A woman’s place in the Vatican

Five years as Swedish Ambassador to the Holy See have inspired in me, born and bred in a Lutheran Church, a profound respect and admiration for Catholicism.

Apr 02, 2014

By Ulla Gudmundson
Five years as Swedish Ambassador to the Holy See have inspired in me, born and bred in a Lutheran Church, a profound respect and admiration for Catholicism. I am not thinking of diplomatic audiences in the magnificent Sala Regia, nor of Christmas and Easter Mass in St Peter’s, the art in the Vatican Museums or the priceless volumes in the Vatican Library, though all that cannot fail to impress the visitor deeply. Rather, I am thinking of the Catholic Church as a living, breathing organism, steeped in 2,000 years of tradition, still present and active in the world as “an ever-quarrelling family marching forward under the banner ‘God’s people on pilgrimage’,” as the papal biographer Peter Hebblethwaite put it.

Vatican diplomats are highly sophisticated. At the Holy See, as in all diplomatic contexts, title and credentials take precedence over gender. To my knowledge, I have never been treated differently from my male colleagues.

But if you are a woman ambassador, and happen to be passionate about ideas and politics, it is impossible not to feel alienated by the way the great men of the Church speak of women. If you as a person are curious about the world, impatient to explore it, eager to do what you can to make it a better place, then it feels odd to hear that, as a woman, your special mission is the family, and to emulate Mary in being “motherly, gentle and tender”. Those are sterling qualities. But when the underlying message seems to be “this is what you should be, rather than what you are”, then the shoe, however pretty, begins to hurt.

Theology may have played a part in shaping the different attitudes to women in Lutheranism and Catholicism. In Lutheran Christianity, the focus is on the Word. Catholicism, with its emphasis on tradition, sacramentality and mediation, is more physical. Every time Mass is celebrated, the drama of the Eucharist is re-enacted. In a Lutheran church, the centre has been the homily. Probably this non-bodily quality — and possibly the fact that the Reformation itself was a psychological breach with tradition — has made Lutheran Churches more open to “reading the signs of the times”, including to liberal feminism.

The fact that most Lutheran Churches have been state Churches has worked in this direction. The Church of Sweden would probably not have introduced female ordination in 1958 without strong pressure from the state. Church and State were separated in 2000, but lay influence in the Swedish Church is strong. In 2013 the Bishop of Lund, Antje Jackelen, was elected its first woman archbishop.

The emphasis on unbroken tradition, on sacramentality and on mediation in Catholicism mean, I think, that theological effort is needed to develop a Catholic anthropology based on the common humanity of women and men. But battling with tradition can stimulate thinking and make for great spiritual depth. No doubt, the many bright, courageous Catholic women theologians who have taken up this challenge are also doing ecumenism a service, strengthening the sacramental basis for gender equality in all Christianity.

The Virgin Mary is much less prominent in Lutheran Christianity than in Catholicism. It seems likely that, in Sweden’s case, the absence of a feminine element contributed to making the post-Reformation State Church harsher, more patriarchal and authoritarian (this may have spurred Queen Christina, daughter of the Lutheran warrior king Gustavus Adolphus, to abdicate and embrace Catholicism in 1654). Certainly our penal laws became more severe after the break with Rome.

But I can’t help wondering whether the Catholic reverence for Mary, “more important than popes, bishops, priests” according to Pope Francis, might not have served as an alibi not to make room in the Church for living women. “Woman” is an abstraction you can safely talk of. Living women you can and must talk with. They may even argue back.

In 2010, when the sexual abuse crisis shook the Catholic Church, the Italian historian and journalist Lucetta Scaraffia (now editor of the Osservatore Romano’s monthly insert “Women Church World”) wrote that “the masculine law of omerta” could not have functioned if women had been present at different levels of the Church in “non-subordinate” positions. Although I think the key variable in sexual abuse cases — secular as well as church-related — is the existence of closed systems with highly unequal distribution of power, I do believe there is much truth in Scaraffia’s comment.

It is not hard to find non-submissive female role models in the tradition of the Catholic Church. One is St Bridget (1303-73), the only formally canonised Swedish saint. Bridget lived very much in a men’s world, influencing politics, scolding kings, popes and cardinals. Mary, Bridget’s main interlocutor in her Revelations (in Casa di Santa Brigida in Rome, you can still visit the room where she wrote them), is not an obedient girl. She is a forceful, intelligent — and merciful — woman, a counsellor for human souls at the court of Christ.

I once remarked to the chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences that Mary’s first reaction to the Annunciation is a scientific one: “How is this possible?“ “There is a whole theology on this,” replied the chancellor.

Mary, the woman with a mind, who does not yield passively but says “a thunderous ‘Yes!’ to God” in the words of Bishop Antje Jackelen, could certainly inspire young women to take up their place in the world today.

Living women could be Pope Francis’ best allies in his efforts to combat greed, corruption and careerism in the Church and in the world. Not because women are nicer people, but because they have fewer vested interests in the structures as they exist today. Poverty has gender. Women are the poorest of the world’s poor. Social justice cannot be achieved without addressing this aspect of the problem.

What of the concept of “feminine genius”? When used by men to describe women, one can’t help suspecting that the real message is “stay in your enclosure.” But if we accept “feminine genius” as a quality that can exist in men as well as women (which is how medieval mystics saw it), then there is no problem.

Surely “feminine” qualities — gentleness, reluctance to use violence, empathy, consideration for others — are desperately needed in today’s world. Isn’t Pope Francis himself, who constantly speaks of love, mercy, forgiveness, peace, a splendid example of “feminine genius”?

The elephant in the room is, of course, power. I have been amazed to hear worthy cardinals admonish women religious leaders not to crave power. One rather feels they are barking up the wrong tree. Pope Francis, by contrast, barks up the right one when he directs his admonitions to the cardinals themselves and instructs apostolic nuncios to look for bishops with pastoral qualities rather than careerists.

But empowering women in a Church is not the same thing as encouraging careerism. Rather, it means using its full human potential to achieve its mission. And we would all, I think, agree with Pippi Longstocking, the world’s strongest little girl, that “whoever is very strong must also be very kind”.

*Ulla Gudmundson was the Swedish Ambassador to the Holy See from 2008 to 2013.

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