The Australian bishops’ delegate to a major global gathering of women at the Vatican says a renewed effort at defending women’s dignity needs to be made worldwide.
The Vatican gathering heard powerful presentations against the financial exploitation of women’s sexuality.
Women from around the globe gathered in Rome for an international congress convened by the Pontifical Council for the Laity earlier this month.
The official Australian delegate was the director of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Office for the Participation of Women, Kimberly Davis.
The congress was convened to mark the 20th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter on the dignity and vocation of women, Mulieris Dignitatem.
Ms Davis told The Record that two outstanding contributions were those by Helen Alvare, the former pro-life spokeswoman for the US Bishops conference, and Australian Brenda Finlayson.
Helen Alvare spoke on the reduction of femininity to an object of consumerism.
This phenomenon is something everyone can rapidly verify just by looking around at advertising billboards showing women as objects for commercial exploitation, Ms Davis said.
Helen Alvare told the congress that sexualized images of women were today generating staggering amounts of money in the global economy.
She said it is conservatively estimated that the pornography industry is worth 60 billion American dollars a year.
Ms Alvare also argued that because of original sin, women have had a hand in promoting the very consumerism that turns them into objects.
Ms Davis said the complementarity of women and men – a central theme in John Paul II’s Mulieris Dignitatem Letter – was highlighted throughout the Vatican congress, whose official title was Woman and Man: the ‘Humanum’ in its Entirety.
She said that in his opening remarks, the President of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, Cardinal Stanislaw Rylko, argued that society today is blending women and men together in such a way that all sense of the natural difference between them is being lost.
Ms Davis said there was an enormous number of speakers and a wealth of information provided to participants.
She was also particularly impressed by the presentation by Australian Brenda Finlayson who is Vice President of the World Union of Catholic Women’s Organisations.
“Brenda Finlayson told personal stories of women’s experiences. Amid all the theology and research that was also being presented, this was lovely to hear,” Ms Davis said.
Ms Davis said the congress provided increased recognition of the challenges facing women around the world.
Ms Davis, whose office in Canberra hightlights the role of women in the church, said it was a “reality check” to meet Catholic women from other countries whose situations were radically different, such as women from countries like Malawi and Iraq.
Ms Davis said she learned a great deal from a Malawi woman who said only a small proportion of her country’s population is Catholic. The country is landlocked and poor.
“Women in the Chruch in Malawi were looking for donations equivalent to one Australian cent per person, to resource the building of a shelter,” she said. “All they want is a shelter to enable women to come together in safety.”
Meanwhile Ms Davis learned from an Iraqi woman that millions of women in her country had been made widows.
Meeting such women posed a question for Ms Davis that she would like to find answers to now that she has returned home. That question is — ¬“as women in resource-rich countries, how can we support our sisters in the poorer nations?”
Looking ahead from the her trip to Rome, Ms Davis said the need to help women achieve their potential is important.
“One of the things at the end of the congress was the recognition that at least women are still on the agenda in the Church. We do have a place.”
Ms Davis said she wants to work for greater educational opportunities for young women, and to see further exploration of the opportunities available to women for formation so that they can lead the community in various ways.
“The Church will reach a non-patriarchal stage when we have women in leadership positions,” she says.