Skirts versus cassocks as Catholic women bid for rights

ROME, Italy – It will be a landmark review of Church teachings and women want their say: as bishops gather in Rome to review attitudes to modern family life, the "Catholic Women Speak" network is primed for a fierce but uphill struggle.

The Vatican needs to "stop speaking about women in order to concentrate on speaking with women," says the network, the frustrated cry of women being snubbed by a centuries-old institution run exclusively by robed men.

But with thorny subjects from homosexuality to divorce on the table from this weekend, will the red-hatted "princes" of the Church and their pink-sashed colleagues make time to talk about letting women into the Vatican's halls of power?

Of the 360 or so people taking part in the three-week review, only 17 are women, called to speak strictly about their experience as wives and mothers – and certainly not eligible to take part in the final vote on change. 

"From silence to words, from subordination to responsibility, from invisibility to peace" -- this is the battle cry of theological professor Cettina Militello which has been taken up by women from all walks of life in the network. 

It was launched last year by Monica Jimenez de la Jara, Chile's ambassador to the Holy See, and sister Mary Melone, the first female head of a pontifical university, the Antonianum in Rome.

Their fight is described in the book "Catholic Women Speak: bringing our gifts to the table" which editor Tina Beattie of Britain's Roehampton University is planning to hand out to "each member of the synod".

The network's members include theologians, historians, journalists and researchers. Most are mothers and all are deeply involved in the life of their parishes and frustrated that their skills are only valued at a local level.

But while some hope the Church's leaders will acknowledge that the number of Catholic nuns and lay religious in the world far outweighs that of priests – some 700,000 to 415,000 – others are more realistic about their chances.

Speaking at a "Catholic Women Speak" meeting this week, former Irish president Mary McAleese said it was an open secret that the synod was "the single most boring council on the planet".

"Pope Francis this month said that women are more important than men because the Church is feminine, can you imagine that?" she scoffed, adding that the pontiff's actions on this front have so far fallen very short indeed. - Laure Brumont, Agence France-Presse/