Last month, Rome was plastered with posters of women serving as priests as part of a campaign against the Catholic Church's ban on female ordination. The posters are the work of Italian photographer Giulia Bianchi, who has spent the past four years delving deep into the heart of forbidden priesthood. In 2013, Bianchi met Diane Dougherty, a female priest who was ordained in the Association of Roman Catholic Woman Priests—and immediately excommunicated. Dougherty's story led Bianchi on a journey to meet and photograph over 70 such women campaigning for spiritual equality.
The community Bianchi discovered was one that the artist, herself a lapsed Catholic disillusioned by the Church's dogmatism and emphasis on guilt, could not have imagined. The women priests movement, Bianchi explains, welcomes all "wandering Catholics," including LGBT members. The female priests incorporate liberal feminism within their seminary instruction and missionary work; their liturgy disregards original sin and addresses God as an ungendered being, or as mother and father. They preach inclusivity and redefine the word virgin to describe a woman whose morality is intact, rather than her hymen.
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The project stems from Bianchi's broader quest to document the contradictions of religion in modern society. Her ongoing book project, A Lesser Geography of the Holy Land, explores Jerusalem and the West Bank as a psychological and geographic site of spiritual dislocation and conflict. Here too Bianchi's photographs are arresting, sensitive, and personal. We talked with the artist about her interest in the intersection between feminism and spirituality and her own part in "giving the Virgin a new heart."
BROADLY: How did you find out about the women priests movement?
Giulia Bianchi: In 2012 I was living in New York City, investigating different arms of the feminist movement today. I sent letters through the US to interview women working across art, religion, and politics. I was invited to visit a community in Atlanta led by Diane Dougherty, an Irish American woman of about 70. She defined herself a Roman Catholic woman priest, and I knew very well—I grew up in Italy— that according to the Vatican, there's no such thing.
Diane was a former nun who had been excommunicated because she was ordained as a priest. I was interested in that, the mechanism of disobedience to power. What was supposed to be a short visit became a road trip with Diane to visit other priests: We traveled from Atlanta to Kentucky by car. I became certain of the importance of feminist spirituality. Since then I've also traveled to South America to document the same movement. I met about 70 women priests in four years, and now I'm traveling through Europe to document who they are and what they do.
Today, the Roman Catholic women priests movement counts over 215 ordained women priests and ten bishops, and the number is growing worldwide.
Does the women priests movement speak about or address the history of sexual violence within the Catholic Church?
They do—they very openly condemn it. Pedophilia in the Church is discussed in respect to the Church's other faults. Father Roy Bourgeois was excommunicated after participating in an "illegitimate" ordination Mass in 2008 (illegitimate because the person being ordained was a woman), and he pointed out that priests accused of pedophilia are not excommunicated. There is a demand for standards of accountability to apply from the top down, for truth-telling, for a shake-up of the whole Catholic system.
What other kinds of activism or social work is the women priests movement involved with?
Many women priests are part of One Billion Rising [a campaign to end violence against women]. They are UN consultants, missionaries, LGBT rights advocates, etc. They work especially against war and violence. Activism is often bound up in missionary work. For example, Blanca Cecilia Santana Cortés from Colombia works with sex workers, and with afro-Colombian women living in extreme poverty. She doesn't provide for them as a charity; she educates them to be free individuals, to fight for their rights, to be feminists. She teaches them how to work and provide for their families. She doesn't teach them to be Christian, but to be like Christ.
Many of the women-led congregations open their communities to divorced, gay, and transgender members, people excluded from the Church. Why do you think they are more inclusive?
Women priests are driven by the most radical teachings of the Gospel. The historical Jesus didn't exclude anybody from his life; they don't exclude anybody from the Eucharistic table. They have an understanding of God (not only the Father) as pure love. They incorporate liberal feminist lessons within Catholicism, therefore preaching total inclusivity, total equality for minorities. The first time I went to a Mass led by a woman priest, I noticed that while the liturgy was Catholic, it was performed with certain changes. There's no mention of original sin, and the words used to address God are mother and father, or ungendered.
Have any of the women faced violence or threats to their security since being ordained?
As far as I'm aware, there hasn't been a directly violent backlash against these women, though they do receive hate emails from strangers, as I do.
The Vatican considers female ordination a serious crime; they issued an order to say that anyone who participates in the ordination of a woman to the priesthood automatically excommunicates themselves. In 2010 the Vatican put the crime of female ordination in the same category as pedophilic crime by priests. However, thousands of Catholic priests accused of abusing children have not been excommunicated.
For the crime of involvement with women priesthood, people employed by the Catholic Church often lose their jobs. Pastoral associates, professors, chaplains, nurses, and even nuns lose pensions, support, and housing issued by any Catholic organization, including schools and hospitals. They are forbidden to receive the sacraments and cannot be buried in a Catholic cemetery with their own families.
