Sr Judith Zoebelein

[24 March is Ada Lovelace Day, an international day of blogging to celebrate the achievements of women in technology and science. Find out more at http://findingada.com/. This post is less polished than I would like it to be, as I am dashing it off at the end of the work day.]

Donna alerted me to Sr Judith Zoebelein, who is Editorial director at Internet Office of the Holy See – i.e., she has oversight for the Vatican’s internet presence. I first visited http://www.vatican.va/ about twelve years ago when I began studying church history, and still find it a useful resource/reference for Catholic doctrine and history. But I never thought much about the underlying technology or who might be maintaining it.

Sr Judith has been responsible for the Vatican’s website since its launch on Christmas Day, 1995. Here are a couple of videos of her from the Lift 2007 conference, speaking on the challenges of virtual and actual community, and e-learning and interviews for the Scoble Show.

As a traditionally-minded Christian, I sometimes encounter misunderstanding (though little overt hostility) in the free software community about Christianity or religion in general, about compatibility between the values of free software and religious allegiance, and about the role of women in traditional religions. The Vatican’s long and constant presence on the Web is a demonstration of the principle that the church does not exist on some other-worldly plane but is part of the wider human community and is not necessarily in conflict with it. The Vatican’s use of free software is consistent with the value for human life and freedom that is at the heart of the Christian message. I will be the first to admit that the churches and religious institutions have often failed badly at spreading this message.

For a large part of the church’s history – and probably still, in some parts of the world – the religious vocation was one of the few options for women to gain an advanced education and exercise professional activity and leadership. While feminism has broadened opportunities for women, in many religious traditions there are still structural barriers to full equality for women in participation and leadership within their religious communities, barriers which are often defended on supposedly unquestionable bases. (I’ll leave this particular discussion for another time or place as this wasn’t meant to be a theological post.) In the Roman Catholic Church, women are barred from ordination, but the religious orders have provided a space for many women to exercise leadership within the church, often providing an alternative voice to the male clerical hierarchy. While the status of women within the Catholic church might look discouraging to feminists both within and outside the church, it is encouraging to see that a woman can have such a powerful influence on the institutional church’s online presence.