Francis and Women: The Construction Site is Open

Author: Gudrun Sailer, Radio Vatican

The Pope wants to bring women into the decision-making processes of the Roman Catholic Church and grant them more security. But how? Francis does not have a building plan. Instead—and this is far better—he is inviting women to present their own ideas for the new construction. That is the conclusion drawn by the Radio Vatican journalist Gudrun Sailer in the introduction to her book, No Church Without Women. The book collects all Pope Francis’s statements on the question of women in church and society and is here translated into English by Dr. Linda Maloney, under the sponsorship of Voices of Faith. The excerpt from the Introduction, which we reprint here, begins in the Vatican itself.

The Catholic Church is the only religious institution in the world that has its own state: Vatican City, or “the Vatican” for short. Here, at the so-called Holy See, the world church with its over one billion believers is led and governed. This work is done not only by the pope, cardinals, bishops, priests, and members of religious orders, but also by laypersons. Among these last, the numbers of women are increasing. Some nineteen percent of Vatican personnel were women in 2013, about 750 in total. What the pope thinks about the role of women applies to these twice over, for they find themselves at the crossroads between church and world. The pope heads the Vatican as an absolute monarch; that is the official form of governance in the world’s smallest country. If Pope Francis is serious about elevating women structurally above a “servant role,” his own state could be a kind of testing ground.

But who are the women in the Vatican? What are their duties? What are their perspectives? And where does the shoe pinch?

There is not a single woman directing a papal department—a congregation, council, or judiciary. A woman as prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is probably an impossibility for the near future, and yet in recent times women in the Vatican have achieved some progress, though there has not been much publicity about it. It has not been a matter of quotas, but in some sense simply of timing. The highest position held by a woman at present is that of undersecretary. As of 2015 there were two such in the Vatican: Sister Nicoletta Spezzati in the Congregation for Religious, and Flaminia Giovanelli in the papal Council for Justice and Peace. The undersecretary is part of the three- or four-part leadership of a papal department and corresponds in rank more or less to an undersecretary or departmental director in a secular government. There is room for advancement in the papal state: Francis aims at a curial reform that would create two super-departments by combining a number of councils, and the Pope could envision women, or a married couple, in higher positions in those—if not at their head, where a cardinal will always be placed. Today and forever.

Women at the Holy See are found primarily in middle- to upper-salaried levels, where a college degree is the norm. They serve as subject specialists, art historians, archivists, but also head papal academies, for example, the Academy of the Social Sciences. Some fifty women are employed in the Secretariat of State, a quarter of the personnel. Half the editors at Radio Vatican are women journalists, while the controls are handled by dozens of technicians, only one of whom is female.

The “stronger sex” is for the most part enlisted for cleaning and other “humble services” in the papal state. That was not always the case. The first woman to hold a paid job in the Vatican began work in 1915. Anna Pezzoli was an assistant in the Floreria Apostolica, the papal furniture store, and we know nothing more of her than those dry facts. Women entered Vatican service in significant numbers only after Vatican Council II (1962–1965). First came the cleaning women (not vowed sisters), then the secretaries (with vows). Historical probes of this kind may help us to give a more correct judgment in the present.

There are three principal reasons why women are not employed in the Vatican: hierarchical (the limitation already mentioned, resulting from their lack of priestly ordination), financial, and traditional (when a position is to be filled at the Holy See, no one thinks of calling a woman). There is no real personnel policy at the Vatican; every unit acts independently in that regard. The head asks around: “do you know anyone?” He approaches a priest, who usually thinks of other priests. Latent misogyny in some curial offices—less in Vatican City itself—may also play a part. But there seem to be signs of a changing mentality, having to do with female presence in the universities and theological faculties. A candidate for the priesthood who sits in a theology seminar taught by a woman, with many women students of similar age, develops a more natural association with women. But the Pope and bishops need to take this changing mentality to heart.

The second reason for the lack of a female presence in the Vatican is money, and applies to laypersons of both genders: in contrast to priests and members of religious orders, laity usually have families and hence are more expensive for their employer, the pope. It is not merely a question of salaries, which for the most part are greater for laity than, for example, for priests in religious communities, but also the very desirable health insurance provided by the Vatican and the added monthly subvention for children and other family members who have no income of their own. The Vatican also has laws benefitting mothers, who receive a six-month holiday surrounding the birth of a child, during which the mother continues at full salary and the Vatican pays for a temporary substitute in her position. Similar leaves for fathers are unfortunately not offered. For the baptism of each newborn, the pope, as a well-wisher and sponsor, donates a handsome sum of money. Pope Francis, otherwise so economical, has almost doubled that, while at the same time silently reducing the jubilee bonus celebrating entry into office that previous popes have bestowed on their employees.

Policies of austerity in times of crisis, which the Vatican is undergoing along with its Italian neighbor at present, have a dampening impact on the employment of laypersons, especially women. Pope Francis placed a temporary halt on new employment, but theoretically the potential for women in the Vatican, below the limit imposed by the requirement of priestly ordination, has by no means been exhausted, because most of the offices in the papal state do not make legally binding decisions; their duties are rather those of advice and administration. This applies, for example, to the museums, library, private archive, radio, publishing house, academies, as well as the papal councils such as those for culture or the media. Only the Swiss Guards and the Vatican constabulary steadily and on principle refuse to offer any opening for women—for lack of space, it is said. One may draw one’s own conclusions.

