Vatican magazine denounces nuns’ servitude

  • Mar. 2, 2018 2:33 p.m.

VATICAN CITY — A Vatican magazine has denounced how nuns are often treated like indentured servants by cardinals and bishops, for whom they cook and clean for next to no pay.

The March edition of “Women Church World,” the monthly women’s magazine of the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, hit newsstands Thursday. Its expose on the underpaid labour and unappreciated intellect of religious sisters confirmed that the magazine is increasingly becoming the imprint of the Catholic Church’s .MeToo movement.

“Some of them serve in the homes of bishops or cardinals, others work in the kitchens of church institutions or teach. Some of them, serving the men of the church, get up in the morning to make breakfast, and go to sleep after dinner is served, the house cleaned and the laundry washed and ironed,” reads one of the lead articles.

A nun identified only as Sister Marie describes how sisters serve clergy but “are rarely invited to sit at the tables they serve.”

While such servitude is common knowledge, it is remarkable that an official Vatican publication would dare put such words to paper and publicly denounce how the church systematically exploits its own nuns.

But that pluck has begun to define “Women Church World,” which launched six years ago as a monthly insert in L’Osservatore Romano and is now a stand-alone magazine distributed for free online and alongside the printed newspaper in Italian, Spanish, French and English.

“Until now, no one has had the courage to denounce these things,” the magazine’s editor, Lucetta Scaraffia, told The Associated Press. “We try to give a voice to those who don’t have the courage to say these words” publicly.

“Inside the church, women are exploited,” she said in a recent interview.

While Pope Francis has told Scaraffia he appreciates and reads the magazine, it is by no means beloved within the deeply patriarchal Vatican system. Recent issues have raised eyebrows, including the March 2016 edition on “Women who preach,” which appeared to advocate allowing lay women to deliver homilies at Mass.

One of the authors had to publish a subsequent clarification saying he didn’t mean to suggest a change to existing doctrine or practice.

Other recent issues have explored the symbolic power of women’s bodies and “rape as torture.”

Scaraffia, a Catholic feminist and professor of history at Rome’s La Sapienza university, sees the magazine as a necessary tool to push the envelope on issues that matter to half the members of the Catholic Church. The fact that a women’s supplement to L’Osservatore Romano is even necessary is indicative of what she’s up against. L’Osservatore is the official newspaper of the Vatican, publishing official papal decrees and speeches and maintaining an editorial line that reflects the priorities of the Holy See.

The March issue of its women’s magazine is dedicated to “Women and Work,” and explores many issues that are in some ways correlated to the .MeToo movement, including the gender pay gap, the lack of women in leadership positions, and the “Ni Una Menos” movement to combat feminicide and violence against women, often by spurned lovers.

During his recent trip to Peru, Francis denounced feminicide and gender-based crimes that have turned his home continent, Latin America, into the most violent place on Earth for women. He also has frequently called for dignified work — and dignified pay — for all. And in a recent prologue to a book on women’s issues, Francis acknowledged that he was concerned that in many cases, women’s work in the church “sometimes is more servitude than true service.”

The March edition of “Women Church World” drives that home, with a lead article “The (nearly) free work of sisters,” by French journalist Marie-Lucile Kubacki, the Rome correspondent for the La Vie magazine of the Le Monde group.

Kubacki noted that sisters often work for prelates or church institutions without contracts. When one falls sick, she is simply sent back to her congregation which sends another in her place.

Other sisters, meanwhile, show remarkable intellectual gifts and earn advanced degrees, but aren’t allowed to put them to use because the collective nature of religious communities often discourages personal advancement, another nun, Sister Paule, told the magazine.

“Behind all this is the unfortunate idea that women are worth less than men, and above all that priests are everything in the church while sisters are nothing,” Sister Paul said.

Sister Marie noted that many nuns from Africa, Asia or Latin America who come to study in Rome hail from poor families, whose extended care is often paid for by their congregations. As a result, they feel they can’t complain about their work conditions, she said.

“This all creates in them a strong interior rebellion,” Sister Marie reported. “These sisters feel indebted, tied down, and so they keep quiet.”

Scaraffia said she wanted to give these sisters a voice, even though she counts herself among the church’s exploited.

Neither Scaraffia nor the eight-member editorial staff of Women Church World is paid. The magazine, funded by a grant from the Italian postal service Poste Italiane, pays contributors for their articles, but it is published each month thanks to the free labour of its editorial staff.

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