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Speech on Human Rights, Women and the Church

The Vatican Angelicum University, Rome December 2008

I hope that the Church can continue to develop, refine and yes even change some of its attitudes towards the specific issues which arise from women’s rights.

I was in Los Angeles just a few weeks ago on All Saints Day and I was lucky enough to attend Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. The cathedral was opened in 2002 and is truly a symbol of the Church in the twenty first century. The cathedral was full and the congregation, men and women boys and girls reflected the modern day multicultural Church, one in which I, as a Northern European, was in a minority. But what caught my eye were the magnificent tapestries by John Nava which hang in the nave of the Cathedral. They depicted the community of the saints throughout the ages but what was striking and different from the many churches I have visited here in Rome and in Europe was that each panel depicted men and women together from across the centuries and across the races together as equals in the sight of God. Now of course in the churches built before this new century that I have visited there are always statues of Mary and indeed other women saints but nowhere before have a seen depicted on such a scale and with such beauty that wonderful passage that St Paul wrote to the Galatians:
"There does not exist among you Jew or Greek, slave or freeman, male or female. All are one in Christ Jesus."
I have been asked today to speak to you about Human Rights, Women and the Church. I feel somewhat under qualified in this magnificent place of learning here in the Vatican City. I come to address you not as a theologian, nor as someone whose vocation is the religious way of life but as someone whose vocation is as a mother, a lawyer and a human rights activist. I have also been for the last decade thrust onto the public stage as the wife of the British Prime Minister and so have seen for myself both the great work that the Church is doing across the world and also how sometimes the message of the Church is distorted in the eyes of others by cultural attitudes which linger in the Church even after they have changed in the wider society, particularly in relation to women.
I want to argue today that the time has come to revisit certain ingrained attitudes to women that still remain in the Church today which do not reflect the reality of the life in the Church lived by the majority of the laity and which in turn detract in the eyes of the world from the fundamental message of the dignity and equality of all before God which lies at the heart of our Faith.
The Church and Human Rights
The concept of human rights has not always found favour with the Church. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen was rejected by Pius IX. He seemed more suspicious of its origin than its content and that it was enthusiastically endorsed by the same anti-Christian, anti-religious movement which produced the Charter in 1789 Historical empathy is very important here. The Church’s justification for the rejection of these human rights at that time was part historical, part theological and part fear of the unknown.
Towards the end of the 19th Century, Leo XIII moved the debate on. He realised that the Church should be an advocate of the social and economic rights of the person. In Leo’s Encyclical Rerum Novarum rights entered the discourse for the first time, especially when talking about the family, work, marriage and equal participation. Leo stated that “Rights indeed, by whomsoever possessed, must be religiously protected.”
The gradual acceptance of human rights ideas within the Church accelerated under the pontificate of John XXIII. This was a significant turning point for the Church’s thinking on human rights. The promotion and defence of human rights now became a distinct part of the Church’s mission. The publication of Pacem in Terris on Maundy Thursday in 1963 was a watershed for the Church. It was the closest thing we have to the Church’s own declaration on human rights - a stark change to previous Papal attitudes.
Unlike previous encyclicals, which were written to Catholic Bishops, Pacem in Terris was the first encyclical addressed to all people of goodwill, not only reaching out to the Catholic laity, but to all people of goodwill. Significantly, Pope John praised the Universal Declaration on Human Rights in 1948, which Pius XII had greeted with silence. John wrote “the genuine recognition and complete observance of all the rights and freedoms outlined in the declaration is a goal to be sought by all peoples and all nations.” John’s endorsement was not surprising. He, as Nuncio in Paris, had worked on the drafting of the Universal Declaration. The true significance of Pacem in Terris was its relevance. The fifty years had seen two World Wars, the rise of Nazi’s, the erection of the Berlin Wall, the continuing threat of Communism, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the nuclear arms race which threatened the world with devastation. It had been Europe’s half century of hell.
John believed that good relations between humans are essential to achieve what God wanted. He set out a series of basic human rights at the beginning of Pacem in Terris. Rights which derive from nature. He spoke about the right to live; the right for the development of life highlighting, food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest, and necessary social services. The natural right to be respected, to share the benefits of culture, through general education, the right to meet and associate, freedom of movement and to participate in public life.
