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.
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.”