BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Sitting in the first pew before the altar at the Metropolitan Cathedral of Buenos Aires — the former church of Pope Francis, then-Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio — I waited for noon Mass to begin.
The Catholic Church had been at the center of many of our interviews and exchanges over coffee, and it seemed like we’d spent most of our time in this cathedral. But this was the first time on the trip — for me, the first time in maybe 20 years — that we’d sat for Mass. Our first interview had confirmed that, in Argentina, you could not look at the issue of abortion without also looking at the church, and the paradoxical relationship women have within it.
“The Catholic Church is a very patriarchal institution that, historically, has been opposed to women’s rights,” Victoria Tesoriero, a member of Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir, or Catholics for the Right to Decide, had said in that first interview. “It has bound women to subaltern or domestic roles that are lower in rank — in the hierarchy. This is a place of inequality.”
And yet the Virgin Mary holds great power in the Latin American church.
Mass began with the first lector making her way to the podium to recite the Hail Mary. To her left was an intricate golden crucifix, across which Christ’s body stretched, dwarfed by a figure of the Virgin Mary watching over the center of the grand adorned altar. Above, paintings used women and children to illustrate the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.
On this day, the priest’s homily focused on patience, tolerance and sacrifice.
“Saint Teresa said ‘be patient,’” he preached. “But patience is not the same as tolerating everything. We cannot become indignant in the face of injustices — the pains and troubles of the world. We must not just do what Jesus says, but also as he does. The responsibility to moral authority is ours.”
That point about “responsibility to moral authority” was especially relevant, as we learned through various conversations with activists — both Catholic and atheist — doctors, students, scholars, the National Ministry of Health and the Catholic Church of Argentina.
And it is a question that Elsa Schvartzman, sociology professor at the University of Buenos Aires, said is important because it is a major point of contention for many pro-choice Catholic women.
The church, she said “holds such a privileged position in Argentina,” politically and historically speaking, that its firm stance against abortion greatly influences the criminalization of the practice in the country, with exceptions made only in cases of rape or danger to a woman’s health.
The church's deeply patriarchal structure creates a paradox, she said, using the woman as a celestial symbol while actual women fall low in the institution's hierarchy.
Biblically, and ideologically, women are held in high esteem. The Virgin Mary, for instance, is the most important figure in the Catholic Church, outside of Jesus, according to Christopher Hale of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. She is also a major spiritual source for Pope Francis.
Her significance within the religion, often criticized by Protestant communities, is a product of two factors. The first, Hale said, is that Mary was a single, unwed mother on the fringes of society. As a farm girl from Nazareth, she did not represent the kind of woman people expected God to come to. Jesus, many thought, would come from power — in the form of a strong military leader, perhaps — and Mary did not appear to many to be a symbol of power. But the choice of Mary as the carrier of the Messiah, Hale said, shows whom God values.
“God, in particular, values women,” he said.
Mary’s muscle, he added, comes from her disposition. When the angel told Mary she was going to have a son, she asked how that could be possible, but quickly made herself “open” to God — she “created a space for God, allowed God to take a seat in her.”
And Mary is not alone in her importance and stature. Mary Magdalene is another example, as the first to have seen Jesus return — the first visitor to his tomb and witness to his resurrection.
“There’s this incredible moment where Mary is running to tell the disciples and that, we believe, was really the birth of the church,” Hale said. “She was the first embodiment of this faith.”
Then there is St. Thecla, the disciple and companion of St. Paul, who also came to be known as the first woman martyr for Christianity. Though she does not appear in the bible, it is said that she was a more powerful orator than St. Paul.
Coming down from religious symbolism and scripture, women should also be held at the center of the faith through their relationship to society, according to Hale, who said that Catholicism should begin at home and typically does, with the mother who is most often the center of a household.
But in Argentina, according to Malena Zabalegui, who had an abortion some 20 years ago, “what we [women] keep fighting is patriarchy.”
“We’d like to see women bishops — but that is still unthinkable,” she said. “The women — the nuns — are the ones who work the most inferior jobs. They clean the floors and do those kinds of tasks. And the men are the ones that achieve the higher positions.”
And not much has changed since an Argentinean archbishop became pope just over a year ago. Women occupy the same positions and the public discourse around reproductive rights is not advancing, but it is also not going back.
There is a new religious fervor, she added, and the church has now opened up to taking on more human issues, but initiatives are focused on the poor and the issue of reproductive rights is not up for discussion.
“The church never worried about anything that had to do with women’s rights,” she said. “It has worried about the poor only because men are also poor. If there were just women living in poverty they wouldn’t worry about it.”
Because it’s seen fundamentally as a women’s issue, the now growing discussion about abortion as a proposal for the legalization of the practice works through Congress for the fifth time, is still “very internal,” and only involving women.
Rebecca Lee Sanchez and Emily Judem are reporting from Argentina as part of a GlobalPost Special Report called "Birth Rights" produced in partnership with The GroundTruth Project. The project is made possible by the Ford Foundation, Henry Luce Foundation and International Center for Journalists.