John believed that all humans had rights to protect their natural dignity and in having such rights there were also duties. He gave the examples of “the right to live involves the duty to preserve one’s life; the right to a decent standard of living, the duty to live in a becoming fashion; the right to be free to seek out the truth, the duty to devote oneself to an ever deeper and wider search for it.”
Each right had its respective duty and without the upholding of both, nothing would be gained. Here John seems to have been ahead of his time and it has taken us quite some time to come to terms with the Rights and Responsibilities argument. John states that “to claim one’s rights and ignore one’s duties, or only half fulfil them, is like building a house with one hand and tearing it down with the other.” He records that “These rights and duties are universal and inviolable, and therefore altogether inalienable.”
John’s commitment to human rights has continued with Pope John Paul II. In his Message for the Celebration of the World Day of Peace on 1 January 1998, he specifically endorsed the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the following terms:
“Fifty years ago, after a war characterized by the denial for certain peoples of the right even to exist, the General Assembly of the United Nations promulgated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That was a solemn act, arrived at after the sad experience of war, and motivated by the desire formally to recognize that the, same rights belong to every individual and to all peoples. ... That document must be observed integrally in both its spirit and its letter.”
And in his Address in October 1995 to the Fiftieth General Assembly of the United Nations Organization, Pope John Paul emphasised the natural law and fundamental moral status of human rights when he observed as follows:
“It is a matter for serious concern that some people today deny the universality of human rights, just as they deny that there is a human nature shared by everyone. To be sure, there is no single model for organizing the politics and economics of human freedom; different cultures and different historical experiences give rise to different institutional forms of public life in a free and responsible society. But it is one thing to affirm a legitimate plurality of ‘forms of freedom’ and another to deny any universality or intelligibility to the nature of man or to the human experience.”
Two days ago we celebrated the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and we can rejoice that even if the Curia was silent when the declaration was first unveiled, today the Church is has embraced the language of human rights and has made it its own. Across the world, amongst the poor, the marginalised and the voiceless we find the Church . In particular I want to celebrate the work of the Dominican order, men and women, who have done so much to make a reality of the great social mission of the Church.
The Church and Women
This journey from distrust to acceptance to embrace that we see in the attitude of the Church to human rights we can also see in the attitude of the Church to women. Of course Jesus himself never distinguished between the worth of men and women. From the beginning of his ministry he embraced all men and women alike. Chapter eight of Luke’s Gospel, describes ‘the women accompanying Jesus’ during his Ministry. Luke identified Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna and the ‘and many others’ who - along with the Twelve - accompanied Jesus as he ‘preach[ed] and proclaim[ed] the good news of the Kingdom of God.’
Indeed Jesus went further and stood out against the culture of the day by embracing not just respectable women but women who were outcasts in their society.
In John’s Gospel, we are told of Jesus’ defense of the adulterous woman:
“The scribes and Pharisees brought a woman along who had been caught committing adultery; and making her stand there in the middle they said to Jesus, ‘Master, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery, and in the Law Moses has ordered us to stone women of this kind. What have you got to say?”
There is no mitigating the audacity of Jesus’ reply: that men - even men in positions of religious authority - are in no position to stand in judgment of women.
And at the end of his ministry, who was there at the foot of the Cross faithful to the end? According to St John’s Gospel it was three women, his mother Mary, her sister also called Mary and Mary Magdalene, together the beloved disciple John. After the Resurrection the first person he appeared to was Mary Magdalene who then ran back and brought the Good News to Peter and John and then to the rest of the disciples.
Despite this beginning, the Church as a creature of time and space has reflected the prevailing culture of its time. A culture which right up until the 20th century did not see women as equal with men and even now at the beginning of the 21st century is still struggling to come to terms with the implications of the idea of the equality of women and the societal adjustments that have to be made if women’s human rights are to be a reality and not just a pious aspiration. The Church has started to reflect this change. In 1988 Pope John Paul II set out a new perspective on the role of women in the Church in his Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitate. In his Letter to Women in 1995 he apologised for those members of the Church who had contributed to the marginalisation of women and talked about the importance of achieving ‘real equality in every area’ and the ‘universal recognition of the dignity of women’.
