What the Holy See Has to Say About Violence Against Women and Girls

Commission on the Status of Women, 57th Session

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The Commission on the Status of Women, established by the United Nations in 1946, finished its annual meetings (4-14 March 2013) in New York. State representatives were gathered together negotiating the key outcome document called «Agreed Conclusions» on the priority theme: «Elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls.» This article explores what the Holy See has to say about violence against women and girls.

Violence against women and children may be «physical, sexual, psychological or moral.»[1] Consequently, the Holy See condemns acts ranging from indifference and insults to sexual exploitation and murder. It has always acknowledged the incredible gift of women to the world as well as the life of the faith community and denounced the disheartening results flowing from the simple fact of being a female: for example, the reduced likelihood of being born and surviving childhood.[2] 

The Holy See maintains that violence against women and girls is most prevalent in societies where women and girls are treated as objects to be used or subjects to be ignored. In regard to the objectification of women, the Holy See notes that «many women have been and continue to be valued more for their physical appearance than their skill, their professionalism, their intellectual abilities, their deep sensitivity; in a word, the very dignity of their being.»[3] A major contributing factor is the «widespread hedonistic and commercial culture which encourages the systematic exploitation of sexuality.»[4] Central to this consumer culture is the mainstreaming of pornography and violence in the communications media, an issue which the Holy See has studied at length with a view to providing guidelines for parents, children and educational institutions.[5]  

It also supports women in their fight «against societal practices, which facilitate the irresponsibility of men while stigmatizing women,» and the «vast industry that extracts its profits from the very bodies of women, while at the same time purporting to be their liberators.»[6] In particular, the Holy See stresses that all who are «genuinely committed to the advancement of women can and must offer a woman or a girl who is pregnant, frightened and alone a better alternative» than violence to her person and destruction of her innocent child.[7] The Holy See gives special attention to mothers who have sheltered «human beings within themselves,» especially in difficult and even traumatic circumstances.[8] It also urges mothers, who have «endured an abortion,» often made in cases involving «a painful and even shattering decision,» to seek healing and to accept the «birth of other children» in the future.[9] 

Moreover, the Holy See emphasizes the «feminization» of migration, that is, the increasing number of women and children on the move. It highlights how these migrants and refugees are at risk of being lured into forced labour and prostitution by insincere offers of help,[10] and the difficult conditions in refugee camps, where they are often victims of sexual exploitation.[11] 

With respect to the marginalization of women, the Holy See contends that many women have been and continue to be ignored and excluded simply because they are women. The Holy See rejects conditions of subordination and proposes the «active collaboration between the sexes precisely in the recognition of the differences between man and woman,» with a view to overcoming the domination of one sex over the other.[12] Moreover, the Holy See disagrees with the proposition that when «[f]aced with the abuse of power, the answer for women is to seek power.»[13] This would require women to accept a disordered understanding of authority. As Pope Francis recently reaffirmed, authority is service, not power.[14] Consequently, women should be challenging these flawed perspectives within the Church and the world, with a view to humanizing situations, institutions and cultures.

An Integral Response

The Holy See adopts a holistic approach to combating all forms of violence against women and girls. First of all, it promotes commonly shared values founded on inherent human dignity, and thus the universal dignity of each and every individual. In this regard it has reached out to women in a special way. Pope John Paul II exhorted the 250,000 Catholic schools operating around the world to give special attention to the plight of women and girls by engaging both women and men and boys and girls.[15] He also drafted an apostolic letter On the Dignity and Vocation of Women, in 1988, sent a second letter specifically addressed to women, in 1995, and followed up with a Letter to Catholic Bishops on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and the World, in 2004.[16] These documents discuss the special gifts of women as well as their plight in the Church and the world, the points made therein are reaffirmed in catecheses, messages, interventions, statements and speeches. 

In particular, the Holy See celebrates the diversity and complementarity between men and women. It emphasizes their equality in dignity, the unity of the two, the importance of the masculine and feminine, and the vocation to reciprocity and communion.[17] It also promotes the fundamental institution for the life of every society, namely the natural family based on marriage whereby one man and one woman of appropriate age freely consent to establish between themselves a partnership of their whole life which of its own very nature is ordered to the well-being of the spouses, to the procreation and education of children, and to the common good of society.[18]  

Moreover, the Holy See promotes authentic human love. It supports the family and parents in ensuring that «love flourishes in the family,» that is, that the child «gradually learns to consider the good of the other person as his or her own good.»[19] In this way, the child receives a type of «remote marriage preparation with the witness and word of the parents,» whereby the child learns that «marriage between a man and a woman endures for the life of the spouses and constitutes a partnership of love and of life.»[20]

The Holy See promotes the responsibility to protect oneself, the other and all creation. Pope Francis fleshes this duty out in stating that we should show: «loving concern for each and every person, especially children, the elderly [and] those in need.»[21] In specific regard to the family, «husbands and wives first protect one another, and then, as parents, they care for their children, and children themselves, in time, protect their parents.»[22]

Through its participation in intergovernmental meetings and ratification of human rights treaties,[23] the Holy See addresses a range of factors that contribute to violence against women and children from family breakdown and poverty to proliferation of weapons and armed conflict.[24] In addition, the departments of the Holy See engage in research and hold international conferences on key issues concerning violence: prevention, protection, prohibition as well as rescue, rehabilitation and reintegration.[25] These topics have been raised during the study and research of many larger themes such as the family, people on the move and drug addiction. Indeed, such international conferences or seminars have concluded in concrete guidelines and submissions.[26] Moreover, though small in number, women working within the Roman Curia play a valued role, especially in those departments where such research has been carried out.[27] 

