Paola Lazzarini Orrù

Watching power up close: women in Italian Church

Speech delivered on October 13, 2023 at the Spirit Unbounded Event

Translation by Dr Luca Badini

Welcome to Rome! Many of you have come from far away, or are watching us from far away, and for this reason I would like to try to tell you a few words about what it means to be a Catholic woman right here, in Italy, so close to the Vatican.

Walking along the Tiber you will probably see more men wearing dresses than women, in particular a long black dress, because here belonging to the priestly caste must be seen from a distance…

It is not simply a curious detail, it is an explicit manifestation of strength and – here in Italy – this strength is present at all levels: in the urban planning layout of the cities, which are built around churches; and in the tax legislation, which favors the Catholic Church, both by giving it a tax rebate, and by giving it a percentage of the tax revenue collected by the state. 

This strength and omnipresence also translates into the fact that the Church often complements the State in offering welfare services, such as schools and hospitals, and it even replaces it, for example with regard to the services for people in situations of dire deprivation.

While this may be the case in many countries, it is the case here in a particularly profound way, and the Pope is an omnipresent figure on the television and in the newspapers.

This strength is offset by a deep weakness: it is that weakness that pushes the hierarchy to take a position on issues on which they have no competence, from the declining birth rate to living wills, in the attempt to remain a political actor relevant in a secularized world. It’s that weakness that provides answers to the dubia of five elderly cardinals, while refusing to answer the requests of half of the people of God, because it is decidedly easier to answer the former, and you can do that while attempting not to displease anyone.

Being close to clerical power, as women, means feeling the burden of never being regarded as equal conversation partners, but rather of being considered an “issue” to be kept at bay by inserting a woman here, 54 women there, with great pomp, as at the current Synod. It also means meeting the nuns who live in the basement of the Jesuit review Civiltà Cattolica and act as cooks and waitresses for the same priests who write essays on the spiritual abuse of nuns.

Here in Italy the contradictions are more strident, here they are much more noticeable: the institution that made us know the Gospel (and we will never be grateful enough for this) is the same one that betrays it every day.

I cannot count the times I’ve been told “if are not OK with how things are, you can always leave the church”, as if belonging to a faith community were merely a dress that you put on and take off. Those who want reform are cast as lacking catholicity and love for the Church. These walls become very high.

Of course, today no one denies that women have the same dignity as men, yet we are still on the margins. But the way we are talked about has become more refined, like we see in Pope Francis’ answer to the dubiawhen he says “we cannot contradict the norm that excludes women from ordination, but we can study it”… maybe by setting up yet another study commission that will end with nothing. The power is always the same: the power of saying what is orthodoxy and what is heresy. And to this day women are still called upon to say that the king is naked. 

As the writer Umberto Eco used to say, ‘Scratch the heresy, you will find the outcast’.

As a woman, as a Catholic feminist, I know that we are marginalised and I cannot hide the difficulties.

In Italy, Catholic women’s associations have historically been born with anti-feminist intentions, so that a grassroots Catholic feminism has never really been born. Italian women have been the Catholic Church’s best allies against the evils of modernism.

But today something is broken, today even in Italy women who self-identify as Catholic and who NEVER attend Church, outnumber those who attend it regularly, a very recent development that says something very profound: a rupture has taken place between the Church and women, and the reasons do not concern, in my opinion, only the belated access of women to the world of work, which has lagged behind other Western countries, and which has meant that secularisation has reached Italian women later than women elsewhere in the West, but also the increasingly unjustifiable discrimination that women are subjected to, and, more recently still, the emergence into light of a systemic practice of abuse.

On the one hand, we have stopped accepting that rights acquired in civil society are not valid within the walls of the church, on the other, trust has broken down and mothers have stopped entrusting their children to parishes. The response of the Italian Church has been insufficient. The Italian Episcopal Conference (CEI) is one of those that has refused to put in place a proper investigation conducted by an independent commission, as has happened elsewhere, and this reticence has only strengthened mistrust.

The lockdown, with the proliferating of images of priests celebrating alone, via videoconference, has finally removed any illusion regarding its communitarian dimension and the role of the people of God: the Church is hostage to a caste.

This deep and radical fracture is taking place while spiritual demand continues to grow. Especially that of women who are, everywhere in the world, the closest to prayer and religious practice.

If people leave the Catholic Church, but their spiritual demand remains constant, if not growing, then it simply means that people are looking elsewhere. Last week Sadhguru, an Indian guru, arrived in Milan and 5000 people paid a very expensive ticket to listen to him and meditate with him. The Catholic Church acts as if it has a monopoly on the sacred and spirituality, but it does not, not even in Italy, not even in Rome.

In the post-Covid era, church attendance is down 25% from before the pandemic.

The institution is eroding from within, because it is continually in a defensive position in the face not only of external threats, but above all internal demands. Such an attitude is poisonous, and says nothing to the real life of people, who are now conscious and autonomous subjects in their political, affective, and sexual choices. Will this synod change such an attitude? I doubt it.

The social organisation of an entirely hierarchical, entirely male and imperial clerical power is over. Historically it no longer has any justification, and it is clear that it has no future. But since the hierarchy regards this system not merely as an organisational principle, but rather it has sacralised it, and elevated it as a foundation of the hierarchy’s very existence, then the hopes for reform become very slim. And those hopes rely on women: for only if the Church will make women fully part of its structure will it be able to overthrow this clerical regime founded on the male and celibate priest: a regime which is unjust, old, and removed from life. Would this stop the haemorrhaging of the faithful, both male and female? Probably not, but it must be done simply because it is right. 

So us meeting in Rome, while the official Synod is being held a short distance away, is for me a sign that life – the one with a capital “L”, the one of Him who described Himself as the Way, the Truth, and the Life – does not allow anyone to contain it or diminish it.



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