Italian ‘revolution’ over violence against women may press the Pope too

Crux [Denver CO]

November 27, 2023

By John L. Allen Jr.

While Catholicism may be universal, as a sociological matter the Vatican definitely isn’t. Although its personnel may come from all over the world, its internal culture, psychology and business models are all quintessentially Italian.

Until a pope takes up the suggestion of newly minted Coadjutor Archbishop Christopher Coyne of Hartford, Ct., and moves the Vatican out of Rome, Italian realities therefore will continue to exercise a disproportionate impact on shaping the outlook and perceived priorities of Vatican officials.

That point comes to mind amid what organizers are describing as a budding “revolution” in Italy around the issue of violence against women, driven by national outrage over the brutal murder of a 22-year-old young woman named Giulia Cecchettin by her ex-boyfriend. Her gruesome death, which has dominated the Italian media for a fortnight, represents merely the latest instance of what Italians are now calling an epidemic of femicide.

According to data from the country’s Ministry of the Interior, a stunning 106 women have been killed in Italy so far this year, 55 of them allegedly by a partner or ex-partner. That’s a clip of one violent death of a woman every three days.

The examination of conscience now underway seems destined to have consequences for the issue of the treatment of women across the board, including by the Catholic Church and its leadership in the Vatican.

During a demonstration on Saturday that began at Rome’s Circus Maximus and ended at the Basilica of St. John Lateran, some 50,000 people turned out to mark the UN-sponsored International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, obviously motivated by the furor over the Italian situation.

Cecchettin disappeared Nov. 11 after leaving to meet her former boyfriend, Filippo Turetta, for a burger at a shopping mall, just hours before a graduation party to celebrate her degree in biomedical engineering from the University of Padua. Her body was found a week later covered with black plastic bags in a ditch near a lake in the Alps, with an autopsy later discovering 26 individual wounds, apparently inflicted by a blade, on Cecchettin’s neck, arms and legs.

Turetta later was arrested in Germany and extradited to Italy, where he is now being held in a prison in Verona on charges of aggravated murder.

During Saturday’s demonstration, one of the banners prominently displayed in the crowd read, Vaticano spina dorsale del patriarcato, which translates as, “The Vatican is the backbone of patriarchy.”

Granted, it would be a mistake to read too much into one anonymous banner, but that wasn’t the only expression of anti-Catholic blowback during the day. Protestors also stopped to throw smoke bombs and to scrawl graffiti on the offices of Pro Vita e Famiglia, a leading Italian pro-life and anti-abortion group, which, although it’s independent of the institutional church, nevertheless has deep ties to important sectors of Catholic opinion.

The upshot is that as the new campaign around women’s security and rights gathers steam, it likely will once again put the role of the Church and the Vatican in the spotlight.

At first blush, that might seem a happy coincidence given that Pope Francis has made empowering women a hallmark of his reign.

Francis has named women to important Vatican positions, including Franciscan Sister Sister Raffaella Petrini, the first woman to serve as the chief executive of the Vatican City State; he’s appointed three women, including Petrini, to serve on the all-powerful Dicastery for Bishops, responsible for identifying new bishops around the world; and he gave women voting rights in the recent Synod of Bishops on Synodality.

Ever attentive to Italian realities, Francis also dispatched a message on X (the former Twitter) on Saturday, which, will motivated by the UN day on eliminating violence against women, was heard by most Italians as an echo of the Cecchettin scandal.

“Violence against women is a poisonous weed that plagues our society and must be pulled up from its roots. These roots grow in the soil of prejudice and of injustice; they must be countered with educational action that places the person, with his or her dignity, at the center,” the pope’s message read.

Yet the reality is, as the pope’s record is put under an increasingly critical microscope, pressures both new and old could emerge.

One indication came from a recent interview with Lucetta Scaraffia, the founder and former editor of a women’s insert to the official Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, who resigned in 2019 complaining of what she described as efforts to muzzle her attempt to highlight the abuse of religious women in the Church.

In effect, Scaraffia described the pope’s outreach to women as all sizzle and no steak.

“Regarding the role of women in the Church, Pope Francis isn’t doing absolutely anything. It’s all fake,” she told the Italian edition of the Huffington Post.

“The women who’ve arrived in Vatican positions are women chosen by the clergy, extremely obedient, who won’t change anything … they pick obedient sisters who smile all the time,” she said.

However unfair or exaggerated such claims may be, in light of the national mood, it’s likely they’ll find a more receptive audience.

“The one thing Francis could have done was to establish the diaconate for women, and he hasn’t done it. He created a commission that produced a document, which was then made secret. Now, he’s creating another commission. You know better than I do that when you have commission after commission, it’s because you want to kill time,” Scaraffia said.

On the specific issue of femicide, Scaraffia also suggested that Francis’s credibility has been compromised by his handling of the case of ex-Jesuit Father Marko Rupnik, who’s been accused of the sexual, psychological and spiritual abuse of more than 20 adult women, mostly nuns, over a roughly 30-year span.

The new climate in Italy probably may put new pressure on the pope and Church officials to come clean on the Rupnik mess too.

From the very beginning, Francis has taken his role as the Bishop of Rome extremely seriously, which has implied, among other things, keen sensitivity to Italian realities. Right now, those realities end up creating additional headaches for a pope who, heretofore, may well have thought of himself as part of the solution on women’s issues, not the problem.