Women are rising to new heights at the Vatican. Could they change the church forever?
When Nathalie Becquart, a member of the Congregation of Xavières, was appointed the first woman undersecretary of the Synod of Bishops, she voiced an observation that made headlines around the world. In a press conference at the Vatican, she told reporters her appointment was evidence that “the patriarchal mindset [of the church] is changing.”
Is it true?
Pope Francis has appointed women to positions of greater authority than any previous pontiff, but the Vatican remains a largely male-dominated space that, because it must be controlled by an ordained bishop, places a definite restriction on the heights to which women can aspire—a limit some have termed a “stained-glass ceiling.”
Under that stained-glass ceiling, though, women are gaining ground. In 2019, 24 percent of employees at the Holy See were women, compared with 17.6 percent in 2010, continuing a gradual increase that began in earnest after the Second Vatican Council.
The women working in the Vatican mostly hold behind-the-scenes positions running the day-to-day operations of the many dicasteries, congregations and secretariats of the Roman Curia and the Vatican City-State. According to the archives of the city-state’s governatorate, the first lay woman to be employed full time at the Vatican was Anna Pezzoli in 1915. Ms. Pezzoli worked for the nuns who ran the Vatican’s tapestry restoration laboratory. Gudrun Sailer, a Vatican Radio journalist who has written about the history of women working in the Vatican, said that although Ms. Pezzoli was the first woman whose employment information was archived, she may have had female predecessors.
According to Ms. Sailer, the first educated women began working in the Vatican’s Apostolic Library in 1929, and the first woman to hold a leadership position was the lay woman Rosemary Goldie, an undersecretary in the Pontifical Council for the Laity, in 1967.
A New Day
More women have also taken on higher-ranking leadership roles in the Vatican in recent years. Whereas in 2009 only three women held such positions, the number was eight out of 80-100 such roles in 2019, including that of deputy foreign minister and deputy head of the Vatican Press Office. The pope told Reuters in 2018 that he had had to “fight” internal resistance in the Vatican when naming the journalist Paloma García-Ovejero deputy head of the press office. Now, according to Ms. Sailer, who has compiled statistics on women in the Vatican, there are six women holding leadership roles, including Sister Nathalie Becquart in the Synod of Bishops. The group also includes Alessandra Smerilli, F.M.A., an economist, who in August was appointed as interim secretary—the second-highest role in a department, akin to a vice president—in the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, becoming the highest-ranking woman in the Roman Curia.
Under the stained-glass ceiling, women are gaining ground. In 2019, 24 percent of employees at the Holy See were women, compared with 17.6 percent in 2010, continuing a gradual increase that began in earnest after Vatican II.
The pope is also appointing women to posts that have previously been held only by men—including the highest-ranking woman in the Vatican City-State’s governatorate, Barbara Jatta, the director of the Vatican Museums. The museums are a major source of income for the Vatican City State, a separate entity from the Roman Curia that contributes to its bottom line. Ms. Jatta shepherded the museums through a tumultuous year in 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic closed the museums for months at a time, causing an 82 percent drop in visitors. The museum pivoted to digital offerings, including publishing seven new virtual tours of the museums and a new video series called “The Secrets of the Vatican Museums.”
In 2020, Pope Francis also appointed six lay women to the previously all-male Council for the Economy, which oversees the financial and administrative structures of the Holy See and the Vatican City State, and appointed the first woman promoter of justice (in American parlance, a prosecutor) in the Vatican’s Court of Appeals.
“A new face, that of the ‘woman’ church, is beginning to appear in sectors of the Holy See, with its traits of closeness, compassion and tenderness, as well as feminine intelligence and intuition,” wrote María Lía Zervino, president of the World Union of Catholic Women’s Organizations, in an email interview with America. According to its website, the group seeks to to “promote the presence, participation and co-responsibility of Catholic women in society and the church.”
Women and Power
Still, Ms. Zervino and other women familiar with Vatican operations believe there is a long way to go before women’s voices are satisfactorily integrated into the central leadership of the church. What is “satisfactory” also remains elusive. The Catholic Church does not ordain women, and many Vatican roles are reserved to members of the clerical state. Therefore statistics on gender parity are of limited help for understanding how much power women hold in the Vatican.
