Reasons for hope in trying times for women


Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — In what the organizer described as “an experiment in hope in trying times,” a prominent theologian and another speaker known for her work in international women’s rights told an audience at Georgetown University March 24 that there are reasons to think things can get better for women in the church and in the world.

University of Notre Dame theologian M. Cathleen Kaveny and Melanne Verveer, U.S. ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues, told a symposium sponsored by the Woodstock Theological Center of reasons for hope for women.

In opening remarks, Dolores Leckey, Woodstock senior fellow, said the idea for the symposium began forming at the time of the death of Monika Hellwig, a longtime Georgetown theology professor and former head of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. Hellwig had just begun a stint at Woodstock when she died in 2005. Leckey noted that many in the audience, the vast majority of whom were women, had longtime connections to Hellwig, to each other and to the two main speakers.

Verveer, who worked at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops along with Leckey more than 20 years ago, described learning firsthand about the struggles of women around the world through her position at the State Department and through her previous job as chief of staff to then-first lady Hillary Clinton.

Speaking at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, Clinton in a keynote address said “this is a time to break the silence” on the many ways women’s rights are abused around the world, Verveer said. She cited a litany of injustices to women including killings over inadequate dowries, murders of girl babies, slavery, child marriages, rape as a tool of war and others.

The message from Clinton’s speech then and the continual theme underlying the creation of Verveer’s position at the State Department, which Clinton now heads as secretary, is: “Women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights,” she said.

Verveer said that ideal is far from being realized. Women and children make up the majority of the world’s people living in poverty and the majority with limited access to health care. Violence against women is a global problem, she said.

But where women are able to take positions of power they become agents of change for improving the lives of other women and others who are usually on the receiving end of grief, she said.

Verveer gave examples of women she’d come to know: A Moroccan whose dissatisfaction over lacking rights in a divorce led her to collect more than a million signatures to help change the law; a young Yemeni woman who started her activist career as 9-year-old who was married off to a violent older man, but got away by herself to find a woman lawyer who took up her case; and a Saudi woman who was one of the first to sue to end that nation’s guardianship laws and get the vote for women.

“Investing in women and girls is one of the most power forces for changing the globe,” Verveer said. “No country can get ahead if it leaves half its population behind.”

Kaveny, a civil lawyer as well as a theologian, addressed the issue of women in leadership from a church-focused approach. She told of trying to answer her young niece’s question on the eve of her first Communion about why some people don’t go to church.

Settling on the explanation that some people get mad at the church for different reasons, Kaveny said, she answered the girl’s follow-up question of “why?” by offering the example of “well, some people don’t like it that there aren’t women priests.”

“This was news to her,” Kaveny quickly learned, and it outraged the 8-year-old, who had never had a reason to consider that she only knew male priests.

Kaveny said the exchange is an example of the “cognitive dissonance” that is one of the barriers the institutional church has to deal with in contemporary society.

When she was growing up in the 1970s, Kaveny said, the news was regularly filled with stories of women breaking barriers — first female Supreme Court justice, first female astronaut, first female leader of one country or another.

The idea that women couldn’t be priests was a part of her consciousness from very early on, she said. The church holds that it has no authority to ordain women.

Younger generations haven’t grown up with the sense of societal barriers for women, Kaveny noted, suggesting the church needs to be aware of that change as it tries to appeal to today’s women.

“The role of women in the church hasn’t been one of straight progress,” she said, giving examples from ancient times when women elders in early societies of Christians were given equal stature with men in some roles in the faith.

The “order of widows” was an early church structure in which well-respected widows were given stature including as teachers in the church, Kaveny said. And there were other examples of status for women in those early days.

“Of the 28 people Paul greeted in his letters (recorded in the New Testament) 10 were women,” Kaveny said. “What happened?”

She suggested that when the church went from operating under a household model, where women customarily had power and authority, to that of a “public” organization in the third century, the church gave into pressure to restrict women’s roles in that more public sphere.