More women have been appointed to the Roman Curia. Could this signal new leadership opportunities?

Sister Mary Clare Millea, then superior general of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, speaks on Dec. 16, 2014 at a Vatican press conference for release of the final report of a Vatican-ordered investigation of U.S. communities of women religious. Sister Millea was the Vatican-appointed director of the visitation. At right is Archbishop Jose Rodriguez Carballo, secretary of the Vatican's Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) Sister Mary Clare Millea, then superior general of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, speaks on Dec. 16, 2014 at a Vatican press conference for release of the final report of a Vatican-ordered investigation of U.S. communities of women religious. Sister Millea was the Vatican-appointed director of the visitation. At right is Archbishop Jose Rodriguez Carballo, secretary of the Vatican's Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) 

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.

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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.”

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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.

Nora Bolcon
1 week ago

This is a good thing. However we need to stop pretending that equality must be given slowly to women in our church. It doesn't. Pope Francis has full authority as the high priest of our church to ordain women to priesthood and ordain them as bishops equal to their male counterparts literally today. There is no bishop higher than the pope to invalidate the pope's ordinations of women and there is nothing in scripture or especially the gospels to lead any pope to believe that Christ did not want same exact leadership opportunities - both sacramental and otherwise, be equally offered to both sexes from the start of the Church and ongoing.

In fact, the gospels condemn any person or leader from treating any one person differently than they wish to be treated themselves which equates to condemning treating any person or group of people differently from each other. There are no exceptions for leaders, bishops or women inherent in this command of Christ's. Bishops have not been given the authority to break this command from Christ in regards to their treatment of women called to ordained priesthood - they must treat them the exact same way they wished to be treated by the Bishop who ordained them priests, or they sin. Our ordination bias is sin and it demeans us and all women while we uphold it.

This means that the truth is the Pope has no right or authority to keep women from all same sacraments as men which is the exact opposite of what the hierarchy claims. This is why Pope Francis refuses to dialogue on the topic. He knows there is nothing but misogyny standing in the way of this change and that has always been the case.

So although this is good, as a tiny step, the fact that it is being treated like this is a great way to get non-ordained religious a voice means they want to try and pass off all women in these positions as people who can never represent the ordained section of our church leadership and that gives a negative connotation to this situation. We need to remember that women are still dealing with pay and advancement gaps in the secular world based on these kinds of exclusionary ideals being upheld. We can't tell ourselves it is ok to give the same work and job to women, and not give equal sacramental respect, prestige, pay and opportunities to them as well, and tell ourselves this is any form of justice. It is not Justice but merely a new form of discrimination which will continue the lesser treatment of women if women are not allowed equal sacraments and ordination opportunities as men.

Crystal Watson
1 week ago

The real power in the church belongs to ordained men. As long as ordination is denied to women, these jobs will be only PR mechanisms meant to deflect attention away from equality for women. Do you guys really think this is working?

Mary O'Neill
1 week ago

This is an excellent first step, late in coming. Using the same logic of the fact that women should have a voice in the Congregation for Consecrated Life (since they live it in greater numbers) so should married persons have a voice and vote within the Congregation in the Curia, dealing with Married Life.

Will Nier
6 days 23 hours ago

This is so refreshing. We the Church( through its appointed leadership )are finally allowing the Spirit to do the work of instituting people of leadership in the various offices of the Church so as to continue the mission of Christ to make the kingdom of God more visible in the world. The Kingdom reflects the equality of people and so to must the Church. Hopefully we are moving closer and closer to allowing the fullness of ministry to actually reflect the unity of all people in the Kingdom where there is neither male or female.

J Jones
6 days 20 hours ago

I don't know if this is harbinger of things to come; I have shelved my willingness to expend any energy living in a state of expectancy that the men of the RCC as a collective are willing to pursue just treatment of women. (I was struck by Terrance Klein's fine piece this week bout what makes a good confession: more about what one has NOT done, what one has failed to do. The men of the RCC have a very long laundry list of omissions, and self-propelled justice for women is one of them.)

That said, I think it a much delayed and laudable act of fundamental decency and respect that the tens of thousands of vowed women around the world finally have this voice. These women built and run whole hospital systems and universities and social service agencies and schools and place themselves in war zones and the most destitute corners of the US and the world and teach clerics theology and effectively run a lot of parishes; and yet they have had to submit to the direction and of authority of men who often have none of those experiences, none of those skills, none of the wisdom and insight gained from those lives. I hear this reality sometimes described - by conservative Catholics who have fetishized the submission of women to men - in hushed, reverent tones as humility. Nonsense. It is evidence of the skill, intelligence and commitment of these extraordinary women: they are going to get the work of care and transformation and justice done even if they have to placate the egos of men along the way. They are giving Caesar (the clerical class with its limited expertise*****) his due and then getting on with God's work. It is about time the men of the RCC made a move in the same direction by taking off at least THIS cloak of Caesar.

**** See the wise Dan Horan OFM on these limitations at https://www.ncronline.org/news/opinion/faith-seeking-understanding/bishops-and-priests-need-more-range

Crystal Watson
6 days 19 hours ago

Last night i saw Megan Rapinoe, the captain of the US women's winning soccer team, on Rachel Maddow's show, talking about equality of pay for women, and just equality in general (https://youtu.be/ex76R2BUVao). She is an example of the real world in which women live now, where equality is
long past recognized as right, fair, normal. This church will die if it doesn't get over its misogyny.

Oz Jewel
6 days 17 hours ago

A handful of nuns on an advisory body concerned with a fairly specialised state of life, the cohabitation of single sex consecrated Christians.
Utterly appropriate, no different in kind from a Mother Superior or an Abbess accumulating and sharing issues and experiences within their day-to-day life.

No more power or authority or leadership than a school prefect or a dorm monitor or age old leaders of religious orders, some already acknowledged as Doctors of the Church.
No feminism being manifested here.

Dr.Cajetan Coelho
6 days 15 hours ago

Opportunities to serve come for the deserving. May their tribe increase. God bless.

Dr.Cajetan Coelho
6 days 15 hours ago

Opportunities to serve come for the deserving. May their tribe increase. God bless.

John Chuchman
6 days 13 hours ago

Tokenism

[Explore America’s in-depth coverage of Pope Francis.]

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