Complicating the situation further is how we understand the way power is wielded in the Vatican. Whereas in other organizations, employees may put themselves forward for promotions, high-ranking Vatican positions are made by appointment, and there has been a longstanding taboo since at least the counter-Reformation against campaigning for higher roles, although this certainly still happens.
When an appointment is made to a Vatican post, the leader appointed is more likely to describe his or her position in terms of service rather than power. This means that discussions of “women’s empowerment” are scant and that creating measurable goals for women’s leadership is unheard of; instead, any goal is usually framed in more abstract terms like “giving women a seat at the table” and “ensuring women’s voices are heard.”
Some women have specific ideas for how to achieve that. Ms. Zervino, for example, would like to see the Vatican institute a “World Observatory on Women” that would bring together scientific research on the issues facing women around the world and help the church respond to those issues more effectively. Lucetta Scaraffia—a feminist journalist who founded a women’s magazine at the Vatican and later resigned from it in protest after she said she was discouraged from publishing an exposé on the sexual abuse of women religious by clergymen—would like to see women appointed cardinals and the heads of women’s religious orders appointed as top advisors to the pope.
Inside the Vatican, though, where women are admittedly less publicly critical of the institutional church, there is a shift underway as well. As more women have taken Vatican positions, longtime employees say they have seen the clerical culture slowly begin to erode. At the same time, women who have begun working with the Vatican recently are putting forward a new perspective on what women bring to the church’s table. Rather than the elusive “feminine genius” that members of the hierarchy have often struggled to describe, they say the gift of women is the perspective they have gained as outsiders.
The Culture of the Vatican
Cristiane Murray, one of the Vatican’s top-ranking women as deputy director of the Press Office of the Holy See, remembers when she started working at Vatican Radio in 1995.
“When I started working here, I was a young woman of 33, and I was very afraid of clericalism; the curial environment scared me,” Ms. Murray said in a recent presentation on the roles of women in the church. There were some women working as translators in the department at the time, but most employees were men. “As incredible as it may seem, I felt that some priests or bishops, elderly or not, were just as afraid of me. Some even avoided looking at me. Today I see how this has changed; I observe the attention and sometimes the admiration that many members of the Curia give to the women who today, thank God, are not lacking in ecclesial spheres.”
“When I started working here, I was a young woman of 33, and I was very afraid of clericalism; the curial environment scared me. As incredible as it may seem, I felt that some priests or bishops, elderly or not, were just as afraid of me....Today I see how this has changed.”
Today, most of the employees in the Vatican press office are women, Ms. Murray said, but that is rare in other departments across the Vatican. The press office is also the only Vatican dicastery with a lay prefect, the top departmental leader. “In 2018, I arrived at the Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops to collaborate in the preparation of the Youth and Amazon synods, and I found as colleagues only male officials. Indeed, a similar environment to that of most of the Vatican dicasteries with which I interact today,” Ms. Murray said in a written interview with America, adding “And we work very well together!”
And as Pope Francis has worked to elevate the roles of synods—that is, meetings of bishops around one issue, like the recent Synod on Amazonia—and make them more inclusive of women and lay people, women who hold top roles in the Vatican see synodality as a promising path toward gender equality. At both of the synod sessions Ms. Murray participated in—the 2018 Synod on Young People, Faith and Vocational Discernment and the 2019 Synod on the Amazon—the attendees’ final document of recommendations to the pope called for a greater recognition of women’s roles in the church.
The Amazon Synod called specifically for women to be included in parish and diocesan councils and in positions of governance (“Final Document of the Amazon Synod,” No. 101) as well as ministry: “It is urgent for the Church in the Amazon to promote and confer ministries for men and women in an equitable manner” (No. 95). The pope’s exhortation after the Synod on Young People also pointed out young women’s desire to see more female role models in the church (“Christ Is Alive,” No. 245).
Pope Francis responded to these calls, in part, by opening the permanent liturgical ministries of lector and acolyte to women. While women have served in these roles for decades, previously only men could be permanently instituted in these roles; that prohibition was rarely enforced in the United States but was more common elsewhere. He also created the similar lay ministry of catechist, which gives official recognition to women catechists, who in areas like the Amazon, which face a severe priest shortage, are often the leaders of their church communities.
