“I personally can’t imagine a more important initiative right now in the world.”
This was the response of Deborah Savage to the question, “What do you think of the Catholic Women’s Forum?” Savage is a philosophy and theology professor at the St. Paul Seminary at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, as well as director and co-founder of the Siena Symposium, a Catholic think-tank.
An initiative of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC, the Catholic Women’s Forum (CWF) is described on its website as “an international network of Catholic women that responds to Pope Francis’ call for women to be a ‘more effective presence’ in the Church and in the world.” The mission of the CWF is “to amplify the voice of Catholic women—within the culture and the Church—in support of Catholic teachings”; CWF seeks “to engage the culture, serve the Church, and collaborate for more effective evangelization.”
The CWF was founded by Mary Rice Hasson, the Kate O’Beirne Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and director of the CWF, and Helen M. Alvaré, Professor of Law at the Scalia Law School at George Mason University and chair of the CWF’s Advisory Council. The CWF arose from a symposium on women and the Church that Hasson and Alvaré organized in 2014.
“Many of us [now in the CWF] were serving the Church in different ways on our own, from the time of John Paul II through Benedict,” Hasson told Catholic World Report. “When Pope Francis became pope and said he intended to create new opportunities for women in the Church, Helen Alvaré and I talked about the need to connect Catholic women scholars who support Catholic teachings and really bring those voices forward.”
“Complementarity is real, and the Church’s work needs the contributions of both men and women,” Hasson said. “Too often, unfortunately, it has seemed that the loudest Catholic women’s voices either were dissenting from Church teaching or advocating for changes not in line with Church teaching. But there are many brilliant Catholic women who support Catholic teaching, have fresh insights to offer, and are deeply engaged in the Church’s work, so we felt the time was right for us to bring that forward.”
The mainstream media has played a significant role in making dissenting female voices the loudest. For decades, they have been boosting the voices of women who claim to represent the Catholic Church while opposing Church teaching. Rosemary Radford Ruether, for instance, was long the go-to female Catholic expert for the secular media, though she not only dissented from the Church’s teachings on women, she didn’t even accept something as fundamental to Christianity as the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Inspired by Pope St. John Paul II’s insight in Christifideles Laici that women have the special task of “assuring the moral dimension of culture,” the CWF aims to facilitate the work of Catholic women in responding to that call. “The Church needs women who think with the Church to be in the forefront of the Church’s evangelizing mission, engaging others with clarity, mercy, and love,” the CWF website notes. To this purpose, the group aims to be “a vibrant network of disciples” who serve the Church as “thinkers proposing new solutions to challenging problems,” and as “a voice to the culture.”
This work of promoting the voices of faithful Catholic women is precisely why Professor Savage considers the Catholic Women’s Forum so important: “It’s women’s voices that need to be heard most on some of the issues affecting the Church in the world, and that’s partly because faithful women can say things that men cannot.… Oftentimes these days when men speak out about certain things [such as women’s ordination or contraception], it’s misinterpreted as more evidence of the patriarchy at work, or an assumption is made that they are of necessity misogynistic or sexist. It’s time for the prophetic voice of women, faithful to the Church’s teaching and to the Gospel, to be heard.”
The core group
At the heart of the Catholic Women’s Forum is a core group of women scholars. “We have a scholars’ network, … women who are engaged in some way in serving the Church with their scholarship and professional work,” Hasson told CWR. “The group is multidisciplinary: psychologists, MDs, attorneys, philosophers, theologians, economists. It’s a diverse group, with a wealth of expertise.”
Alvaré described the synergistic quality of their discussions: “Someone will say, ‘I see your legal point, but here’s how that’s working out for me in the theological arena…’.” Or “ ‘I did a law and sociology paper on that, which you’re considering philosophically, and here’s how the qualitative research … would validate the point that you’re trying to make.’ It’s very rich,” she told CWR.
This core group of scholars are connected on a listserv, which they use on a regular basis to “have in-depth conversations about theological, cultural, and pastoral concerns,” Hasson said.
“A lot of collaboration arises from those conversations. We have a built-in source for resources and can draw upon each other’s expertise. Along the way, we develop rich friendships and create a ‘place’ for women who are doing significant work, in the Church and the culture, to find encouragement, inspiration, and models of holiness. These are really outstanding women, and I feel extraordinarily blessed by their friendship and witness.”
