This past March, a small Catholic magazine called Women Church World ran an article titled “The (almost) free work of sisters.” In it, the journalist Marie-Lucile Kubacki described nuns who, among other menial tasks, serve meals to bishops and then eat in the kitchen, and who are paid little or nothing for the work they do. That institutional sexism pertains in the Catholic Church was not a shock, but the messenger was a surprise: Women Church World is published by the Vatican. The Associated Press ran a piece about the exposé, which was subsequently covered by the Times, PBS, and other outlets. The A.P. and the Times both illustrated their pieces with portraits of the magazine’s founder and editor, Lucetta Scaraffia, a seventy-year-old history professor who wears her white-blond hair chopped short, like a monk with a chic hairdresser, and identifies as a feminist.
Scaraffia lives in Rome, but she spends summers in Todi, about an hour’s drive from the birthplace of St. Francis. In June, I went to see her there. Scaraffia founded Women Church World in 2012. The magazine circulates, once a month, with L’Osservatore Romano, a daily broadsheet that was created more than a hundred and fifty years ago and that has a fuzzy sort of editorial independence from Church leadership. There are boundaries to what Women Church World can publish, too, Scaraffia told me, sitting in her summer home’s living room, decorated with old advertisements for Napoleon, who kept Pope Pius VII in prison for several years.
Scaraffia does not regularly see the Pope, but he has her cell-phone number. He once called it, she told me, to say that he liked a book of hers that criticized the Church for not listening to women. Scaraffia is, by and large, quite conservative: she does not want women to be priests, nor does she want the Pope to upend the Church’s positions on sexual mores, she told me. But she thinks that abortion should be legal, and she believes in a merciful Church, with doctrinal walls porous enough to welcome believers who do not conform to teachings on sex and romantic love.
She also believes that Catholic women can and should take on a larger role in Church decisions—they need to make “concrete political moves,” she told me, and to ask “for things we can actually obtain.” The Vatican is a mostly breezeless state, faithful to a heavy inheritance bequeathed by the Gospels, but Scaraffia is attentive to whatever wind there might be. The magazine’s exposé about nuns was inspired in part by comments that Francis made two years ago to a group of sisters. He said that he was troubled to see them assigned to “a labor of servitude and not of service.” “So we wrote the article,” Scaraffia said. After it was published, she heard from nuns who were relieved to see the Church acknowledge that women’s subservience was a violation of divine prescription. (“The priests said nothing,” she said.)
Acknowledgement, of course, is not the same as change. This past summer brought new disclosures that clerics had molested and raped thousands of children, from Germany to Pennsylvania. Earlier this year, cardinals from four continents were summoned to answer either to the Pope or to the courts for abusing minors or for protecting those who did. One archbishop has accused Pope Francis of knowing about sexual-abuse accusations against Theodore E. McCarrick and elevating him regardless. (McCarrick resigned as the archbishop of Washington in July.) The revelations have led to additional calls for women to take on greater authority in the Church: perhaps if women occupied more positions of power, the argument goes, these men would not have been able to act with impunity for so long.
A few days after our first meeting, I met Scaraffia for dinner on her porch, along with her husband, who is also a historian, and a translator. The lights of the region’s medieval castles, both authentic and faux, were bright in the evening. At one point in our conversation, over pasta and a plate of mozzarella, Scaraffia said, “I would like for women to become cardinals.” After the comment was relayed in English, I paused. A woman who doesn’t think that women should be priests, or take birth-control pills, believes that women should be cardinals, and occupy the rank just beneath the Pope, whom cardinals elect and advise?
Yes, Scaraffia said. It’s true that the Vatican prohibits women from ordination into the clerical hierarchy—though nuns take vows, they are not ordained, and so they are laypeople, not clerics. Priests, who consecrate the host at Mass, must be ordained to do so, but Catholic theology does not mandate that cardinals be ordained. So, theologically speaking, laypeople, including laywomen, can be cardinals. Pope Francis “would have everyone against him” if he named a female cardinal, Scaraffia said. “Everyone.” She laughed. “He might do it just before he dies, or renounces his papacy,” she went on. But “he could do it,” she added. “He might.”