Not unlike the Organization of the United Nations and its own responsibilities regarding the sexual abuse of women and children by U.N. Peace Keepers,[28] the Holy See continues to address acts of sexual abuse committed by some of its religious and clergy and the devastating effects visited on the victims and their families. To this end, Pope Benedict XVI, in particular, has exhorted its members to lead holy lives, amended norms regarding suitability of candidates for the priesthood, met and listened to
victims in order to assist and support the local church, arranged Apostolic Visitations to dioceses and seminaries, drafted guidelines for Episcopal Conferences, exhorted Bishops to correctly exercise their office in cooperation with civil authorities, revised universal canon law and created mechanisms to ensure its implementation.[29] 

Furthermore, the Holy See encourages «activities that are accomplished by the local Church, religious congregations, and Catholic associations in accordance with their own authority under canon law, and with due regard to the law of the respective States in which they operate.»[30] For example, the local Church has programs for internally displaced persons, refugees and migrants as well as victims of prostitution, human trafficking, domestic violence and armed conflict.[31] Many initiatives involve direct assistance including rescue, recovery, rehabilitation and reintegration.[32] The Holy See also promotes the local activities of about 130,000 Catholic health care institutions (CHCI) operating in Africa, America, Asia, Europe and Oceania.[33] Women and children are receiving care at such hospitals from other women employed as doctors, nurses and administrators.

Lastly, the Holy See does not forget the millions of women called to the vocation of the sacrament of marriage, bearing, raising and educating children. Many of these wives and mothers are also serving their relatives, friends and neighbors, who have suffered abuse and who have come to them for support and advice. These generous women understand that the human person has been entrusted to them in a special way.

* * *

Jane Adolphe is the Associate Professor of Law at Ave Maria School of Law in Naples, Florida. 

1] Holy See, Statement at the Fourth World Conference on Women, Beijing (1995).

2] J. Adolphe, What the Pope has to say about Women and HIV/Aids? 14 June 2011, Zenit.org

3] Holy See, Intervention Human Rights Council, 20th Session (2012).

4] Id. 

5] Pontifical Council for Social Communications, “Pornography and Violence in the Communications Media: A Pastoral Response” (1989); Pontifical Council for Social Communications, “Ethics in the Internet” (2002); Pontifical Council for Social Communications, “The Church and the Internet” (2002).

6] Holy See, Statement at the Fourth World Conference on Women, Beijing (1995).

7] Id.

8] Pope John Paul II, Letter to Women (1994), para. 2.

9] Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae (1995), n. 99. 

10] Pope Benedict XVI, Message on the World Day of Migrants and Refugees: “Migrations: a Sign of the Time” (2005)

11] Pope Benedict XVI, Message on the World Day of Migrants and Refugees: “The Migrant Family” (2006).

12] Congregation on the Doctrine of the Faith, Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and the World (2004).

13] Id.

14] Pope Francis, Homily, 19 March 2013.

15] Holy See, Statement at the Fourth World Conference on Women, Beijing (1995).

16] Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Letter, On the Dignity and Vocation of Women (1988); Pope John Paul II, Letter to Women (1995); Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Letter to Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and the World (2004).

17] Pope Benedict XVI, Address to Conference Participants: «Woman and Man, the Humanum in its Entirety» (2008) (cf. Pope John Paul II, «Mulieris Dignitatem,» 1988, no. 6).

18] Pope John Paul II, Letter to Families (1994), n. 17; (cf. CIC, c. 1055; c. CCEO 776 (1-2); Charter of the Rights of the Family (1983), arts. 1-3). 

19] Holy See’s Initial Report to the Committee on the Rights of the Child on the Optional Protocol on the Sale of children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography, (CRC/C/OPSC/VAT/1) para. 18 (e) (hereinafter, “Holy See’s Initial Report on OPSC”).

20] Id.

21] Pope Francis, Homily, 19 March 2013.

22] Id.

23] See e.g., Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC); Optional Protocol to the CRC on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography; Optional Protocol to the CRC on Children in Armed Conflict; Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; and Convention on Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination. 

24] Holy See’s Initial Report on OPSC, supra 19, para. 16.

25] Pontifical Council for the Family; Pontifical Council for the Laity (Department on Women); Pontifical Council for Migrant and Itinerant Peoples; Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Health Workers; Pontifical Council for Social Communications; and Congregation for Catholic Education.

26] See e.g., Guidelines for the Pastoral Care of the Road/Street; Guidelines for the Pastoral Care of Gypsies;  Instruction “Erga migrantes caritas Christi” (The love of Christ towards migrants); The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality;  The Charter of Health Care Workers;  Educational Guidance in Human Love; and Church, Drugs and Drug Addiction: Pastoral Handbook. 

27] On this last point see the blog of UK Ambassador Nigel Baker to the Holy See, “Women at the Holy See” available at http://blogs.fco.gov.uk/nigelbaker/2013/03/08/women-at-the-holy-see/).

28] See e.g., U.N. Secretary General Report, Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Children, Impact of Armed Conflict on Children, para. 107ff (A/51/306 August 26, 1996) available at http://www.unicef.org/graca/a51-306_en.pdf.

29] See the link: “The Abuse of Minors. The Church’s Response” available at www.vatican.it.

30] Holy See’s Initial Report on OPSC, paras. 47-54.

31] Holy See Statement at the Fourth World Conference on Women, Beijing (1995).

32] Holy See’s Initial Report on OPSC, paras. 47-54. 

33] Holy See’s Second Report to the Committee on the Rights of the Child, CRC/C/VAT/2, paras.59-71

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Jane Adolphe

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