papa franjo.jpg
Photograph: EPA/GIUSEPPE LAMI

Images of women breaking a taboo of the Catholic Church

It's part of a groundbreaking campaign by feminist photographer Giulia Bianchi, who for the past five years has researched underground Roman Catholic female priests flouting the ban on women in the clergy.

Her journey has rekindled her faith and prompted her to study theology and travel to Israel to investigate early Christianity, when women allegedly were involved in ministry.

"They remind me of suffragettes," the 38-year-old artist says of modern-day female Catholic priests, speaking in an interview with dpa. "They represent a form of feminism that is inclusive, egalitarian and compassionate," she adds.

Bianchi has won permission from the Rome municipality to put up 100 street posters with her photographs of 10 women priests. Announcing A Jubilee for Women Priests, they include slogans such as "Some women disobey" and quotes from female Catholic saints.

Featured priests are members of a global movement comprising about 200 women, including 10 female bishops, who follow Catholic liturgy, with only a few changes: for example, they refer to God as "Holy Father and Mother" or "Holy One," rather than "Holy Father."

Bianchi, who was born in Italy but trained in the United States, was introduced to this world by Diane Dougherty, a former nun from Georgia who is now celebrating Mass for fellow Catholic outcasts such as gays, divorcees and transgender people.

Since that encounter in 2012, Bianchi has met more than 70 women priests, mostly from the US but also from Colombia, Ireland, Austria, Germany, Italy and France. She spent several days with each one, interviewing and photographing at home and with their parishioners.

"I am not against the church: with these pictures, I want to open a dialogue, and show a forbidden reality," she says.

Her campaign is being unveiled two weeks after Pope Francis reopened the debate on whether women can become deacons, who are people who perform some priestly functions but are not fully fledged priests. He promised to set up a committee on the matter.

"I think it will be good for the Church to clarify this point," the pontiff said on May 12, while meeting members of an international nuns' organization at the Vatican.

The diaconate, currently restricted to men, can either be a stepping stone to full priesthood, or just a way to serve your parish more intensively. In the latter case, married people can be admitted to the role.

"What the pope said is historic," Bianchi said, recalling while under John Paul II the Vatican had ruled out any reforms "from now till eternity," Francis, "in his own innocent way, is saying: let's reopen the door, let's talk a little more about this."

Bianchi heaped more praise on Francis, describing him as a man with "a real passion for the others," but said she was afraid of compromise solutions that may not offer women full equality within the church.

Early signs are not encouraging: a day after Francis made his breakthrough announcement, one of his favourite theologians, German Cardinal Walter Kasper, told Italy's Corriere della Sera newspaper that securing consensus for female deacons would be "no easy thing."

Furthermore, there has been no news on when the panel promised by the pope will actually be set up.

But for Bianchi, opening up the ranks of Catholic clergy would be a way of healing a centuries-old injustice.

"It's not just an issue of equality. It's about breaking with this established idea from the Middle Ages that women cannot represent the divine. Telling a believer that they cannot represent the divine is the most degrading thing."

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