Ms. Scaraffia, the journalist who founded the Vatican women’s magazine, criticized the opening of the permanent lector and acolyte ministries to women but welcomed the creation of the catechist role. She sees the permanent institution of women as lectors and acolytes as a way of bringing a ministry women have exercised unofficially for decades under a bishop’s control, thus limiting their freedom. In her view, the ministry of catechist is different because it entails a new and official recognition of women as leaders in parish life. “Always bearing in mind, however, that recognition also entails control,” Ms. Scaraffia added in an email interview with America.
Ms. Scaraffia, like the other women quoted in this story, believes that the ultimate goal of feminists like herself pushing for change in the Vatican is to allow women’s voices to be heard. For her, the goal has proven to have particularly high stakes. With the blessing of Pope Benedict XVI, she founded the magazine Donne Chiesa Mondo (“Women, Church, World”) a monthly insert in the Vatican’s daily newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano. Being under the purview of the official Vatican media operation meant that the magazine could not cover controversial issues like abortion, a restriction with which Ms. Scaraffia was glad to comply.
The ultimate goal of feminists pushing for change in the Vatican is to allow women’s voices to be heard.
But the magazine ruffled some feathers in March 2018 when it published an exposé on the conditions of women religious working in the houses of bishops, cardinals and priests. In a 2019 interview with America’s podcast “Inside the Vatican,” Ms. Scaraffia explained to me that the sisters were in a position of subservience to and dependence on their employers, who usually provided their housing, and were often unpaid. The exploitation they faced, she said, sometimes even included sexual abuse—a detail that, Ms. Scaraffia explained later, she had been told by a senior Vatican official not to report on.
Soon after that interview, Ms. Scaraffia and the entire editorial board of Women, Church, World resigned, citing hostility from new editors at L’Osservatore Romano. The archives containing their seven years of work have been removed from the newspaper’s website.
Ms. Scaraffia is concerned that there is no longer a Vatican-sanctioned space for women to express criticism of the institution. Since her resignation, she said: “The situation of women in the Vatican today seems to me to have worsened. There is no longer any free voice, in exchange for a few places in medium-high positions without the possibility of changing anything or making a critical voice heard.”
“Of course, the presence of women at executive levels in the Vatican is a positive thing, but for now they are always in an overwhelming minority and are women chosen by the hierarchical institution, therefore in the first place obedient and not very critical,” Ms. Scaraffia said. “I think the situation would be different if at the top levels—I am thinking of the small group of cardinals who advise the pope—the leaders of the great world associations of women religious, elected by the religious themselves, were invited. They are almost always courageous and intelligent women, with a deep knowledge of the state of the Catholic Church in the world, who are capable of a critical and new vision.”
“In recent years, although the ecclesiastical institution has not actually changed, the religious have changed a lot,” she added. “Vocations are decreasing dramatically, but those who remain are lucid and combative, no longer the obedient servants of the clergy.” It is particularly important to raise up the voices of women religious, Ms. Scaraffia added, in order to combat the abuse.
“I think that a change in the mortifying condition of women in the church can only happen if women change, if women are fighting for their requests to be heard and granted,” Ms. Scaraffia said. Women cannot wait for the pope to make changes; they need to be proactive. As she said in her 2019 interview with America, “Pope Francis has opened doors to women; it is up to women to pass through them” and to use their new positions to push for better treatment for women.
[Listen to Lucetta Scaraffia's 2019 interview on America's "Inside the Vatican" podcast.]
Within the Vatican, the tone from women in leadership is much less outwardly critical, but most women admit that the church has a long way to go to reach the goal of equality between the sexes. Ms. Murray, the press office deputy, told America that for the last five years, the Donne in Vaticano (“Women in the Vatican”) association has brought together the women working in the Vatican to support one another and increase the visibility of women in the Vatican, while also doing charitable work for women in difficult situations around the world. “The goal of equality is still some way off,” Ms. Murray said, “but unfortunately this is a reality not only in the Vatican, but even in the world’s most advanced countries.”
When asked what she would tell Pope Francis about the situation of women in the Vatican, Ms. Murray said, “I believe I would ask for this: that we be more listened to” and “that there be a greater dialogue of exchange and interaction, at all levels, between men and women.”
The Economics of Change
One area in which Pope Francis has prioritized putting women into leadership roles has been finance and economics, especially in the last year, as the world’s economies floundered because of Covid-19 shutdowns and the pandemic cast wealth disparities into sharp relief. The pope believes that women economists have a unique perspective that gives them the ability to lead the world into a brighter post-pandemic economic future.