Yet despite this prevailing culture women have always played their part in the life of the Church. Even if in his encyclical letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, Pope John Paul II did not interpret Luke 8:1-3 as a reference to the priestly occupation of Joanna and the others, he certainly highlighted their role as in the Church. Women are the bulwark of our congregations whether in their roles as readers or Eucharistic ministers or as chorists, cleaners and decorators of the church. They make up the majority of the laity, they are the transmitters of our faith to the next generation, they are the prime movers in the social mission of the Church. To take one example, the education of girls is a first step in their reaching equality. How can we ignore the work of the thousands of women in the religious life who left everything behind to set up some of the earliest schools for girls not just in their own countries but across the world? The work of these women is not confined to education it extends to health and to caring for the marginalized and the outcasts of society and is reflected in the fact that one of the most admired person in the Church in the twentieth century has been a woman, Mother Teresa of Calcutta who was carrying on a tradition that comes down to her from the earliest times of the Church.
From the earliest times, the leadership role of women in the Church has been visible but not always vocal. And whilst I welcome the appointment of Mary Ann Glendon, now the US ambassador to the Holy See, in 2004 to lead the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, and thus became the highest-ranking female adviser in the Catholic Church. There is little reason why half of all Vatican curial positions could not be filled by women. It should be a main priority of the Church at all levels to break down the barriers to female participation. Throughout the Church women must been thought of as ‘thinkers’ as well as ‘workers’. The Vatican’s recognition in its letter “On the Collaboration of Men and Women” in 2004, that men and women are both different and equal, is a start but it does not provide any answers for one of the most pressing questions today which is how to respond to women’s legitimate aspirations for full participation in social and political life, without harm to families, children and the common good.
Twenty years ago, in the Apostolic Letter, Mulieris Dignitatem, Pope John Paul II reflected that:
“In our times the question of ‘women’s rights’ has taken on new significance in the broad context of the rights of the human person. The biblical and evangelical message sheds light on this cause … by safeguarding the truth about the … dignity and vocation that result from the specific diversity and personal originality of man and woman.”
While the biblical message, as well as the human rights discourse, maintain the equal dignity of both men and women, the teaching of His Holiness makes clear that this dignity, for the Catholic, results from the ‘specific diversity’ of men and women. It is my belief that this teaching enables religion to protect women’s human rights by empowering women to identify for ourselves the relevance to our own life journeys and quests for self fulfillment of ‘the specific diversity … of man and woman.’
In Gaudium et Spes, Pope Paul VI noted that, at the heart of the Catholic belief in the Dignity of the Human Person, is a belief in the independence of a person’s conscience:
“In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged.“
The conscience that Pope Paul VI described does not differ in authority, or in its reflective nature, from the conscience of a secular humanist. Pope Paul VI noted that:
“In fidelity to conscience, Christians are joined with the rest of men in the search for truth, and for the genuine solution to the numerous problems which arise in the life of individuals from social relationships.”
Religion comes into its own, and protects women’s human rights, to the extent that religious communities equip women with a rich history of shared wisdom from which we may discern the being who is expressive of our female selves.
The secular, modern community is not so well placed - and not so disposed - to describe for its current members ‘the most secret core’ of its members who came before. The human rights discourse often describes human rights, including women’s rights, in terms of ‘choice’, or freedom from prescription, but does not hint at the richness of the choices on offer
Sixty years on from the UN’s adoption of the Declaration, the international human rights discourse is well-developed. As John Tasioulas notes, the ‘discourse of human rights [has acquired] in recent times … the status of an ethical lingua franca’.
This secular dialogue shares with religious faith a fundamental belief in the inherent dignity of the human person. All human rights are ground in the assumption, which Article 1 of the Universal Declaration articulates:
“all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”
For the secular humanist, this belief is, to use Hans Kelsen’s term, a grundnorm. The norm of Article 1 is sourced in no other belief or norm. For a person of faith, on the other hand, the belief in the inherent dignity of the human person may be derived from a further truth: that God created the human person in God’s own image. In chapter one of Gaudium et Spes, Pope Paul VI cites Genesis chapter one:
“God saw all he had made, and indeed it was very good.”