But why is it a good thing for women to work in the Vatican? Is it simply a matter of equal rights for both sexes—although that was what Jesus wanted—or is there a deeper reason justifying a female presence in the papal state, an inner meaning?

Today women in the Vatican already have a function that goes beyond the description of their position. Because they often have a family life at home, with all its joys and sorrows, small children or dependent parents, voluntary obligations or neighbors who need to be cared for in some way, their very presence reminds their clerical supervisors and colleagues of the normality of their service. Something similar is true of women religious, who are always easy to overlook in the Vatican. In such a strongly priest-dominated field one can easily lose sight of the fact that the Catholic Church is made up of all the baptized. The Vatican and the Holy See do not exist for the maintenance of the clergy, who would become extinct tomorrow if there were no families. The Vatican and the Holy See exist only in service to the church—that is, to all the baptized. And more than half of those are women.

New Things Around About the Vatican

If we widen our perspective from the Vatican as an employer in the sense of formal job relationships we encounter some remarkable recent developments. In 2014 the first female rector of one of the Roman papal universities was appointed, the Italian Franciscan Mary Melone (b. 1964). Pope Francis confirmed the election by the “Antonianum” university, and his doing so produced virtually universal enthusiasm. Sister Mary, as the Rector may now quite rightly be called, very rapidly became the academic expert on the issue of women in the church. She took up the Pope’s suggestion that more attention be given to the theology of woman, and she opened her auditorium to conferences that did not just feature the usual speakers uttering the usual teachings on the complementarity of man and woman.

In general, the Holy See has more and more frequently looked to competent female sources for advice. Thus since 2014 five women theologians, including Sister Prudence Allen, RSM, from the United States; Professor Tracey Rowland from Australia; and Professor Moira Mary McQueen from Canada, have been members of the International Theological Commission; this group of thought leaders, under the umbrella of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is made up of two dozen professors in all. The first two women theologian members were chosen in 2004.

In Francis’s pontificate the Pontifical Council for Culture has developed into the central location for “the woman question.” Its president is the Italian Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, biblical scholar and polymath, author of dozens of books—the intellectual beacon, we might say, among the ranks of those who wear the purple. Ravasi understood that the frustrations and hopes of many believing Catholic women would not endure much more delay.

For the full assembly of the council in February 2015, Ravasi chose the subject of “female cultures,” a starting point with worldwide scope. He thinks that the gender theories that are attempting a new balance in the relationship of the sexes require a considered response from the church, and not one shaped by anxiety. And as a genuine innovation in the Vatican state he established a female advisory board within the Council for Culture. The two dozen or so women—there are to be more—who have been appointed have been asked to cast a critical eye on the work of the council (in which only two among some twenty employees are women: those responsible for protocols and archives) at regular intervals. The Pontifical Council for Culture is primarily concerned with the external contact points of the Roman Catholic Church, such as the dialogues with unbelievers, with science, and with modern social currents. Rector Mary Melone is represented in the women’s advisory board; it also includes a diplomat, a top manager at Google, a prison director, a surgeon, and a number of journalists. Never before have women like these been heard together in the Vatican, and certainly not asked for their advice as a group. Cardinal Ravasi thinks that such a female critical board would be good for the other curial departments as well—though his own wears a cap and bells and can do a lot of things that would not happen elsewhere.

Is the Vatican becoming more female? and is the church as such becoming more open to women? Yes, but more on the edges than in the center. That was always the case, and there is some logic to it: an administrative apparatus (like the Vatican), with the best of wills, is calibrated to continue the past, and it never turns the needle toward reform on its own initiative. For that it needs instruction from above, examples from without, and, in the case of the church, another important factor: time.

On Maundy Thursdays, when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Bergoglio washed the feet of prisoners and poor people, including women as a matter of course. He has done the same as bishop of Rome. The second time he did so, the frowns were less vehement than before. The German Bishops’ Conference has established a mentoring program for women so that more of them may achieve decision-making positions within the church. For: “if the church, in her complete and real dimension, loses women, she risks becoming sterile,” as the Pope warned in his remarks to the Brazilian bishops. It may be that the heads of women’s orders will obtain voting rights in the Roman Synod of Bishops. The heads of male orders, who participated in the 2015 Synod, thought it unjust that their sisters, who also took part, were denied a vote simply because they are women. After all, the ten elected male heads of orders included a lay brother, and he had a vote. Now the male heads of orders throughout the world intend to make application to the Vatican for the horizon to be broadened to include female superiors as well. Those are three examples from outside.

The church does not move with time; it moves in time and alongside the people entrusted to it. And because the church is a mother and no finger-wagging governess, as Francis unceasingly emphasizes, she not only teaches but also learns, by accompanying the people of God, which in the whole of its members is the church. Developments in the course of time give the church signs, and one such sign of the times is made up of the talents, desires, and rights of women. Pope John XXIII wrote that more than fifty years ago. Sometimes renewals come from popes, but more often they come from the “margins.”

The Pope who came from far away has opened any number of construction sites within the church; one of these is the subject of women. He does not have a precise plan, and so Francis will certainly not be able to complete this building work in the time that remains to him. But he has invited the women architects and workers quite publicly to have a look at the site, fiddle with it, pray over it, and offer some proposals. That is more than any pope before him has done.

Gudrun Sailer (b. 1970) is a radio journalist, book author, columnist, and television moderator. A native of Austria, she has worked since 2003 in Rome as editor for Radio Vatican’s German-language broadcast. Francis is thus the third pope to whom Gudrun has listened day after day.