Growing up, in Turin, Scaraffia went to mass with her mother, who took her less out of piety than out of concern for her daughter’s social well-being, Scaraffia told me. Her mother was beautiful, she said. “It became a weakness for her, not a strength. Working outside of the household was a nightmare for her.” She married at twenty years old and resigned herself to a quiet life. Scaraffia would later come to feel that her work, as a feminist, and then as a Catholic, was, in part, “to spare other women of what my mother had endured.”
Scaraffia stopped going to mass during her first year at college. She got married at twenty-three and divorced two years later. While studying women’s history, she met a professor who was separated from his wife; they had a daughter together but never married. When they broke up, six years later, Scaraffia became a single mother. She taught at Sapienza University of Rome and lived behind Rome’s Basilica of Santa Maria, in Trastevere. One day, in her late thirties, she saw worshippers carrying an icon of the Madonna into the church. She was struck, she said, by “a very powerful physical feeling of awe.” She went back to Mass.
She began contributing to L’Osservatore Romano in 2007, after Pope Benedict XVI asked its incoming editor, Giovanni Maria Vian, a philologist, to give women more space in the paper, which had no female reporters. “I wouldn’t dare call myself a feminist,” Vian told me, but, he said, in the church, “there has to be more space for women.” When Scaraffia asked Vian for a magazine of her own, for women, he relayed the request to Benedict, who gave his approval. (Scaraffia sees Benedict, who is now the first-ever Pope emeritus, rarely, but more often than she sees Francis, she told me. “As a woman, you really feel like he’s treating you just like a colleague,” she said, of the former pontiff.)
After meeting Scaraffia, I went to a gathering of Catholic women in Rome that was organized by Paola Lazzarini, a sociologist based in Sardinia, who described Scaraffia to me as “a point of reference for all of us.” Lazzarini, together with about thirty other women, co-authored a document called “Manifesto of Women for the Church.” (The authors originally connected on Facebook.) She e-mailed it to Scaraffia, who published it in the March issue of Women Church World, opposite the report on the servitude of nuns. Lazzarini has since begun setting up public forums across Italy, at which she hoped that women, especially in more socially conservative regions like Calabria, where she hosted the first meeting, would become “conscious of their condition in the Church.”
This particular gathering was held in a parochial room behind the Basilica of Santa Maria, the church where Scaraffia had returned to Catholicism three decades before. About a dozen women, and a few men, gathered in a semicircle. A woman in her fifties told the group that she had taught religion in a school until she got divorced, at which point the local bishop ordered her to be fired. A schoolteacher told the group how frustrating it was that Catholic parishes don’t seem to know what to do with women who aren’t sweet.
Lazzarini and I had coffee the next morning. A former nun, she is now married and has a young daughter. She wore pearls, and her hair was buoyantly arranged. She left her congregation after five years, she said, frustrated by how often women were underestimated by the Church’s male leaders. While patriarchal attitudes persist in the secular world, she said, in the Church, women’s obedience “is presented as if it was God’s will.” But what if women felt “strong enough to give the Church what they know?” she said. “What they can do? And not submit themselves in order to please men?” She finished her espresso, then added, “It’s our turn to speak not only for ourselves but to speak for the Church.”
Two years ago, Pope Francis convened a commission to study the possibility of female deacons. A deacon can perform many of a priest’s tasks, including baptisms, but can’t consecrate the host. In October, Women Church World published an op-ed, by the editor of the prominent Jesuit magazine America, reporting that a majority of Catholic women in the U.S. want the Church to ordain female deacons. But Scaraffia told me that she believes Francis will not accept female deacons—that he does not want women to be ordained as clerics of any rank. (This past summer, not for the first time, Francis explicitly ruled out the possibility of female priests: only men can be priests, according to the Holy See, because Jesus chose only men as his apostles.) Other Catholic activists are more optimistic. Kate McElwee, the executive director of the Women’s Ordination Conference, told me that she finds Pope Francis’s “openness to dialogue” encouraging. “We know there are women who are called by God,” she said.
Cardinals, in any case, need not be called by God—only man. “Cardinals are an invention of the Church, to govern itself,” Massimo Faggioli, a professor of theology at Villanova, told me. In the first millennium, the title was an honorific for respected men, without specific duties or power. In 1059, the Church gave cardinals the exclusive right to elect the pontiff. Fourteen years later, Pope Gregory VII began to reduce the number of laymen in favor of clerics. (The idea was to excise corruption by replacing ethically suspicious laymen with good, and loyal, holy men.)