The CWF has hosted three symposia on the following topics:
- “Evangelizing a Broken World: Women’s Essential Work in the Mission of the Church,”(2015)
- “Framing a Catholic Response to Gender Ideology” (2016), and
- “Encountering the Poor: A Feminine Lens on the Problem of Poverty” (2017).
While the symposia are invitation-only events, their benefits are widespread and ongoing. Thus far, the CWF symposia have resulted in more than 40 scholarly papers which aided the theological and pastoral work of the Women’s Section of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Laity (now the Dicastery for Laity, Family, and Life). Symposia presentations are also made available to the public in videos (see links above) and in written form. The papers from the first symposium, for instance, were published by Our Sunday Visitor in 2015 under the title Promise and Challenge: Catholic Women Reflect on Feminism, Complementarity, and the Church. This well-received book is proving to be a valuable resource for women’s groups, Catholic laity and clergy, and diocesan offices.
Though two additional books are forthcoming, the need to bring the scholars’ work into the public discourse more quickly has meant a shift toward pursuing more immediate, individual publication as well. “There are so many topics of such importance to the Church now,” Hasson explained to CWR. Some of these scholarly papers, as well as many shorter, timely pieces, are available on the CWF website.
The 2016 symposium bore an additional fruit: The Gender Project, which provides formidable resources for countering gender ideology with Catholic anthropology.
The symposia and their resulting publications are only a portion of what CWF does.
In addition to the core group of scholars, the CWF also connects a larger network of nearly 3,000 women through its bimonthly newsletter, website, and social media. Through these channels, they promote and publicize the work of women doing great work serving the Church and share a variety of new developments and data, as well as helpful publications on many issues, with their broad network. A couple times a year, the CWF also holds networking events in Washington, DC, which usually include a speaker or a panel of women, while giving hundreds of Catholic women opportunities for professional insight, faith formation, and fellowship.
Besides the wealth of information and resources already mentioned, the CWF website promotes a variety of other fruitful Catholic outreaches to women, such as ENDOW, the National Council of Catholic Women, Walking with Purpose, Women of Grace, and Women in the New Evangelization (WINE), and highlights the work of individual “Inspiring Women.”
Hasson noted that CWF also serves as an “informal contact point for people in the Church who are looking for women experts, women consultants, or interesting speakers.”
Response to the Church crisis
Within days of Pope Francis’ pronouncing on August 26 that he would not say “a single word” in response to the first letter of Archbishop Viganó, CWF Director Mary Hasson composed an open letter to the Holy Father, “humbly implor[ing]” him to answer questions raised by the former nuncio’s allegations. She sent out an email alert to women in the CWF network on August 30, inviting them to sign and share the letter.
By August 31, there were over 17,000 signatures.
After the first week, Hasson presented the letter with 32,000 signatures to the papal nuncio in Washington, DC, for direct delivery to the Holy Father. After the Pope met with American bishops on September 13, she brought the letter to the nuncio again, this time with over 46,000 signatures. In a mid-October update on the CWF website, Hasson wrote that while the Holy Father has yet to respond and she doesn’t know if he has read the letter, she sees other direct benefits from it; for instance: “Numerous priests and bishops have shared with me how grateful they are for our letter—how it has encouraged their faith and strengthened their resolve to make things right and to press for greater transparency from Rome and in our dioceses.” The CWF letter also inspired Catholic Men United to write their own letter—with a pledge to undertake “difficult fasting” for over two weeks—which gained more than 10,000 signatures.
The CWF is hosting “The Future of the Church: Synod, Scandal, and Solace” on November 29, 2018, in Washington DC, with Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center George Weigel as the keynote speaker. More information on this free event can be found here.
In just four years, the Catholic Women’s Forum has rapidly grown into an international network providing vital insight, analysis of the empirical record, and commentary from female Catholic scholars to help defend and explain teachings of the Catholic Church that the world finds so controversial.
“I think the Catholic Women’s Forum has really proved itself over the years,” Alvaré told CWR. “There are a lot of different voices…and one of them doesn’t claim to speak for all. We don’t. But we like to think that the depth of our expertise and analysis will speak for itself…. The individual members are all enriched by others, and we’re publishing and speaking very regularly, nationally and locally. It started pretty small—and it’s very substantive—but you can see it’s gaining some authority.”
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