FutureChurch’s Deborah Rose-Milavec has been active over the past three years in Voices of Faith (VOF), an international initiative focused on expanding the roles of women in the Catholic Church and highlighting the work of women engaged in some of the most difficult work in the world. The March 8th event inside the Vatican has helped open new doors for dialogue regarding the role of women within the patriarchal institution in Rome and has served to highlight the courageous leadership of women working at the margins of society.

Voices of Faith envisions a church and a world that fully recognizes and embraces the gifts, talents and leadership of women. It works to build a diverse and inclusive network of committed women of faith who fight and work for an effective and transparent church, social justice, equality, human rights, peace and environmental protection.

At the March 8, 2016, event, the Voices of Faith panel included a multi-generational group of women including Carolyn Woo, CEO and president of Catholic Relief Services; Geralyn Sheehan, director for the Peace Corps in Columbia; Petra Dankova, at the time a postulant for the Sisters of the Holy Redeemer and an international social worker with experience working with forcibly displaced persons, Nicole Perone, a graduate student from Yale Divinity School and Gayatri Lobo Gajiwala, a high school teacher and feminist blogger in Mumbai. The panel was moderated by Fr. Tom Smolich, international director of Jesuit Refugee Services. Two questions were posed; a) Where has the Church excelled in opening opportunities for women’s decision making and leadership?  b) What can the Church do to create more opportunities for women in leadership?  

Each woman brought her experience and perspectives to those questions, because of the diversity in geographical locations, work history and age, it was particularly rich.  All the members of the panel spoke positively of some of the advances women have pioneered in the Catholic Church. Still, they all acknowledged there is a lot of room for growth.  

Geralyn Sheehan, a Vatican II Catholic, got down to practical details. She observed that “the one thing I know is, institutions never change because they should; they change when it's in their self-interest.” So she asked, “What is the current self-interest of the Church?” She stressed that “When I think about the global issues that our Church faces, whether it's Boko Haram, ISIS, female infanticide, genital mutilation, human trafficking, which is really sexual trafficking —we all know that the target of all of those activities are too often women and their children.” For Sheehan, having more women in decision making roles is rooted in the self-interest of the Church in its Gospel mission.

Petra Dankova, a Gen X Catholic, asked, “If women’s religious communities were the greenhouse of women in the Church, how can we move beyond those greenhouses so that the future of women’s leadership within the Church is ensured? “

Nicole Perone, a Millennial Catholic, asked an important question that many Millennial Catholics are asking, “. . . Women can be president of the United States; they can be the prime minister of their countries; they can be a Fortune 500 CEO. They can succeed in any sphere. So why is the Church the last frontier on that?” She believes the Church is doing itself a disservice stressing, “It's a brain drain; it's a talent drain. So right now, if the Church wants to stop that and really utilize those gifts and talents, they just need to continue to let that wealth blossom. It's there. The seeds are planted and we just need to continue to nourish them.”

Gayatri Lobo Gajiwala, another Millennial Catholic, agreed adding, “. . . Just because we don't follow the same rules that our parents did or we don't necessarily always go to Mass every Sunday or we choose not to go to confession, we're not Catholic enough. And then we feel as if we're denied a space within the existing structure of the Church and our voices aren't being heard. And if we don't have a space, how are we going make a change? How are we going to make a difference?”  

Carolyn Woo, the most senior member of the panel, started with a cautionary note. “I just want to say, women are knocking on the door of the Church. And sometimes it's wearing for the people who are suddenly on the other side of the door. Too much knocking. And I like that particular analogy because Scriptures tell us, for those who knock on the door, it will be opened to you. So I do believe in that. But I also have the fear -- that is, the generation of women who follow us, not the people at this table but many, they will stop knocking. And there will come a day when there will be this silence of people not knocking, that the young people who follow us, they cannot imagine the light behind that door. They begin not to see that door at all.”

Woo, who has a lifetime of expertise in the service of the Catholic Church, finished the panel discussion making five salient points.  

The first one is that we do have women leaders in various positions. The issue istaking it from the exceptional and the occasional to the habitual so that it becomes part of the regular process, that there is the expectation, there is a pool of candidates, there is a sense of [inaudible] councils and advisory boards and so on. We could have that. But [we mustmove] from the exceptional to the habitual.

The second is that women are engaged. But I have a question: Are women engaged as family or are they engaged as guests, or are they engaged as guest workers? And I'll leave you to think through that particular analogy.

The third point is - are the voices of women…taken as a little threatening or are they thought of as enriching? And I think so much of the conversation, particularly the dominant conversations and the loudest conversations, have focused on women ordination, which is off the table. But whenever women [plead] or speak or recommend or propose, there's this skepticism and suspicion: Is this conversation leading to women ordination? Is this a slippery slope? So that everything that women want eventually is [directed] to the priesthood. When women speak, is this all leading to women’s ordination? And I think that is unfortunate, because in a lot of ways we fail to hear the voices of the mothers, of the single mothers, of the lay pastoral associate. . . “

I think the fourth point is different popes. Not just Pope Francis, but Pope Benedict also referred to 'feminine genius.' And a lot of times that term is evoked to mean women's sensitivity, women's intuition, intuitiveness; women's ability to tend to others, to nourish, to care; women's loyalty and their steadfastness. Well, that's wonderful. In fact, it's daunting to live up to, but what about women as social critics or social activists, like Dorothy Day? What about women who are scandalous, like Dorothy Day? And Mary Magdalene and the woman at the well. What about women who are entrepreneurial, hard headed, persistent, and sometimes even defiant? Like many of the women religious who founded their congregations and sustain it, the women who follow them who went into these territories to establish what they do? What about those women? What about women who really take the spiritual works of mercy seriously, like Catherine of Sienna, who wrote words urging the Pope and the political leaders to change their ways? What about those women?

So [the conversation is] about feminine genius. Is there a place for the other part —which is a bit thorny, a bit pushy?

And my fifth point is, I think the Church really does minister to women. I work with a global church; I know what the Church does. But in addition to service to women, I think we need to think about the rights of women: the right of women to own land; the right of women not to be married off in a child marriage; the right of women to education — so that we're not just ministering to them in their misfortune, but we're actually standing with them to understand how to create an environment through rights. Rights are very important ways to protect women in society.

The VOF 2016 panel discussion was another rich experience where women from diverse backgrounds and perspectives voiced their care and concern for the Church. In 2017, the Voices of Faith event and mission continues. The panel discussion will include five women from around the world with expertise in organizational leadership. We will ask “How can we create opportunities for women to lead and govern in the Church?” Join us for the live stream on March 8, 2017 at voicesoffaith.org.

To read transcripts from past VOF events, go to www.futurechurch.org/women-in-church-leadership/voices-of-faith-panel-discussions.