Making Room for Women

When Pope Francis wrote in “The Joy of the Gospel” that “we need to create broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the Church” and that “the presence of women must be guaranteed” also “in the various settings where important decisions are made,” he raised expectations that women would soon be able to make an even more significant contribution to the life of the Catholic Church.

That magisterial text, published on Nov. 24, is the programmatic document of his pontificate. He feels strongly about all he has written there, including the section on women (No. 103). Since then, he has often reaffirmed “the need” to give “a greater role to women in the church,” including in decision-making.

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His words have raised hopes among women, and some impatience. They sparked an interesting, constructive debate at the second annual Voices of Faith meeting of women, held in the Vatican on March 8.

I shall draw on that meeting here as I examine the roles women currently hold in the Vatican and what they might occupy in the future. But before addressing this, I think it is important to emphasize that Francis’ words and thinking extend far beyond the Vatican to include the local churches.

Certainly, if he were to appoint women to decision-making roles in the Vatican, this would be of enormous symbolic significance and could inspire and encourage bishops worldwide to do likewise in their local churches.

Women began working in the Vatican in large numbers only after the Second Vatican Council. Today 762 women work there (20 percent of the workforce), Gudrun Sailer, an Austrian journalist at Vatican Radio, told the Voices of Faith gathering.

The Vatican City State Governorate, which includes the museums, supermarket and post office, employs 371 women. Most of these jobs do not require a university degree.

Another 391 women work for the Holy See (18 percent of the workforce). Forty-one percent of these have university degrees and serve in professional positions (like heads of offices, archivists, historians, journalists). Two are under secretaries, but no woman holds a higher post; the higher positions are reserved for clerics, usually bishops or cardinals.

Sailer, author of two books on women in the Vatican, argues that if women are to access higher positions, changes are needed in canon law and in the prevailing mentality.

Cardinal Reinhard Marx addressed this in his interview with America (2/16). He said: “The de-clericalization of power is very important in the Roman Curia and the administrations of dioceses. We must look at canon law and reflect theologically to see what roles necessarily require priests; and then all the other roles, in the widest sense possible, must be open for lay people, men and women, but especially women. In the administration of the Vatican, it is not necessary that clerics guide all the congregations, councils and departments.”

Pope Francis touched on this subject in his interview with La Nación in December 2014, speaking about reform of the Roman Curia. While the head of a congregation should be a cardinal, he said, it is not necessary for the secretary to be a bishop. If he were to decide that henceforth secretaries do not need to be bishops, this could open the possibility that women and lay men could be appointed to such positions.

Besides a revision of canon law, Sailer believes a change in mentality could open a totally new situation. If Francis took the lead, she said, “We could have 10 or 20 under secretaries or even secretaries in the next two to three years.” She meant women.

Currently both secretary and most under secretary positions in the Roman Curia are filled by clerics; these office holders would have to be reassigned if the posts were opened to women or laymen. That could not happen overnight.

In fact, things are changing, slowly but surely, at the Vatican under the pope’s impetus. The 17-member Council for the Protection of Minors, headed by Cardinal Sean O’Malley, has eight women and nine men. The 30-member International Theological Commission now has five women, the biggest number ever. And one pontifical university has a woman rector for the first time. As Cardinal Marx rightly observed, “Great things begin with small steps.”

