Pope Francis has appointed six women religious as full members of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (Ciclsal), a move welcomed by many after a decade that sometimes witnessed fraught relations between women religious and the Vatican. “We have to admit that things move very slowly in the church,” Sharon Holland, I.H.M., told America, “But this is a piece of really good news.”
While it is not the first appointment of a woman as a full member of a congregation in the Roman Curia—Luzia Premoli, C.M.S., of Brazil was appointed to the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples in 2014—it is significant for a variety of reasons. “It sends the message that Pope Francis is serious about women and that there is a desire to do things better,” said Sister Holland. A former president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, Sister Holland worked at Ciclsal for 21 years.
The appointments signal more than just progress for women’s representation at the Vatican, according to Carol Zinn, S.S.J., the executive director of the L.C.W.R. “We have to think differently about sharing leadership in the church,” she said. The appointments “are much more about honoring what it means to be a member of the Body of Christ and a baptized member of the people of God.”
For that, she says L.C.W.R. is “delighted, thrilled and grateful.”
According to Sister Holland, full members of a congregation act as an advisory body that meets annually or every few years. The women appointed to the congregation by Pope Francis will have full voting power, equal to all cardinals and other clerical members of the congregation, on any documents or decisions made by the congregation. While women have previously worked at Ciclsal in various capacities as undersecretaries, canon lawyers or apostolic visitors, they have not had the same authority or influence as the congregation’s all-male members.
“We have to admit that things move very slowly in the church,” Sharon Holland, I.H.M., told America, “But this is a piece of really good news.”
In an interview with America, Mary Clare Millea, A.S.C.J., said, “When it came to this group of members who really discuss and deal with major issues regarding the church and its relationship to consecrated life, there were just men sitting on this group.”
The pope’s appointments come 10 years after the same congregation began a visitation of women religious in the United States responding to concerns about “the quality of the life.” It also comes after the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith produced a doctrinal assessment of the L.C.W.R. in 2012 that charged it with promoting theologies contrary to Catholic teaching and tasked a group of bishops with overseeing a reform of the conference. Sister Millea was the Vatican-appointed director of the visitation.
These events strained the relationship between the Vatican and U.S. women religious and produced not an insignificant amount of pain. The investigation concluded in 2015 with a joint statement by the L.C.W.R. and the C.D.F. after a “mutually beneficial” dialogue that did not result in significant changes at the conference. While these recent appointments should not be viewed as a corrective to those events, said Sister Zinn, the appointments “say to us that religious life as lived by women has a place at the table in the Vatican.”
“I think this is very important because women are...by far the vast majority of members of religious institutes and other forms of consecrated life,” Sister Millea said.
Most of those who have previously served as members of Ciclsal have been cardinals, bishops or clerical religious. Women may comprise the largest number of consecrated people in the world, but their non-clerical perspective on religious life—one that might benefit all religious, cleric or not, male or female—has been missing from the conversation in Rome, these women religious said. Religious life viewed from just the perspective of priesthood risks being bound up with the privileges and functional duties that come with clerical life, they add.
Women religious, however, live a form of consecrated life that is not clerical in any way—as do non-ordained religious men. They rely only on their vowed life and charism for their identity. “Religious life has in its very nature a very unique role in the church, and it is very different from the institutional or hierarchical church,” said Sister Zinn, adding that it is also different from the clerical role.
“For this dicastery up until this point to only have been directed by clerics...is a bit troubling,” she said. As the church continues conversation and study on the gift of religious life, members of non-clerical religious communities bring insight and perspective that is unique, according to Sister Zinn.
“How can issues about what it means to live religious be brought forward if the people bringing them forward are not living religious life?” Sister Zinn asked. The appointments suggest that decision-making in the church does not need to be tied to ordination and that deeper and broader conversations can be had when both clerics and non-clerics are represented, she said.
“I don’t claim to know how clerical religious live community life, but we know more about how we live it than somebody who doesn’t live the same life. That is nobody’s fault; it’s just the way things are,” said Sister Holland. “Religious women will be able to bring to any documents or decisions that they might have influence on coming out of the dicastery a different point of view or a fuller point of view.”
Aside from signaling a more significant role for women religious in Rome, Sister Zinn believes that the appointments open opportunities to break down barriers at every level of the church. “This is a big step towards inclusion in the body of Christ for the people of God,” Sister Zinn said, adding that the obstacles to shared leadership between man and woman, cleric and lay, hierarchy or religious perpetuate divisions that inhibit a deeper unity in the church. Allowing women religious to share equal status with ordained members of Ciclsal could signal further opportunities for lay leadership in the church, she suggested.
All three sisters are confident that these appointments will have an impact. With “a good number of women’s voice around that table, things are going to be looked at differently,” said Sister Millea.