French women pledge to fight ‘misogyny’ of Catholic Church

A group of Catholic women is demanding an end to discrimination in the church

Anne Soupa being interviewed on the porch of the Église de la Madeleine. Photograph: Lara Marlowe

A frail-looking grandmother of eight from Lyon led dozens of French women this week in the founding act of Toutes Apôtres, All-Women Apostles. The group is challenging 2,000 years of male domination of the Catholic Church.

Two months ago, Anne Soupa (73) announced her candidacy to succeed Archbishop Philippe Barbarin of Lyon. Barbarin resigned after his diocese was wracked by a paedophile priest scandal.

“I am a theologian with solid diplomas from the Catholic University of Lyon, better than a lot of bishops,” Soupa says. “The diocese of Lyon is emblematic of all that is wrong with the church.”

A disparaging remark by Cardinal André Vingt-Trois 10 years ago prompted Soupa to found the Committee of the Skirt, which now counts close to 500 members. The committee merged with another group called Oh My Goddess!! to create Toutes Apôtres.


On Wednesday morning, Soupa and seven other women pushed their dossiers as candidates to be bishop, nuncio, parish priests or deaconesses through the letterbox of Celestino Migliore, the papal nuncio in Paris. The nuncio submits a terna, or list of candidates, for church appointments to the pope for decision.

Soupa denounces the “contemptuous silence” of the church regarding her bid to become archbishop. “I am sorry that my church has no culture of debate, of dialogue, of listening.” She appeals to French women to inundate the nuncio’s office with similar applications.

The founders of Toutes Apôtres convened on Zoom during the coronavirus lockdown, and met for the first time in person on the evening of July 21st. Soupa’s husband, Philippe, a retired banker, chilled Champagne for the occasion.

Toutes Apôtres chose Mary Magdalene as their patron saint. Soupa blames Pope Gregory for conflating the identities of three women in the seventh century, saddling Mary Magdalene with a false reputation as a prostitute. The group's manifesto says Christ's male apostles were "terrified, hiding in their house" when Mary Magdalene went to his tomb "in a reversal of traditional roles".

The absence of women in positions of responsibility “is a scandal” and “a huge injustice that hurts the entire church”, the manifesto says. “Our gesture ... is a salutary act of disobedience to ecclesial orthodoxy.”

Celibacy mistake

Soupa says the Gospel is egalitarian, but that the church went wrong in the 12th century. “The celibacy of priests unleashed the misogyny of the church. They had to get rid of burdensome women who had been the priests’ wives. Quite a few of them were forced into prostitution.”

Thereafter, Soupa continues, “there was a phobia of women, who were seen as seductresses and temptresses. Snakes with the head of a woman appeared for the first time in medieval cathedral sculpture.”

Members of the collective Toutes Apotres. Photograph: François Guillot/AFP via Getty

Today some priests still say women are unfit to give Communion. “When they say women are meant to receive, not to give, it is a sexual image,” Soupa says. “They reject sexuality among the ordained, but it works away silently in their subconscious. Male imagination is burdened with the hyper-sexualisation of women ... The celibacy of priests cuts them off from real life, and hurts us all.”

From the nuncio’s residence, the founders of Toutes Apôtres made their way to the Église de la Madeleine, Mary Magdalene’s church, on her feast day, July 22nd.

Fewer than a dozen people normally attend the 12.30pm Mass. On Wednesday there were close to 100. “I am surprised to see so many worshippers here today ... Perhaps I’ll be the first African pope!” the black priest who said Mass joked, implying solidarity with the women.

When Mass ended, Christina Moreira called the women to gather at the foot of a statue of Mary Magdalene. Moreira was ordained in Sarasota, Florida, by Bridget Mary Meehan, one of four bishops elected by the Association of Roman Catholic Womenpriests. The association has ordained about 280 women, Moreira said. "We have a lot of Irish women with us."

The church has excommunicated women in the association, but Soupa told me Moreira was “ordained by a legitimate organisation”. In her application to the nuncio, Moreira asked to be assigned to a parish.

After leading a prayer to St Mary Magdalene, Moreira turned and blew a kiss towards the statue.

Impossible dream

Hélène Pichon, a former director of the Alliance Française in Cork and the author of Feminine Eternal, for a New Theology of Liberation, is a founding member of Toutes Apôtres. She dreamed of becoming a papal nuncio as a child, but was told it was impossible.

Former president Mary McAleese “is a great inspiration to us”, Pichon said. “We sent her a message, telling her what we were doing today.”

Soupa says the church "missed out on women's liberation in the 1950s and 1960s. Pope John Paul II was extremely backward regarding women." She calls John Paul II "the pope who let abuse happen" and calls for his "decanonisation" because of his support for Marcial Maciel Degollado, the Mexican priest and founder of the Legion of Christ who was a drug addict and child abuser.

Pope Francis recently refused to allow the ordination of deaconesses in the Amazon. Soupa holds out little hope for his papacy, "because he is buffeted by strong, conservative winds, because of his age and because he is from Latin America".

Soupa accepts that equality will be a gradual process, and "would understand completely if they started by naming women deaconesses". The Vatican has launched a second commission on the question. "At this point, everything has been said. It's time to take a decision," Soupa says.

Soupa insists Toutes Apôtres is for, not against the church. “There are little cracks in the dam. We see little rivulets of water, but so far the dam is holding.”

One of Soupa's books is titled The Day Luther Said No. She wrote it "with joy", she says. Five hundred years after Martin Luther sundered Christianity between Catholics and Protestants, Soupa says she is determined to reform the church from the inside. "I will never leave the church," she says. "For me, it is much more than the institution."