Does a belief in a Creator, and in our creation, facilitate the protection of women’s human rights? Or does a belief - secular or spiritual - in the dignity of the human person, and the international human rights infrastructure, provide adequate protection? John Finnis argues that ‘the revelation that we are all made in God’s image’ is necessary to ensure the full protection of human rights. He reasons in this way:
“Without those revelatory insights … into our nature and potential destiny, people - even people who understand human consciousness and character with the immense penetration of a Plato - gravitate towards some version of views that treat dignity as variable, waxing and waning, predictable of us at some time after the start of one’s existence as a human being, perhaps at or perhaps quite a time after one’s birth, and ceasing in ‘terminal’ debility or disability.”
Whilst I of course accept that the belief in the dignity of the other which the humanist places at the heart of human rights is an equivalent to the “likeness to God” which those of us with religious faith discern. I believe that the religious dimension makes a visceral addition to the dignity of others which humanism does not and indeed cannot acknowledge.
In his lecture at the University of Regensburg in 2006, Pope Benedict XVI warned against:
“The subjective ‘conscience’ becom[ing] the sole arbiter of what is ethical. In this way … ethics and religion lose their power to create a community and become a completely personal matter.”
Religion is an intensely personal matter; but, as the Holy Father reminded, it is not completely a personal matter. The independent conscience, which Gaudium et Spes places at the heart of our human dignity, does not spring fully formed from the individual but is fashioned and honed by knowledge, by life and by insights of others. And here of course, for those of us who believe in the Church speaking as it does with that Divine authority that has come down from Jesus himself, then this religious dimension is what turns a selfish subjective conscience into one which strives to reflect the Divine.
So how does the Church accompany women as we discern for ourselves the relevance of our ‘personal originality’ ? Sometimes, religious authorities make a contribution by encouraging a communal dialogue on the issues that affect women. In his Apostolic Letter, John Paul II was concerned that:
“the rightful opposition of women to what is expressed in the biblical words ‘He shall rule over you’ (Gen 3:16) must not under any condition lead to the ‘masculinization’ of women. In the name of liberation from male ‘domination’, women must not appropriate to themselves male characteristics contrary to their own feminine ‘originality’.”
He then elaborated on the features of women that make up our ‘essential richness’:
“In the biblical description, the words of the first man at the sight of the woman who had been created are words of admiration and enchantment, words which fill the whole history of man on earth.”
However, these cannot be the words which describe the whole essence of what it means to be woman on earth. The differences between men and women are indeed what makes life more interesting but that does not mean that that one little Y chromosome should undermine the essential common humanity which every man and every women share.
The New Testament also makes a contribution. The way that Jesus related to women indicates that he did not expect women merely to enchant - nor to be just subjects of admiration. Matthew’s Gospel describes his interaction with the Canaanite woman whose daughter he eventually healed. The woman petitioned Jesus: ‘‘Lord, Son of David, take pity on me. My daughter is tormented by a devil.’’ Jesus’s reply did not mirror the words of Adam, but were brusque. He replied, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to little dogs.”
The woman’s riposte was no subtle inveigle. Matthew’s Gospel describes it as a ‘retort’:
“Ah yes, Lord; but even little dogs eat the scraps that fall from their masters’ table.”
And Jesus was proud of her:
“Woman, you have great faith. Let your desire be granted.”
Religious scripture reveals that, to be a woman of faith is to be confident and assertive of herself, and her female desires and perspectives
The Church is at its most effective at empowering women when it reminds us of the ways that our predecessors imagined their own selves. In an age where 54% of American women over the age of 18 are unmarried, the women who are unable to fulfill a dream to mother a child may find purpose in the spirited life story of the recently deceased Sister Emmanuelle. Or she may find faith in the Genesis story of Sarah. Or she may welcome the freedom from domestic duties upon reflecting on the story of Martha’s sister, Mary. And in an age where the human rights, including the reproductive rights, of women continue to be adjudged by structures of authority that are predominantly, or exclusively, male, a female rights activist may take heart from the story of the importunate widow in Luke’s Gospel; the widow who ‘kept on coming’ to the judge until he relented and gave the widow ‘her just rights’.
