Examining ‘Women’s Leadership in Conflict Resolution’

This week the United States Embassy to the Holy See co-sponsored an event with the Russell Berrie Foundation and the John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue here in Rome entitled “Women’s Leadership in Conflict Resolution: Faith Perspectives.”

Both Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, and U.S. Ambassador Kenneth Hackett gave introductory remarks. More importantly, the panel consisted of revered women thinkers and authors based in the eternal city: Irene Kajon (noted philosopher from La Sapienza University), Ilham-Allah Chiara Ferrero (Secretary General of the Italian Islamic Religious Community – COREIS) and Donna Orsuto (professor of spirituality at the Pontifical Gregorian University and directress of Rome’s Lay Centre). Rabbi Jack Bemporad, an expert in biblical exegesis and inter-religious dialogue, moderated the conversation.

A recent Vatican conference on women held by the Pontifical Council for Culture was met with some rather severe criticism regarding its choice of artistic images on some promotional materials and its overall tone, which some found lacking the gravitas warranted by such an event. Even Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi was forced to admit some errors in judgment had been made in its planning and execution. So, many eyes were on this very distinct conference to see how it would unfold.

By all accounts, the conversation remained scholarly, serious and spiritually enlightening, and was well received. The speakers offered a number of reflections on the indispensability of women in peacekeeping, charitable and ecclesial initiatives, and pointed out how often females represent the most vulnerable segment of the population in global conflict areas and impoverished communities. Prominent contributions by women as varied as St. Catherine of Siena (who once attested that God is “madly in love” with his creation) and former president of Ireland Mary McAleese (who has gone on to study canon law at the doctoral level at Rome’s Gregorian University since leaving office and currently advises the EU on higher education) were referenced.

The question and answer session, always the most interesting part of an academic gathering included comments and inquiries from a number of woman scholars in the audience and from familiar faces from around town like veteran Vatican journalist Robert Mickens and Australian Ambassador to the Holy See John McCarthy.

Kajon is an expert on Martin Buber, whose famous I-Thou philosophical framework has many points of contact with contemporary studies of women’s roles and contributions to the church, academy and world. When taken from the formerly (and perhaps still overly) male-dominated worlds of business, conflict resolution, and education, a view like Buber’s calls for those in power not to objectify the “other” in what he calls an “I-it” relationship, but to cherish, welcome and learn from them as a “thou” unto themselves.

Despite the majority of the room at the pontifical university where it was held being Catholic, the rabbi’s and Muslim scholar’s presence made clear that the West in general shares both a duty and conviction to overcome prejudice and fear in terms of authentic collaboration between the sexes, and among all people of good will.

Collingswood native Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., Pontifical University of St. Thomas (Angelicum), Rome.

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