In 2020, he named six female economists to the Vatican’s Council for the Economy, which oversees the financial activities of Vatican entities. Seven places on the council are reserved for lay people and eight for clerics. It was the first time any women had been appointed to the council, which the pope formed in 2014 to assist in his ongoing overhaul of the Vatican’s scandal-plagued finances.
“I chose these particular women because of their qualifications but also because I believe women in general are much better administrators than men,” the pope says in his 2020 book Let Us Dream, which presents his vision of a world transformed for the better by the trial of the pandemic.
He mentioned how nations with female heads of state “on the whole reacted better and more quickly than others, making decisions swiftly and communicating them with empathy” and went on to cite the work of two female economists, Dr. Mariana Mazzucato of University College London and Kate Raworth of Oxford University. Pope Francis praised both women’s willingness to go “beyond the polarization of free market capitalism and state socialism” to imagine an economics that—to use Ms. Raworth’s “doughnut” model—keeps the poor from falling into the “hole” of destitution while remaining within the finite limits of what is environmentally sustainable.
Both Ms. Raworth and Dr. Mazzucato have been brought on as consultors to the Vatican’s Covid-19 Commission, which focuses on the church’s humanitarian response to the pandemic, analyzes the ecological elements of the crisis, communicates the Vatican’s view on the way forward and works with other nations to advance international cooperation toward this vision. In August 2021, Pope Francis appointed Alessandra Smerilli, an Italian economist and member of the Salesian Sisters of Don Bosco, as the commission’s interim secretary, making her one of the highest-ranking women in the Vatican.
Ms. Raworth describes herself as a “renegade economist,” pointing out that she teaches in Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute rather than in its economics department. She said that she studied economics hoping to go into public policy but was frustrated “because the issues I cared most about, I felt were at the margins of concern.”
“If you study economics at almost any university in the world, and I’m sorry to say it’s still true, it’s likely that within the first lecture, [the professor will say] ‘Welcome to economics, here is the supply and demand of the market.’ And we start with the market. Why, why do we start with the market? I mean, ‘economics’ comes from ancient Greek: ‘eco’ ‘nomos’: the art of household management. What a beautiful ambition, to aim to manage our planetary home in the interest of all its inhabitants! If that’s economics, I’m in,” Ms. Raworth said.
Pope Francis has been criticized over the years for at times using outdated language to describe women, which he responded to in Let Us Dream, echoing Ms. Raworth’s sentiment. He says that “housewife” or “ama de casa” in Spanish carries the sense of “the art of household management.”
The pope wrote that he believes what sets the women economists he has promoted apart from others is that “theirs is a perspective born of their practical experience of the ‘real’ economy, which they say has opened their eyes to the inadequacy of standard textbook economics. It was often their unpaid or informal work, their experience of maternity or running households in addition to high-level academic work, that made them aware of the flaws in the dominant economic models of the last seventy years.”
When asked her thoughts on this analysis, Ms. Raworth took a moment to ponder the question. She said she was struck by how many of the economists and theorists who had influenced her were women who, for the most part, had “stepped outside the traditional route in academia.” One example she cited is the writer Janine Benyus, who popularized the term “biomimicry,” the idea of studying natural processes and applying them to solve modern-day human problems with the goal of environmental sustainability.
Speaking about the women who inspired her, Ms. Raworth said: “I think many of them are renegades, to be honest. I think they are coming from the outside, taking a different route, and they’re seeing something that the mainstream isn’t seeing.”
Rather than there being some sort of “feminine genius” women are born with, their experience of the world prepares them from an early age to see economics differently.
She said that rather than there being some sort of “feminine genius” women are born with, their experience of the world prepares them from an early age to see economics differently. “[When] you’re a girl growing up, you typically would be expected to imagine yourself becoming a mother one day. And so you imagine yourself maybe having a career and being involved in the world of paid work, but you absolutely are already imagining yourself involved in the world of unpaid work,” Ms. Raworth said. “Women and men may well be equal, but [there] may still be something unique in women’s perspective because they have been excluded or because the house care work is put on them, in the same way that people of all races are equal, but people of color have something that they can see because of their lived experience of racism.”
