This was broadcast on Thought for the Day, BBC Radio 4, December 30, 2017
Just before Christmas, Pope Francis made his annual address to the Roman Curia, the top Vatican officials. It was tough talking about the need for reform at the heart of the Catholic Church, including an enhanced role for women in Rome to increase the Church’s catholicity. Priesthood is not what he has in mind, but he is open to other forms of leadership for women. At the moment there are a few women of influence in the Vatican. Some are academics, some are church officials, others are journalists. Among the most powerful women you find there are ambassadors to the Holy See, including the UK’s own ambassador, Sally Axworthy.
Ambassadors to the Holy See represent their countries and their national objectives. The Catholic Church focuses more on the pastoral and the long-term, and it attempts to be politically neutral. Yet there is common ground between nations and the Holy See: what it sees as moral matters – climate change, migration, and poverty – can match countries’ political aims.
One moral cause championed by the Pope and taken up by the UK’s woman Prime Minister, its woman Home Secretary and its woman ambassador to the Holy See is fighting human trafficking. It particularly affects women and girls, who innocently pay extortionate prices to people smugglers, expecting a better life and are sold into domestic servitude and sex work, often enduring terrible abuse.
Two years ago Theresa May attended the launch of the Santa Marta Group, set up by Pope Francis so that politicians, police chiefs and the Church around the world could work together. Home Secretary Amber Rudd has also recently attended the Group. It focuses on combating trafficking and also helping victims escape from exploitation to build new lives. The prominent role of women is vital in this cause, not just in raising its political profile but also in making a practical difference. Catholic nuns across the world specialise in working with trafficked women who, traumatised by men, find it easier to trust members of all-female communities.
The Gospel stories are full of women disciples who were loyal to Christ right up to his crucifixion when the male apostles ran away. This message – to stand alongside someone in their greatest crisis – is one echoed in the work of nuns who support trafficked women. And it is gaining wider circulation, thanks to other women in positions of influence both in Rome and here in the UK. Pope Francis has spoken before about what he calls ‘prophetic audacity’, urging a boldness of spirit. Talking to the all-male Curia of a greater role for women was certainly audacious. It’s a vital message not just for the Church but for all social and political power structures.