Still, there was no prohibition, earthly or empyrean, on laymen entering the ranks, and, here and there, they did. But, after the Italian kingdom fully conquered the Papal States, in the nineteenth century, the church became “more priestly,” as Faggioli put it. Cardinals had lost much of their temporal power, so they were increasingly seen less as secular diplomats and more as religious men. Pope Pius IX selected the last unordained cardinal, in 1858, an Italian lawyer named Teodolfo Mertel. In 1917, the Holy See changed canon law, restricting the cardinalate to the ordained. (In the nineteen-eighties, the law was updated to restrict candidacies to bishops alone.) Canon law, however, is not gospel. If the Pope wants to change it, Faggioli said, “he can do that with a stroke of the pen.”
Scaraffia says that the Catholic anthropologist Mary Douglas gave her the idea that women could be made cardinals. The Spanish newspaper El País revived the notion shortly after Francis was elected, speculating that the new pontiff might include a woman’s name in his first selections for the College of Cardinals. Francis’s spokesman at the time, Federico Lombardi, told that press that it was “not remotely realistic.” But, he conceded, “theologically and theoretically, it is possible.” Francis is the first Jesuit Pope and the first Latin American Pope; he has alarmed conservative clerics by suggesting that people who are divorced, and women who have had abortions, might be welcomed back to take communion.
Yet women still hold none of the highest or second-highest positions in the Vatican’s government, the Roman Curia. Pope Francis “is not a feminist,” Scaraffia told me, in June. But he is, she believes, a “good politician,” an adaptive realist who can see that the Church, in its present form, is disappointing and wounding many of its members. In September, Francis’s council of cardinal advisers issued a statement announcing that it would ask the Pope to evaluate “the work, structure and composition of the Council itself.” As Chantal Götz, the managing director of Voices of Faith, another group advocating for women’s rights in the Church, put it to me, when I asked her about Scaraffia’s suggestion, “What a symbolic gesture it would be if the Pope named women to the cardinal slots emptied by cardinals implicated in the coverup of sexual abuse.”
In August, I wrote to Pope Francis’s spokesman, Greg Burke, to ask him if his boss would name a woman to the rank of cardinal. “It is an interesting debate,” Burke replied. “But the Pope is not going to name women cardinals.” I e-mailed Scaraffia and reported his reply. Was Pope Francis’s answer definitive, in her eyes? And what did she make of the summer’s clerical meltdown? She did not regard Burke’s reply as final—and my two questions, she added, are related. “I think we are experiencing a serious and profound crisis of the Church,” she wrote, adding that it would result in real change. Perhaps, she continued, such change might include, “who knows, maybe even women Cardinals!”
On October 3rd, Pope Francis delivered a homily at the opening of the Synod of Bishops, a month-long conference on Church matters. (This one was focussed on the Church’s relationship with its younger members.) “A church that does not listen . . . cannot be credible,” he told the assembled clerics, which included fifty cardinals. At the synod, participants vote on proposals for Pope Francis; this time, the Vatican invited a few dozen women, but they did not have voting rights. Eleven advocacy groups, including Lazzarini’s organization, created a petition insisting that women vote at the synod, which was delivered to the synod’s office with more than nine thousand signatures. The rules were not amended. On Saturday, the synod adopted a sixty-page final document that highlighted “the absence of women’s voices and points of view” and recommended “making everyone more aware of the urgency of an inescapable change.”
Meanwhile, the latest issue of Women Church World includes an article under Scaraffia’s byline. There are those who think that a “ ‘good’ Pope” will eventually “open the doors to women,” appointing them to top positions in church government, she writes. But, she goes on, women can’t wait for that Pope. Women, too, were complicit in the church’s sexual-abuse crisis: made to play the role of “obedient daughters,” they served the clerics who protected one another. “The condition of women in the Church will only change if women have the courage to begin to change it from below,” she writes. Two days before the Synod of Bishops began, a symposium, put on by the group Catholic Women Speak, was held in Rome. There, Scaraffia was even more explicit. “Why don’t we become a nuisance in every place where women are not present?” she said. “I am leading a war against the patriarchy of the Church.”
Research for this article was made possible with the support of the Heinrich Böll Foundation North America. Giulia Alagna provided translation.