In a 2017 interview for La Stampa, the major Italian daily (see link below for complete interview - available in Italian and English), Maria Voce, then President of the Focolare Movement, made an extraordinary statement. When asked about Catholic women who feel a vocation to the priesthood, Voce replied, ‘It becomes obsessive. According to me, it’s a psychological sickness to demand to become a priest when you’re a woman.’ (‘Diventa ossessivo. Secondo me è una malattia psicologica voler per forza diventare prete quando sei donna!’) One can understand that, like her predecessor, Chiara Lubich, the founder of the Focolare Movement, she may find the idea of women priests abhorrent. But many qualified Catholic theologians and members of the Catholic hierarchy, take the possibility of women priests very seriously and it’s been removed from the ‘Index’ on which it was placed by John Paul II. To hear the leader of a major Catholic organisation using such extreme ad hominem arguments to put down ‘opponents’ is disturbing. Is this an acceptable form of expression from a person holding great responsibility in the Church?
Looking back at Church history, two of the four women doctors of the Church - Saint Catherine of Siena and Saint Therese of Lisieux - both felt a vocation to the priesthood. Were they suffering from a ‘psychological sickness’? Are the many women priests in the Anglican communion - and women ministers in other denominations - also impelled by a ‘psychological sickness’. The impression is rather that their ministry is immensely successful.
The Focolare Movement, perhaps the largest and most powerful of the 'ecclesial movements' founded in the 20th century, which includes priests, religious, bishops and cardinals among its members, was founded by a woman and according to its statutes, approved by 'Saint' John Paul II, must always have a woman as its leader. This fact is often quoted as an example of the progress of women in the Church, even of a kind of feminism. Given the virulent antipathy for women priests expressed by Maria Voce while President of Focolare, careful study must be made of exactly what the Movement's real concept is of sexuality, gender and the role of women in the Church. Is it truly forward-looking?
A German woman who had spent many years as the secretary of one Focolare's top leaders and had often been present at Chiara Lubich's official visits to Germany, once pointed out to me that Lubich ensured that there were no other women in offcial photographs of her surrounded by men - priests, bishops and cardinals. What does this suggest about Focolare's view on the role of women in the Church?