How we talk about women at the Vatican
March 27, 2019 | Published first in Angelus News
by Elise Italiano Ureneck
At last month’s Vatican Summit on the Protection of Minors, Sister Veronica Openibo, superior general of the Society of the Holy Name of Jesus, made news — and waves — with her address to the bishops gathered in Rome. As one of only three women to address the 190 bishops, Openibo’s talk was bound to garner attention.
But the press coverage by and large missed the mark when it came to unpacking the full impact of her talk, for two key reasons: first, in the way her address and subsequent media interviews were characterized, and second, was by selections of her talk that were emphasized. Presuming the best intentions of the writers and editors — that they wanted to underscore how strong and persuasive Sister’s address was — it’s still important that when it comes to the few women who do get the floor at these types of events, their contributions are done justice.
Let’s start with the way Openibo was portrayed. One headline read, “Nun reads the riot act to bishops over clergy sex abuse,” and another, about a subsequent media interview she gave, read, “Outspoken Nigerian nun says ‘zero tolerance’ means defrocking”. And again in a recent editorial, “…Sister Veronica Openibo lambasted church leaders for their failures as Francis sat just a few feet away.”
Neither the video of Openibo’s address nor remarks that she later offered in media interviews show a woman who matches the description in those headlines. Instead, they reveal a woman, who with wisdom, grace, and poise, shared the unequivocal case for why clerical sexual abuse is real and must be stamped out — and called those who are shepherds to protect their flocks, not the institution’s reputation or their own.
“We must acknowledge that our mediocrity, hypocrisy, and complacency have brought us to this disgraceful and scandalous place we find ourselves as a Church,” she said. “We pause to pray, Lord have mercy on us!” Not a trace of finger-pointing, but instead an expression of solidarity with all members of the Body of Christ, including the leaders who have failed in their duties.
There is a marked difference between a woman who commands attention and a woman who demands it.
Openibo delivered a clear message with bold confidence. Archbishop Charles Scicluna, archbishop of Malta and adjunct secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was said to have been particularly “struck by her emotional intelligence.” Far from delivering a scorching lecture, Openibo seemed to gently but firmly draw the men in the room to reconsider their paternal and pastoral vocation to care for the people of God. The danger here, even if unintended, is that if a woman speaks clearly and candidly in these forums, she will be portrayed as outspoken, aggressive, or angry. Openibo offered a kind of maternal correction that mixed seriousness with savvy, not sternness or scolding.
Moreover, the parts of her address that got the most press coverage had to do with her recommendations for greater transparency and for building “effective and efficient processes, based on research in human development as well as civil and canon law, for the safeguarding of minors,” which were discussed by many people at the summit.
But the more noteworthy — and challenging — parts of her speech had to do more with people rather than processes. In roughly 30 minutes, she managed to propose more than a few novel ideas about who to engage and how to engage them to create a long-term solution for the crisis. Here are three of them:
1. The Church should be working harder to challenge damaging views of the human person that are spread through media and are of a piece with destructive sexual patterns on a global scale.
“How can we continue to address in very concrete ways the issues of prostitution and trafficking on an immense scale as well as personal infidelity and promiscuity around the world? There must be Catholics in positions of influence, in … the film industry, TV and advertising … [who] could be encouraged to come together and reflect on their role in promoting a better view of the human person.” Openibo illustrated a concrete way that the Vatican could work with members of the media to use platforms to educate for good, rather than to desensitize people to destructive behavior and structures of sin.
2. The process of appointing priests for the episcopacy could include the counsel of people outside of the presbyterate.
Openibo said, “…we need to ask responsible and sensitive lay people and women religious to give a true and honest evaluation of candidates for episcopal appointments.” By including the feedback of lay men and women and women religious who have worked alongside priests, those who are responsible for episcopal nominations and appointments would have a more comprehensive picture of candidates’ capacity to effectively lead and minister to a diverse group of people. This moves the conversation about bishops from post-crisis accountability to their fitness for service in the first place.
3. As challenging and unpalatable as it may be, the Church will have to think about her pastoral responsibility toward abusers who express remorse.
“It is true, as a Church, that we believe in repentance of the sinner, in conversion of hearts, and the grace of transformation. …” she said. “How can we help create the environment for prayer and discernment for the grace of God to enlighten us in the way of justice so that transformation and healing may take place for both victims and offenders?” While most of the emphasis on offenders has been placed on accusations against them and “zero tolerance,” Openibo raised the inevitable question about the Christian duty to recognize their dignity and extend them forgiveness despite their horrible crimes.
Openibo’s address tied together Scripture, personal experience, the testimony of survivors, and insights from her years in leadership. It was effective because of its substance as well as the way in which it was delivered. On a number of occasions, Church leaders have said that it is important to integrate more women in the Vatican’s synodal meetings, and several of the high profile male participants voiced their agreement after last month’s summit. Should that become a reality, it’s going to be vital that women’s distinct contributions get a fair shake and are examined as critically and comprehensively as possible.
Elise Italiano Ureneck is a communications and public relations professional who writes from Boston.