nature of their activism.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Mitchell Atencio, Sojourners: What were the cardinals discussing?
Kate McElwee: Pope Francis called a consistory and on Saturday he created 20 new cardinals and [on Monday and Tuesday] he summons the cardinals of the world for meetings. There are 197 prelates [church officials] who are in Rome in particular to discuss the reforms of the new apostolic constitution promulgated at Pentecost.
One of the important reforms of this constitution is that it opened up the possibility for women, or any lay person, to lead dicasteries in the Vatican – this is a role that was traditionally reserved for bishops and cardinals, it is therefore an important decision.
I heard the intention [for these meetings is] bring together cardinals, practice and model synodality, then learn about constitutional reforms. But, of course, there are no women in this meeting.
We wanted to testify and just draw attention to the fact that this is a closed session where no women are present, ironically, when one of the biggest changes in the constitution is that the women can now lead departments
And how did your action go? You and your colleagues were detained for about four hours, what were the interactions with the police like, why did they say they detained you?
We had a prayer and an intention that our voices carry through these closed sessions and provoke the conscience of the gathered prelates to know that their sisters are waiting outside. We opened bright red umbrellas with our messages written on them; everything from “reform means women”, “these are reigning men”, “sexism is a cardinal sin” and other messages. We have studied Via della Conciliazione until we reach the gates of the piazzathen we continued to the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, where it is a major entry point for the Vatican and we thought we could greet the cardinals as they entered.
We had a letter that said “don’t forget your sisters outside”, but we greeted them very respectfully and were able to interact with a handful of cardinals who were on their way to their meetings. Some were more favorable than others. But after about 10 minutes, policemen from different levels came to us and asked us to close our umbrellas and provide our IDs. We complied soon after, and they parked us in a small [space] between the colonnades. We stayed there for an hour, and their main complaint was that we didn’t have a permit — I lived in Rome for eight years, it’s very difficult to get a permit for women’s ordination next to the Vatican. After an hour, they escorted us to the nearest police station where we were detained for another three hours or so. It was a long wait for them to accuse us of demonstrating without a permit, especially in the Vatican. It was a very, very Italian experience. We stopped for coffee before they took us to the police station. I think they didn’t think we were dangerous, but it was a matter of bureaucracy and formalities for them.
Why is the ordination of women important in the Catholic Church?
It is a matter of justice for most Catholic women. Our calls are not heard. Many women feel like they don’t have a voice or vote in the Catholic Church. And there are layers and layers of sexism that marginalize women from important leadership positions, both ministerial and administrative.
And like me, for so many Catholic women, this is our home. It is our identity and our tradition, and through the sacraments it is how we navigate the world. To be seen as a second tier, or not having our voices heard, is deeply painful. And we see the effects of this exclusion all over the world.
One of the most important things about our work is recognizing that the ordination of women is not just about women priests. The Catholic Church has 1.36 billion members. More than half of these people are women and they are not represented within the church. This type of exclusion and subordination is reproduced through culture, education and all the ways in which the Catholic Church has power in the world – including having a seat at the United Nations and working for subvert gender equality policies.
There is also a deep pain. In my work, I hear stories and testimonies of women called to the priesthood. You hear their vocation stories and they are in no way different from male priests.
I am a hopeful person. I believe the church can truly be this incredible force for good and justice in the world, if it opened its doors to women.
How would you describe Pope Francis’ relationship with the women’s ordination movement?
I think Pope Francis has done a lot to encourage greater dialogue around the issue of women in the Church, especially through his synod on synodality and by engaging all Catholics to get involved in this collective discernment. In the USA [this] inspired many of these reports from dioceses and synods to include mentions of urgent calls for the ordination of women and for women in ministry. In that sense, he really changed the culture. Because the ordination of women to the priesthood is taboo in many ways. And through the synodality and the dialogue that we engage together, he opened this conversation in a broader way.
Unfortunately, when it comes to the ordination of women, especially throughout his pontificate, he repeated the logic and thinking of his predecessors. Although he convened two commissions on women deacons, [and] it is still a question which evolves in the catholic church, on the priesthood I think that François did not move much, [even though] he encouraged greater dialogue and called for greater inclusion of women in the life of the church.
What gives you hope that this is possible?
When I think of Pope Francis, he is a man who changed his mind. He’s leading the global church in collective discernment, which is so messy, but that means it’s all in play, it’s all in conversation. There is great openness for church leaders to really listen to Catholics on the ground. The majority of Catholics are calling for the ordination of women and a greater leadership role in the church. It gives me a lot of hope.
As part of the Synod on Synodality, the Vatican Synod Office has listed resources for the Women’s Ordination Conference on its official website, which would be unthinkable in another pontificate. This means it’s part of the conversation, the elephant in the room is on the table for discussion. As long as we’re still talking about this – and we are because this issue hasn’t gone away for so many decades – there’s still hope.
We’ve seen Pope Francis really model what a pastor is. I believe Francis is quite a pastoral person. So part of my job is to create opportunities where he can hear the testimonies and vocations of women. He formalized the ministry of catechists recently and opened the role of acolyte and reader to women, and this language really identifies discernment as a vocation. When I read this language, I think it is the same spirit that calls women to ordained ministry. I just hope he’s ready to hear women’s calls for ordination. Unfortunately, when you’re surrounded by Vatican architecture, interaction with women – especially if you call these meetings men-only – can be quite limited.
What has it meant to you to do this work internationally and across cultures?
It is absolutely essential. When you meet women from different cultures and listen to the language they use to describe their desire for leadership and ministerial roles, there are nuances, but women around the world simply yearn for equality so that their voices are heard. heard.
The particulars of the circumstances make the priorities different, but the bottom line is that women yearn to be equals and to be embraced by their own church. It’s very powerful to work alongside women and international leaders who come with their own background and their own stories. It can’t come from one place. It is a universal church. This is part of this discernment that Francis tries to mold and guide us. Listening to the voices and context of all women in different places is really important to what we do.
Editor’s Note: This story was updated to correct a transcription error as of 7:00 p.m. August 30, 2022. McElwee said the “Vatican Synod office.”