09/03/2018 12:41 PM AEDT

Catholic Women's Event Persists Despite Vatican's Rejection Of Progressive Participants

The Vatican did not approve of a lesbian activist and her allies speaking during a women's conference in Rome.

Voices of Faith / Facebook
Ssenfuka Joanita Warry is a lesbian Catholic activist from Uganda. 

For the past four years, the Voices of Faith conference has brought prominent Catholic women from around the world to the Vatican to highlight women’s voices and their contributions. But this year, the Vatican’s approach to the International Women’s Day event has caused a great deal of controversy ― even prompting one prominent Catholic leader to call her church an “an empire of misogyny.”

Unlike in past years, this year’s conference had to be held outside the Vatican’s walls. Conference organizers claim a Vatican organization rejected some women on their list of proposed speakers ― including a lesbian Catholic activist and other women who have been vocal about challenging the church’s stance on homosexuality. 

Instead of letting go of these speakers, organizers moved the International Women’s Day event outside of the Vatican to the auditorium of the Jesuit headquarters.

At a time when women around the world are speaking up against abuse and demanding greater gender equality, the Vatican’s actions to silence these women speakers have prompted some Catholics to reflect on whether the church really values women’s voices.

Ssenfuka Joanita Warry, a lesbian Catholic activist from Uganda, was reportedly one of the women whose presence at the conference did not meet the approval of the Vatican. 

During the conference, Warry spoke about what life was like for her as a lesbian activist in a country where homosexuality is illegal. She condemned the silence of religious leaders in the face of this discrimination against queer Ugandans. 

Warry said she believes it’s her responsibility to open up dialogue about the church’s teachings about women and queer Catholics.

“I believe it is my responsibility, my duty, my role to change the mentality that surrounds me because I believe I’m on a mission from God,” she said. “There is much more I’d want to do in the church, but I’m often limited by my sexual orientation and gender, which was created by God.”

“I believe things can be different. Women have a lot of roles they can do in the church. Let no one stand in the way of the holy spirit,” she added.

Watch a livestream of the Voices of Faith conference below.

The Voices of Faith conference is typically held in a small palazzo in the Vatican gardens, according to the Associated Press. In the past, the conference has addressed issues like women’s activism in immigration and education.

This year’s conference is organized around the theme “Why Women Matter.” Organizers aimed to spark conversation about how women can become more involved in the decision-making structures of a church dominated by male clergy. Sessions address topics like where Catholic women can look for female role models and whether the church is relevant to young women. In one panel discussion, organizers put forward the question: “Will the Catholic Church survive the 21st century?”

“If current leaders of the Roman Curia do not include capable qualified women in roles that are theoretically open to them, we face a future where the Catholic Church will be a relic of the past,” the organizers state in a program booklet for the conference. “Our world is changing and the inclusion of women in significant positions is finally being realised. We won’t allow gender inequality to undermine the longevity of the Church.”

Cardinal Kevin Farrell, head of the Vatican Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, reportedly made the decision to reject certain women from Voices of Faith’s proposed speakers list. Along with Warry, Farrell also apparently rejected Tina Beattie, a Catholic feminist and academic, and Mary McAleese, a former president of Ireland and an expert in canon law.

Asked about Farrell’s decision, Vatican spokesman Greg Burke told the AP in February that it’s “not a Vatican-sponsored event, and given the nature of the topics being discussed, there should not be confusion about that.”

McAleese, the mother of a gay son, has been vocal about welcoming LGBTQ Catholics in the church. She said a church that is “homophobic and anti-abortion” is not the church of the future.

During the conference, McAleese challenged Pope Francis to develop a strategy for the inclusion of women in the Catholic Church.

“How long can the hierarchy sustain the credibility of a God who wants ... a church where women are invisible and voiceless in church leadership, in legal and doctrinal discernment and decision-making, but actually are expected to do all the hard work that keeps the church going from generation to generation?” McAleese asked while delivering the keynote speech at the conference on Thursday. 

“Today, the Catholic Church lags noticeably behind the world’s advanced nations in the elimination of discrimination against women, a disgrace to an organization that claims to be created by God for love in the universe.”

Voices of Faith / Facebook
Mary McAleese delivers a keynote address at the Voices of Faith conference.

Pope Francis declined to attend the conference, the BBC reports. 

In the past, Pope Francis has spoken of the need to “broaden the opportunities for a stronger presence of women in the church.” He’s appointed women to key positions within the Vatican. Although he’s said there’s no possibility women could become priests in the Catholic Church, he has expressed an interest in clarifying whether there’s historical precedent for women to serve as ordained deacons, who can perform some duties of a priest.

Still, many at the Voices of Faith conference said there’s much more the Vatican can do to make use of the gifts and talents of women in the church.

McAleese pointed out that Catholic women are often the backbone of their local churches. They are tasked with instilling Catholic values in their children, for example. Despite all the work Catholic women do, McAleese said, the church has not done enough to listen to the voices and opinions of the women in its folds. 

“Here we are. We are left to talk among ourselves,” McAleese said during her keynote speech. “No church leader bothers to turn up, not just because we do not matter but because their priestly formation prepares them to resist treating us as full equals.” 

“The time for change is now.” 

International Women's Day 2018

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