Who knew the Vatican had its own women’s soccer team? They just had their first international match on Saturday… but it didn’t go as planned because their opponents included a handful of players who weren’t about to let the Catholic Church’s beliefs about women go unchallenged.
Before the game against FC Mariahilf in Vienna, Austria, three of the players lifted their shirts during the Vatican’s anthem to show painted images of their ovaries and pro-choice messages like “My body, my rules.”
They felt it was a fair protest, especially since both teams gathered beforehand for a prayer service and a “blessing of the pitch.” But the protest — matched by some protesters in the crowd with signs against homophobia — was apparently consequential enough that the Vatican’s players chose not to play at all. The decision genuinely seemed to upset the Austrian players, most of whom didn’t participate in the protest.
The activists also handed out leaflets to journalists attending the match. These stated that the activists did not assent to the Church’s teaching on abortion and same-sex marriage.
“They were not aware that the timing of the action during the playing of the Vatican anthem and in the presence of the Apostolic Nuncio could be detrimental to the idea of sport and ruin many weeks of preparation”, reported the [Austrian broadcaster] ORF.
The pope’s ambassador to Austria, Pedro López Quintana, was in attendance and told about the protest, though the ultimate decision to call off the game was apparently not his.
The Austrian team — not necessarily the protesting players — has since posted an apology of sorts to Facebook (roughly translated below), saying they wished the game would have gone on, while adding that they had nothing to do with organizing the protests:
Despite ambivalent attitudes within the association to the Vatican, we spoke out for the match, because football knows no borders. On the one hand it was about the sporting challenge, on the other hand the close friendly and strengthening cooperation within the association during the preparations for such a big event. We are positive about the founding of a women’s team in the Vatican, but this is only a small sign of equality.
After a field fair in the morning, we greeted our guests friendly. As the hymns sounded, three of our players raised their jerseys and displayed “pro-choice” messages painted on their bellies. They wanted to emphasize women’s right to abortion.
The action of the three players was independently organized and carried out. The club did not plan this action. Afterwards we tried everything from club side to play the game nevertheless. The three players have left the field, it was also demanded that spectators bring along brought banners that speak out against homophobia, decrease. Unfortunately, we could not persuade the Vatican officials at this time to play anymore.
As an association, tolerance, diversity of life forms and peaceful coexistence are important to us, as we have also pointed out with rainbow symbolics. We therefore understand the demands and message of our players, but we find the timing of the implementation inappropriate and therefore understand the excitement. After the disappointing game cancellation some of the spectators have gone through the emotions. It came to ugly, sometimes homophobic statement that have lost nothing on the football field. We dissociate ourselves from these statements and would like to apologize to the persons concerned.
However, we would like to state the following: We see ourselves as FC Mariahilf family: We welcome everyone who likes to play football. Neither age, gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, skin color nor other characteristics are decisive for us, if someone belongs to our association. All of us are connected by football. We are an association characterized by a high degree of social commitment and guided by volunteers.
We sincerely apologize to the Vatican team players and guests from near and far for not having played the game. The game was not intended at any time and we were looking forward to the friendly match as well.
They have nothing to apologize for. This is what every women’s team should be doing when facing the Vatican. Considering the team itself is part of a PR effort to show the Church’s support for women, they should get used to the backlash. Backing a soccer club shouldn’t be an acceptable cover for the way the Church’s policies regarding abortion and birth control actively harm women across the world. As far as protests go, this was nothing. Furthermore, to complain about how an athletic competition turned political is to ignore how sports is often a backdrop for displays of protest.
The best time to challenge the Vatican is when the Vatican is right in front of you. If the soccer team can’t handle women who don’t agree with their dogma, they’re going to have a hard time finding opponents.