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Luis Gutierrez
3 years 7 months ago
I can see that nobody wants to say the "o" word. Too bad, because all the other options are but exercises in window dressing. Sooner or later, we must go from small steps to the one big step that really matters, the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate. It is not that big a deal really, it follows naturally from the Acts 15:28 decision to discontinue male circumcision. The sooner, the better. Patriarchy is dying too fast to allow for a long period of preparation for the funeral.
Martin Eble
3 years 7 months ago
For some reason, four extensive documents and an Apostolic Letter later, some people still labor under the impression that the ordination of women is still on the table. It is not.
ed gleason
3 years 6 months ago
Martin says its not on the table? We all saw the Berlin wall fall in week. In the late 40s and 50s I was taught that communism would last at least century. Opposition to Same sex marriage took five years to fall. In a month or so it will be buried w/o a headstone. The opposition to Ordination of woman is off the table and on the death bed. in the last death stages and my guess is five years for the opposition to fold. "and as the Church always believed"
Martin Eble
3 years 6 months ago
To be accurate, the Church says it is not on the table. And, in passing, I might mention that the Church also opposes same sex “marriage”, and in fact every sexual act outside of marriage. The Berlin Wall was not founded by Christ. No Council or Pontiff stated that communism would last a century. Perhaps you should be forming your beliefs by listening to the Church rather than whatever you are listening to now?
Anne Chapman
3 years 6 months ago
And at one time the church punished someone as a heretic for noticing that the earth is not the center of the universe or even of the solar system. At one time the church taught that democracy is evil. At one time the church taught that religious freedom is evil. At one time the church taught that slavery is "in accord with natural law" and thus, "moral". It is not necessary to list all the teachings of the church's past that have been changed. They were changed for good reasons - they were wrong. Popes are not always right. The "magisterium" is not always right either. A church that seeks "Truth" must be open to seeking truth also.
Anne Chapman
3 years 6 months ago
And at one time the church punished someone as a heretic for noticing that the earth is not the center of the universe or even of the solar system. At one time the church taught that democracy is evil. At one time the church taught that religious freedom is evil. At one time the church taught that slavery is "in accord with natural law" and thus, "moral". It is not necessary to list all the teachings of the church's past that have been changed. They were changed for good reasons - they were wrong. Popes are not always right. The "magisterium" is not always right either. A church that seeks "Truth" must be open to seeking truth also.
Martin Eble
3 years 6 months ago
The Church has never punished someone as a heretic for noticing that the earth is not the center of the universe or even of the solar system. The Church has never taught that democracy is evil. The Church has never taught that religious freedom is evil. The New Testament counsels slaves to be obedient to their masters and masters to be considerate to their slaves. There were some things termed “slavery” in ancient times that were not immoral since not all slavery was chattel slavery as described in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. One cannot list all the teachings of the Church's that have been changed because the Church teachings do not change. Without exception every list that purports to enumerate them either misstates the teaching to “prove” its point, or mistakes something for a teaching which is not. Indeed Popes are not always right, as their teaching office is separate from their person, and we have had popes that were outright pikers. If the Magisterium is not always right, Catholics are in the wrong Church and should go looking for the one that Christ founded and promised “Who hears you, hears Me”. I happen to agree with John Henry Newman and Avery Dulles that the Catholic Church is that Church. I have not encountered a credible alternative. A Church that seeks Truth, no quotation marks, must be the one which transmits the single revelation given by God and His Son without alteration.
James Brady
3 years 6 months ago
Two things that do not change. Human nature and the God. Things that do change. Societies, attitudes, cultures sensibilities. Given the masculine nature of the priesthood as given to us by God, who is unchangeable, it is absurd to assume women could fill a masculine role, properly speaking. Conversely, I never hear of men wanting to be nuns...
G Miller
3 years 6 months ago
St. Augustine is known to have said that "God is ever changing and ever the same." So our understanding of God is more nuanced that you seem to think. Furthermore scripture speaks of "each according to their gifts." Scripture does not say "each according to their gender." Besides how can you say women are not integral to our salvation when you have Mary, the Blessed Mother, be the co-Mediatrix of Grace?? How does Jesus arrive on Earth to fulfill his mission without Mary's "Yes!" to God?? It took both male and female in collaboration for God's plan to work. And why would a man want to be a nun when they, the nuns, are not given the full respect that they are due by the Church? This Church would be nowhere without nuns but that has not earned them a place at the table in making decisions about the direction the Church takes. By not listening to women, the Church, which is the Body of Christ, is only using half its brain and that is an optimistic estimate.
Martin Eble
3 years 6 months ago
God never changes and Augustine believed that He exists outside of time, changeless and eternal.
Carlton Kelley
3 years 7 months ago
Deferring to the pope is not a way to advance the cause of women in the church. While he may enjoy universal and ordinary teaching authority, that less than enviable position does not make what he says correct. In this case, it simply prolongs the unnecessary suffering of many women. How can anyone with any credibility talk about giving authority to women and not give women ordination? Pardon me, but that position simply makes no sense. There is a good deal of very good theology - much done by the Anglican Communion - why women should and must be deacons, priests and bishops.
Martin Eble
3 years 7 months ago
Deferring to the Holy Father on matters of faith an morals is a way to remain Catholic. On those issues what he says, assuming that he says it with the intention of teaching and binding in a context which makes it clear that is what he intends to do, is correct. Women who are no longer "suffering" enter comments on the topic all the time from their positions in one of the constituent Anglican national churches.

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