So in that spirit and at the risk of being controversial let me turn to the challenge of contraception. I am convinced that along with education and property rights the key to the improvements in the position of women in the 20th century was their ability to control their own fertility. This was an ability made possible by science which has explained how life begins at conception - a joint enterprise between man and woman. Unlike our forefathers we understand that the man does not plant the child fully formed into the empty vessel that is the woman. It is in the physical combination of man and woman in which each plays their part that life begins. It is this knowledge which has enabled couple to make choices as to when and even if they wish to start a family. Now of course, as I found out for myself with the wonderful surprise that was becoming a mother again for the fourth time at the age of 45, God will still find ways to intervene, but nevertheless I would never have been able to fulfill my other roles as lawyer and as activist if I had not been able to chose when and when not to have children. The modern Church recognized this to a limited extent since it accepts that natural methods of birth control (which are to be frank mainly hit and miss affairs) are acceptable. Article 3 of The Charter of the Rights of the Family, states that
“The spouses have the inalienable right to found a family and to decide on the spacing of births and the number of children to be born, taking into full consideration their duties towards themselves, their children already born, the family and society, in a just hierarchy of values and in accordance with the objective moral order which excludes recourse to contraception, sterilization and abortion.
But why this eliding of contraception with abortion? Pope Benedict, in his much misunderstood lecture to the students of Regensburg stressed that there is no contradiction between faith and reason . Yet in relation to contraception the Church has preferred to avoid revisiting old doctrines in the light of present day knowledge.
the reality is that many Catholic couples, exercising their own consciences, in fact limit their families as the declining birth rates in Europe and the US testify. But in the face of the plague of HIV/AIDs where the Church has played such a role of compassionate ministry; that work is undermined by our refusal to allow the use of condoms which are literally making the difference between life and death across the world. And beyond HIV/Aids in a world where two thirds of world’s poor are women, to prevent the devout but poor in the third world, the choice that the devout but rich in the first world have to regulate their own fertility and thus release the potential of women to participate fully in economic and political life just reinforces the stubborn gap between the haves and have nots which the Church campaigns against so passionately across the world.
The Church has accepted that it is essential for science to intervene to develop vaccines and medicines which mitigate the effects of disease and thus interfere rightly with the randomness of raw nature. The Church has been listened to with respect when it draws clear lines between alleviating pain and managing a dignified end of life and the deliberate extinction of life that is euthanasia. Yet its refusal to draw the line between using science to help prevent the conditions for life to begin and the extinguishing of life which is abortion has diminished its ability to be heard in the debate about the beginnings of life.
. Of course I am conscious that poverty, HIV/AIDs and lack of education are not purely women’s issues but women suffer disproportionately in all three and whilst contraception is not a panacea for any of these problems, it is part of the solution.
I have just returned from a week’s visit to India, in the course of which I talked about women’s rights and particularly the rights of girls. In a culture where girls are so little valued that the birth of a daughter is regarded as a shame not a joy and where literally hundreds of thousands of girl babies are aborted or killed after birth just because they are girls. The Delhi-based Centre for Social Research, which recently surveyed the worst-affected parts of Delhi, estimates that 10 million girls have been lost to female foeticide in India over the past 20 years . Of course the Churches voice is heard crying out for justice in this debate but the irrationality of its position that prevents women controlling their fertility by contraception diminishes the impact that the Church could make in this difficult mixture of prejudice and poverty.
So just as I have shown that there has been a journey from hostility to acceptance in relation to the Church’s teachings on human rights so too I hope that the Church can continue to develop, refine and yes even change some of its attitudes towards the specific issues which arise from women’s rights and in so doing take up its rightful place at the forefront of the discussions about what true equality means in the 21st century. To those who said in the twentieth century that Religion was dead, the twenty first century has answered that Faith remains an integral part of what it is to be human. The voice of the Church insisting on the dignity of the other which lies at the heart of the mystery that is man and woman, has to be heard loudly and clearly today. But unless it is prepared to be informed and changed by that Enlightenment rationality praised by Pope Benedict at Regensburg, unless it is prepared to look again with clear eyes at what is fundamental truth and what is just a reflection of the culture of the past that voice will be diminished and even distorted to the detriment of the mission of the Church to bring spirituality, wisdom and compassion to the modern world.