ROME – The Catholic Church would benefit from having more women in senior-level positions at the Vatican, Cherie Blair said during a conference on the church’s role in defending women’s rights.
“Just as diversity between and within the sexes enriches human life and strengthens our civil society, so, too, I believe would it strengthen the church if we could see more women in leadership roles within it,” she said.
Mrs. Blair– a lawyer who specializes in human rights and the wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Mrs. Blair– spoke Dec. 12 at a conference organized by Rome’s Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, also known as the Angelicum.
Titled “Women and Human Rights,” the one-day conference was held to mark the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Blair’s participation in the church-sponsored conference had been criticized by some Web sites and prompted calls for the pontifical university to rescind her invitation to speak.
Sites critical of Mrs. Blair, who is a Catholic, said she was a pro-abortion public figure who did not live out church teachings.
The Angelicum refused to cancel Mrs. Blair’s engagement despite receiving hundreds of complaints.
During a question and answer segment after giving her talk, Mrs. Blair said she has been a practicing Catholic her whole life, adding “it would be rather strange if I didn’t adhere to the teachings of the church.”
In her speech she quoted Article 3 of the church’s Charter of the Rights of the Family, which outlines a married couple’s right to decide on the number of their children and spacing of their births while excluding the use of contraception, sterilization and abortion.
But she said she is “on record as having had difficulties with accepting the current teaching on responsible parenthood,” presumably referring to the use of artificial contraception.
She spoke of “the wonderful surprise of becoming a mother again for the fourth time at the age of 45” and the keen sense of loss she felt when she miscarried a fifth child two years later.
The church “rightly makes a clear distinction between controlling fertility and terminating a life once conception has occurred,” Mrs. Blair said.
“There is a real danger in this debate if we align abortion and contraception as the same,” she said.
The church “needs to engage in this issue properly,” Mrs. Blair said, because “the church has a strong moral message which deserves to be heard” and continues to evolve.
After Blair’s talk, Dominican Father Bruce Williams, a professor of moral theology at the Angelicum, publicly offered an apology to Mrs. Blair and said that after hearing her speech it was “crystal clear” the accusations against her were “rash and outright calumnious.”
During her speech on the importance of basing human rights on natural law, Mrs. Blair often cited Pope John Paul II’s teachings on the essential richness of women and the importance of bringing women’s special gifts to society.
Men and women are not the same, she said, but they have equal worth and should have equal opportunities.
“In fact, it’s the very different qualities that women bring to the challenges in the world that makes it so vital we tackle discrimination between the genders” so that the great goals of peace and harmony in the world can be achieved, she said.
Mrs. Blair said after there had been a large increase in the number of women holding seats in the British Parliament, greater attention and more government action were aimed at problems in education, child care and sexual violence against women.
Having more women in higher levels of the church would likewise result in “different priorities gaining the platform and that would be better for everyone,” she said.
Also, Mrs. Blair said, no one should underestimate the value of role models and high-profile public figures in inspiring and instilling confidence in young girls and women.
“With a little bit of imagination,” the Vatican could try to fill half its curial posts with women and make “a huge change in the public face of the church,” she said.
Blair’s call was echoed by another conference speaker, Norwegian professor Janne Haaland Matlary, who is a member of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and a consultant to the Pontifical Council for the Family and who has served on several Vatican delegations at international conferences.
“The enormous female talent of the church,” she said, should be used much more.
Many key positions within the Vatican do not require priestly ordination and could be filled by qualified women, she said.