“Only when we bring in all of these perspectives will we have a fully rounded perspective of economics,” Ms. Raworth continued, “and the beauty of that is no one person can therefore see it all. We need to work in big teams, diverse teams.”
The Central Role of Synodality
Ms. Murray, the Vatican press office deputy, said that collaboration in diverse teams is key to her work in the Vatican. When she first worked at Vatican Radio, there were staff members from 40 different countries. “The whole of the Vatican is multicultural,” she said, adding “This spirit of collaboration has increased a lot over the years, and I don’t think the fact of being a woman or man is influential; it’s just a matter of experience and mutual trust, which is built up over years of hard work.”
Sister Becquart, the undersecretary of the Synod of Bishops, who said her appointment was a sign that the Vatican’s “patriarchal mindset is changing” believes that being a woman in a historically male-dominated institution is influential, particularly in her department, which was set up to represent the world’s bishops.
Drawing on her experience working for the French bishops’ conference for more than a decade and as the first woman consultor to the Synod of Bishops for the Synod on Young People in 2018, Sister Becquart said the bishops she has worked with “really felt that nowadays if you just put the same people among the same people, you have just a part of the view. And so I feel that being appointed there is [intended] to put into the structure of the Synod of Bishops the importance of listening to what we call the sensus fidei of the people.”
Sister Becquart is an expert on synodality, the model of governance advocated at the Second Vatican Council and championed by Pope Francis, in which bishops and lay people speak freely—with parrhesia, or boldness, as Pope Francis often says—about the issues facing their communities and where they believe the Holy Spirit may be calling them, with the goal of making decisions together.
After acknowledging in the first year of his pontificate that the Synod of Bishops was “half baked” in comparison with the model the Second Vatican Council called for, Pope Francis instituted a college of cardinal advisers who he suggested could eventually be elected by the Synod of Bishops and hosted high-profile synods on the family, young people and the Amazon in Rome. He appointed a handful of women, including Sister Becquart, as consultors to the synods on young people and on Amazonia. Now, with her appointment as undersecretary to the Vatican’s standing Synod of Bishops, Sister Becquart will likely be the first women to vote in a synod assembly. The extension of voting rights to more women, which the superiors of several religious orders, as well as some Catholic advocacy groups, have been calling for for years, is now under consideration at the Vatican and, according to Vatican watchers like America’s Gerard O’Connell, could be granted as early as 2023, when the final phase of the global synodal process on synodality takes place in Rome.
Although voting is involved, synodality is not necessarily a process of democratization, as final decisions still rest with the Synod of Bishops and, ultimately, the pope. Pope Francis has at times used his role to reject majority recommendations, like the Synod on the Amazon’s recommendation that married men be allowed to be ordained, because there has not been enough of a consensus on the issue or because opinions are starkly divided.
While pursuing a licentiate in sacred theology at Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry, Sister Becquart wrote her thesis on synodality, which she believes is key to solving the gender disparities in the church. Starting from the point that all people are created equal, “synodality is about getting rid of a pattern of domination, separation, to enter into this system of cooperation and interdependency, interconnectedness between all,” Sister Becquart told America.
“With Vatican II we have rediscovered, we can say, the primacy of the baptismal call. In the very important decree the ‘Constitution on the Church’ (‘Lumen Gentium’), there was a deliberate choice to put the chapter on the people of God, Chapter 2, before the chapter on the hierarchy,” Sister Becquart said. For her, that baptismal call both respects the diversity of vocations that people have and at the same time requires that people of all vocations are able to be heard in the church’s decision-making processes. That vision, she says, has not yet been fully actualized.
Sister Becquart believes that synodality, properly understood, incorporates all voices—including people of other faiths or no faith at all. She advocates for special attention to be paid to young people and those on the margins of society, who have in the past been left out of the church’s central decisions. “During so many years, we had this experience and pattern [that was] rather clerical, and we haven’t finished receiving the fruits of Vatican II,” Sister Becquart said. “It’s a long way to get rid of this patriarchal mindset and to have true equality, reciprocity [and] mutual respect between men and women, but society is changing and [in] the church, through baptism, all the baptized are equal in dignity. Synodality is about how to implement this fundamental equality that doesn’t suppress the diversity of ministry, of roles, the role of pastors and bishops, but how you live that as a service, in the service of the community in which everyone is equal.”