Pope Francis appointed Franciscan Sister of the Eucharist Raffaella Petrini as the new secretary general of the Governorate of Vatican City State in early November.
She is the first woman to hold this position, and her appointment follows that of Salesian Sr. Alessandra Smerilli as interim secretary of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development and Xavierian Sr. Nathalie Becquart as under-secretary of the Synod of Bishops. The appointment of Becquart will give her unprecedented voting rights previously reserved to bishops.
The history of women’s roles in Catholic Christianity over the centuries is marked by considerable complexity.
Some scholars have argued that Jesus himself upgraded the status of women beyond what the Judaisms of his time would accept.
Certainly, Jesus honored the role of women during his active ministry. But whether he can be termed a “liberator of women” as some have called him is disputed, even by some Catholic feminist scholars.
The elevation of Mary of Nazareth to a special place in the Catholic tradition clearly is a sign of a certain appreciation of women’s place in Catholicism.
Also, there certainly have been women, some even named saints, who had significant influence on Catholic theology and spirituality, and who played leadership roles in monastic communities.
There is even evidence of Jesus being cast as a woman in some Catholic spiritual traditions.
One can also point to the significant contribution of Catholic religious women who maintained the expansive Catholic school system in many parts of the world, including the United States and Canada. Without doubt, they had a formative influence on generations of Catholic students.
Some lay women, such as Dorothy Day, have made significant contributions in the areas of spirituality, international peace and racism.
Overall, however, Catholicism has remained a religious community dominated by men, especially at the level of institutional leadership. This has led on occasion to disastrous consequences.
For one, the earth was often portrayed in feminist language. This allowed male-dominated leadership to practice destructive domination over our planet in imitation of their ideology of male domination of women.
And religious women in the United States and Canada were pressured to oversee programs devised by male leaders in civil society, which attempted to destroy the culture and distinctive identity of Indigenous children.
Like many other areas of Catholic life, the role of women was significantly affected by perspectives that emerged at and around the Second Vatican Council.
While the Council did not issue any specific document on the role of women, its emphasis on human dignity as a core component of Catholic teaching opened up discussions about women’s roles.
Efforts were launched to enhance the role of women throughout the Catholic community, including its international, national and local structures – particularly in positions that did not require priestly ordination.
One area that received considerable attention soon after the Council, which concluded in October 1965, was the possibility of women’s ordination to the priesthood. Many articles both by male and female authors urged the opening of full ordination to women.
Certainly the rapid growth of women’s ordination, even to the level of the episcopacy, within certain Protestant denominations exercised some influence on Catholic discussions on the issue given Vatican II’s strong emphasis on ecumenism.
I myself authored one of the first articles on this topic in an essay titled “Let’s Ordain Women” published in the major Catholic magazine U.S. Catholic.
This push to open up priesthood led to the creation of a formal organization called the Women’s Ordination Conference. That organization persists until today.
During the papacy of Pope Paul VI, there existed considerable openness for discussion of women’s ordination on the part of the Vatican. However, during the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict VI, severe restrictions on discussion of women’s ordination were imposed.
So, this discussion was pushed to the fringes of the church until the tenure of Pope Francis when a more upfront discussion has re-emerged, even though no changes to Catholic policy have been made.
There has also been an ongoing effort to bring women into the ordained diaconate. This movement, led by female theologians such as Phyllis Zagano, has had a somewhat more positive reception within Catholic institutional circles.
Pope Francis actually appointed a commission to study the question. Unfortunately, the commission’s report did not attain any clear-cut consensus in the eyes of Pope Francis.
So, thus far he has taken no action on the issue of diaconate ordination for women.
Nonetheless, the group associated with the effort is continuing to pursue a positive resolution of the matter, and Pope Francis has seemingly not closed the door on further discussion of the diaconate for women.
The discussion of women’s official role in Catholicism has been affected by two emerging perspectives in the papacy of Pope Francis.
The first is his declericalization of the church.
Many of the women who support the movement for greater female Catholic liturgical leadership do not wish to embrace a notion of priesthood often marked by a spirit of superiority and dominance.
So, their interest in the approval of priesthood for women is contingent upon Pope Francis’ effort to eliminate clericalism. They want no part of the style of male clerical approach to priesthood that has pervaded Catholic Christianity for centuries.
The second influential development under Pope Francis has been his promotion of a new organizational model for Catholicism called “synodality.”
While its premises still require clarification and further reflection, it has clearly emerged as a centerpiece of the papal vision for the future of the Catholic church.
Pope Francis recently launched a multi-year global process within Catholicism to further its meaning.
A formal Roman synod of bishops will convene in Rome in October 2023 to move along this significant restructuring of Catholic governance based on the information gathered from the global inquiry.
If synodality takes hold, it surely will bring about an enlarged role both for women and men in ecclesial decision-making in Catholicism.
Finally, mention should be made of a failed attempt to enhance women’s roles.
Some years ago, in the glow of widely discussed pastoral letters on peace and economic justice by the American Catholic bishops, there was an attempt to develop a similar pastoral letter on women. But the text could never attain a consensus, and the effort was dropped.
In the coming years, I foresee slow but important progress towards gender equity in Catholicism. This will come through the appointment of women to head programs and governance offices at the Vatican and diocesan levels.
I see little chance for any immediate change of policy regarding ordination, even to the diaconate.
Many women will rightly find that frustrating. But others will remain content with a gradual and, perhaps, even with a continuing prohibition on the ordination of women in the church.
The latter option, I fear, will continue to deprive Catholicism of the invaluable talent and commitment of numerous outstanding women.
Professor Emeritus of Social Ethics at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. He has served as President of the International Council of Christians & Jews and its Abrahamic Forum as well on the board of the Parliament of the World’s Religions.