Do the women adhere to a code of celibacy like male priests? Or can they have families?
The women priests movement believes that celibacy must be optional for every human being. It can't be forced upon somebody without too often creating psychological and social problems; we have seen this play out already in the Church. Many women in the movement are former nuns, and some have indeed chosen celibacy, but it is a free choice.
Talking with these women about sexuality definitely broke many stereotypes I had in my mind. A former nun and celibate woman talked about the importance of connecting with sexuality and gave me suggestions for how to be more present in my body, and even how to masturbate better.
How do you arrive at your portraits with each sitter?
The curator and critic John Szarkowski wrote, "A portrait is a battle between two wills for the control of the sitter's soul." This idea has been reinforced many times by other colleagues because there's something true about it, but I needed to face portraiture by framing it very differently, as a collaboration. I work to create intimate portraits. I often brought my camera in the bedrooms and kitchens of the women I photographed. I try to understand the person in front of me—I tell her about my photographic intuitions and ask her how she feels about the photos.
As a documentary photographer, I walk this fine line between depicting reality and learning from what I see, and capturing a sudden glimpse of the concepts that I have in my mind. It's a tension between the world of ideas and the real world, a movement between performance and reality.
You yourself are not a practicing Catholic. What is your relationship to the Church? How have the women you've interviewed responded to it?
I grew up Catholic in Italy in the 80s, a crucifix in every classroom. At nine we all received our first Holy Communion: I dressed like a nun, but in white and with a large lily in my hands.
In the Catholic religion I grew up in, being a believer implied being a sinner with guilt. My philosophical and scientific questions not answered by any of the parish priests, at 17 I decided that I hated the Church with its dogmas and rituals for ignorant people, and I also hated the very idea of God. I fostered my spirituality instead through Buddhism and art. The women priests were my way back to the entering a dialogue with Catholicism, my history. None of these women tried to convert me back; they had no labels or boxes for spirituality. Dorothy Shugrue, a fearless Irish woman of 77 years old, told me, "Giulia, put new meanings in the old stories. The old stories are so good." That's what I'm trying to do.
What do you want to achieve with this documentary project?
I want people to address the sexism of society and religion, but showing them new positive possibilities carrying women's values, and show them the possibility of a transformed Church. This is a shared struggle for women across the major religions. I chose specifically to document the Catholic women priests movement because I have a connection to that history, but also because I want to stress the importance of civil and religious disobedience.
Your other projects—A Lesser Geography of the Holy Land and Why the Body of My Father is Divine—also deal with religion, particularly in ways that have to do with the past. Can you talk more about this interest?
We live in a society where obedience is rewarded anywhere: at home, at school, at work, in the army. In my opinion, dialogue with the past is vital, but it must be a critical dialogue, a disobedient dialogue. With every project I undertake, there is a strong connection with the past but also a disregard of the dogmas, the stereotypes and the uniformity of today.
Your 2014 project A Lesser Geography of the Holy Land also touches on a space where modern and traditional ideas about religion have come into—and caused—conflict. How did this project start, and what did you want to achieve with it?
A Lesser Geography of the Holy Land is an ongoing book project, split into chapters: intellect, evil, love, and imagination. There is a psychological space—a kind of lacuna—in those who have firmly believed in God when they were children and then lost that faith, embracing a dichotomy of science and religion, tradition and modernity.
I combined text, stories, drawings, photographs I made with a 4 x 5 large-format camera, and old photographs I found in flea markets. Israel and the West Bank is a geographical space, a site of disputed territories between Palestinians and Israelis, Muslims and Jews, conflicted and unnatural landscapes. The place where these two spaces, psychological and geographical, meet is where this project is birthed.It's the documentation of my coming back to a broader understanding of spirituality.
One photograph from that series strikes me as very different from your other work—the one of the lamb's head surrounded by bright objects. How did that image originate?
I was in Jerusalem in December 2013, visiting many holy places, but honestly I never felt so disconnected to the "transcendent" in my life as I did in these places. I returned to my apartment one evening and decided that I was going to stay in from that moment on, just think and work with objects that I had taken previously from the city—stones, fruit, soil, and even the head of a lamb that the butcher gave me at the old market—and make still lifes.
At that time, I had never seen anybody dead—physical death was scary—and I wanted to investigate it through this dead lamb. Or maybe, even truer, I wanted to experience and express mourning in a way that I never allowed myself. I shut myself in for several days, following the decomposition of the lamb, accompanying it on its journey. Later I did something similar with a shark in Palestine. I only realized later when somebody in New York City told it to me, but I'd been making a kind of altar.