A Vatican voice for women theologians

A piece in Saturday's edition of L’Osservatore Romano on the female role in Catholic theology is fascinating -- both for its content and its venue in a semi-official Vatican organ. The author is Lucetta Scaraffia, who has in effect emerged as L’Osservatore’s in-house feminist.

It’s generally a mistake to think that pieces that appear in L’Osservatore necessarily represent what “the Vatican” thinks. It’s more accurate to say they represent what some in the Vatican may be thinking, but there’s rarely any direct cause-and-effect relationship between a piece in L’Osservatore and an eventual policy choice in the Holy See.

That said, Scaraffia has been producing fascinating pieces for the Vatican newspaper. Back in March she opined that greater participation of women in decision-making in the church would have “ripped the veil of masculine secrecy” that covered the sexual abuse of children by clergy. More recently, she asserted that post-Vatican II acceptance of altar girls means “the end of any attribution of impurity” to the female sex.

This time, Scaraffia asserts in a front-page essay that women too often are consigned to “subordinate roles” in the church, citing a recent study of ecclesiastical schools in Italy which found that women represent “just over ten percent of all theology professors, with very few teaching strictly theological disciplines.”

“Women are basically excluded from important sectors of theological research, such as liturgy and pastoral theology,” Scaraffia writes, “while they are attaining a bit of space in theological anthropology and spiritual theology.”

What Scaraffia is describing, of course, is the situation in pontifical institutions in Rome such as the Salesianum and the Lateran, and other ecclesiastical institutions in Italy. The extent to which it applies to theology faculties in other parts of the world, including the United States, varies from place to place.

Scaraffia blames two forces for the limited presence of women in core theological disciplines, at least in Italian ecclesiastical institutions.

First, she says, the situation reveals “strong resistance from other faculty, the overwhelming majority of whom are ecclesiastics, to the entrance of women into disciplines which are central for Catholic culture.”

Second, she blames the first generation of women theologians, who she says identified so strongly with minorities and with themes of radical feminism that they shut themselves out of mainstream ecclesiastical conversation.

“Wanting to give a voice, sometimes a-critically, to all the ‘marginalized,’ feminist theologians sometimes ended up marginalizing themselves,” Scaraffia asserts.

Nontheless, Scaraffia writes, both women theologians and other female voices in the Church, such as women writers and editors of Catholic publications, have achieved a great deal and deserve to play a greater role.

“The next step that women must take, and that men must embrace,” Scaraffia concludes, “is true access to the culture. That is, to exit from the space of exclusively feminine themes and to carry their point of view in the worlds which women have so far not penetrated very much, such as the theology faculties.”

Scaraffia, 62, teaches at Rome’s La Sapienza University and writes for a number of Italian papers, but she’s best known in Catholic circles as a contributor to L’Osservatore Romano.

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