church_empowerment_of_women.htmTEXTBlWd#w22- Catholic Church, Empowerment of Women


The Church has defended women's rights for 2,000 years

Text from: L'Osservatore Romano, Weekly Edition in English, v31, n17(1539), 29 April 1998.
Scanning courtesy of the Newman Center at Caltech

On 3 March 1998, during the 42nd Session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women,
Dr Suzanne Scorsone made the following statement on behalf of the Holy See.
Here is the text of her English language address.

Madame Chair,

The Holy See welcomes the opportunity of addressing the theme of the human rights of women, the first of the four critical areas of concern of the Beijing Platform for Action to be studied by this session.

In addressing the Commission on the Status of Women today, the Holy See speaks from a 2,000-year involvement on behalf of the human rights of women and girls. From the earliest days of its existence the Catholic Church has worked for changes in law and custom to forbid the exposure of female children, infanticide and other forms of abuse.

The Church, throughout its long history, has been peopled with empowered women - military leaders, judges, chatelaines and controllers of property - many of whom are now revered as saints. Among these women are: St Bathildis, the wife of Clovis II and regent of his kingdom, who fought slavery and abusive taxation; Matilda of Quedlinburg, who ruled in the name of her brother, the Emperor Otto II; St Isabel of Portugal, who won fame as a peacemaker, and Countess Matilda of Tuscany, who wore armour into battle. Other striking examples of empowered women are the Anglo-Saxon, Celtic and Frankish abbesses of the early Middle Ages, who not infrequently ruled over double monasteries composed of both men and women.

Examples of such women are St Hilda, the abbess of Whitby, Walburga, the abbess of Heidenheim, and Edburga, the abbess of Minister-in-Thanet. In the 11th century the brilliant Dr Trotula de Ruggiero held a chair as a professor of medicine at the University of Salerno. A few centuries later, St Catherine of Siena and St Rose of Viterbo played powerful and dramatic roles in the political life of their time.

In addition, the Church has had a long history of involvement with the education of women and girls. The monasteries of St Benedict and his sister, St Scholastica, preserved and promoted learning during the Dark Ages of Europe. There, at a time when the general population was illiterate, women in religion often learned to read. The monasteries sometimes produced great women scholars, such as the polymath Hildegarde of Bingen, who was poet, scientist and musician, and the poet and mystic, Catherine of Bologna. At the time of the Renaissance, Angela Merici founded the Ursuline Order with the specific purpose of educating poor girls; since' then, countless other women's orders have dedicated themselves to women's education.

Today there are more than 21.3 million women and girls being educated in Church-run institutions: 84,194 Catholic primary schools teach 11.5 million girls; 237,640 secondary schools teach 6.2 million girls; 3,163 Catholic colleges or universities currently have 1.2 million women students. The Holy See is firmly convinced that even before legal prescriptions or international decisions, the basis for a profound respect for every human person is linked to education. Indeed, it is virtually impossible to measure the harm that results for women, families and communities from ignorance and a lack of education, especially if this is perpetuated over generations. In addition, it is education which raises the human spirit by giving both training and opportunities for fulfilment in areas relating to labour and to economic rights. And as a practical matter, many modern women who have become heads of government or agencies within the United Nations have received opportunities for education from institutions of the Catholic Church which offer education to all without distinction.

The Church has also had a deep commitment to offering health care in many places of the world where no other institutions were or are available. Often these services have been directed toward women coming from poor families. Again, such assistance can be understood to be a fundamental contribution, since good health is an important element for the enjoyment of the human rights of all people.

The Church today supplies a worldwide network of 985 national Catholic organizations dedicated to the promotion and distribution of financial resources for social and spiritual development. It maintains 54,742 day-care centres caring for 2.3 million girls. The Church today also supports 100,231 health-care institutions worldwide, including hospitals, crisis pregnancy centres, shelters for battered women, leprosaria, nursing homes for the elderly and centres for the assistance of the seriously disabled. Mother Teresa's 4,000 Missionaries of Charity alone maintain shelters for battered women, orphanages for girls and boys, and homes for destitute and dying women and men in 564 sites around the world.

It is from this perspective that the Holy See approaches the Commission's theme of the human rights of women. The rights of women are a natural consequence of the fundamental and inalienable equality of all persons flowing from the dignity of the human nature which they. share. For this reason, the Holy See welcomes the emphasis being placed this year upon the 50th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which the world's deliberations on human rights over the second half of this century have been so closely linked. The value of the Universal Declaration was underscored by Pope John Paul II in his Message for the Celebration of the World Day of Peace, 1 January 1998, with the words: "Fifty years ago, after a war characterized by the denial for certain peoples of the right even to exist, the General Assembly of the United Nations promulgated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That was a solemn act, arrived at after the sad experience of war, and motivated by the desire formally to recognize that the, same rights belong to every individual and to all peoples.... That document must be observed integrally in both its spirit and its letter".

This then must be the goal of the family of nations for all women as well as for men of every nation, race, creed and class. They must be empowered to share fully in the enjoyment of those rights which are theirs by nature, and to fulfil their responsibilities by contributing to society and to the family. These rights are characterized by their universality and their indivisibility. For this reason, the international community must strive to help women to live their full dignity by exercising those political, economic, social and cultural rights which have been recognized in that Declaration. Again to cite the words of Pope John Paul: "Universality and indivisibility are two guiding principles which at the same time demand that human rights be rooted in each culture and that their juridical profile be strengthened so as to ensure that they are fully observed".

Before I close today, Madam Chair, I wish to emphasize the importance of article 16 paragraph 3 of the Declaration of Human Rights, which states: "The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State". The family is indeed the first and the most basic institution within society where human rights are fostered and protected, including the right to life itself, from the moment of conception until natural death. It is within the family that children, including the girl child, naturally feel most secure. It is there that they learn the respect for others which is a fundamental basis for any society which wishes to be able to promote human rights. Further, the article notes that men and women have the right to marry and found a family. For that reason, this article in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights retains its crucial importance, today more than ever.

Madame Chair, my Delegation hopes for a successful session of this Commission on the Status of Women. It hopes that these two weeks will serve to foster the inclusion of women in the full exercise of those universal and indivisible human rights which we are celebrating in this 50th anniversary year.

Scanning courtesy of the Newman Center at Caltech