The Vatican’s interior architecture provides some clues to its customs and political organization. Many Curia departments, such as the powerful Secretariat of State, had almost no women’s restrooms until relatively recently. The situation has changed in recent years. But employees in some areas still have to go through several corridors to find a toilet that has been improvised or built with the change of era. A symptom of what happened inside the Vatican walls: the presence of women has increased about 6% in the last decade in Vatican City and has almost doubled in the dicasteries, according to data from the Holy See.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio proposed in 2013 to increase the number of women in the Church, especially in relevant positions that would point out the direction the institution will take in the coming years. The changes were not huge, but the idea of a certain normality is consolidated. “It’s not good to do this too fast. There is still resistance, and changes in the Church need to be smooth. Here we measure in centuries, not years,” says an official from around the Pope.
The last appointment was that of the nun Raffaella Petrini as the number two of Vatican City, the woman with the highest office in the smallest state in the world. Its role will be organizational and management. It will have a male superior. But it represents another step in the Pope’s reforms in this area, added to the appointment of Charlotte Kreuter-Kirchhof, the new number two from the Economy Council just 20 days ago.
Francis’ first major female appointment was that of the new director of the Vatican Museums. Barbara Jatta became, in December 2016, the first woman to hold this position, replacing the charismatic Antonio Paolucci. The institution she directs is fundamental for the dissemination of culture. But it’s also the main source of revenue for finance, which is in the red. Jatta was so far the only woman who attended Curia meetings, and today she remains the only one who does not have a male superior.
Francisco had also appointed, a few months earlier, the correspondent for Spanish radio Cope Paloma García Ovejero as deputy director of the Vatican Press Office. She resigned a year and a half later, along with then-director Greg Burke, over disagreements over how to manage communication. Afterwards, the Pope also considered appointing a woman responsible for the departments of Economy and Communication, but the decision did not go ahead for several reasons. What actually materialized was the arrival of the Salesian nun Alessandra Smerilli as number two of Integral Human Development Service, which, among other things, promotes projects for refugees. Likewise, the Italian Francesca Di Giovanni assumed as Undersecretary of the Section for Relations with States, the highest position held by a woman in the command room of the Holy See. In the same vein, in August 2020, the Argentine Pope hired the Spanish lawyers Concha Osacar and Eva Castillo, British Ruth Mary Kelly and Leslie Jane Ferrar and German Marija Kolak as members of the Council for the Economy of the Holy See.
The Vatican should set a clear direction for episcopal conferences, as well as for the prevention of sexual and power abuses over women religious — one of the church’s worst and quietest scourges. But its implementation remains irregular in each country. Lucetta Scaraffia, former director of the women’s supplement L’Osservatore Romano Woman, Church, World, he looks to France to celebrate the “few” openings he considers important. “Last appointments are good, but they run the risk of ending up being just a front,” he says. “Women are very dispersed and are few in a male clerical environment. I would say that more substantial reforms are needed, like the one France carried out in the seminars.”
Scaraffia refers to an initiative that will oblige all seminaries to have a female presence when evaluating the suitability of candidates for entry into the institution, as well as giving definitive approval for their entry into the priesthood. An idea already launched by Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation of Bishops. “For a priest or seminarian, the woman represents the danger. In fact, the real danger is men who don’t have a balanced relationship with women. That’s the danger of the priesthood—and what we must radically change,” she said in an interview.
Advances in other countries, such as Germany, are also happening faster. The German Church, in fact, inaugurated a synod last year to study the possible expansion of the Church’s boundaries on issues such as homosexuality and celibacy, as well as the possibility of ordaining women. The Pope accepted that the role of women in the early years of Christianity be studied, through a commission, to determine whether they could become deaconesses. A lower degree than the priesthood. That’s the border.
One of the most important changes came last February, when the Pope first chose a woman as Undersecretary of the Synod of Bishops: French nun Nathalie Becquart. It is an assembly of bishops from different regions of the world that advises the Pontiff and debates on specific doctrinal and pastoral issues. Becquart, born in Fontainebleau (France) in 1969 and consultant to the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops since 2019, is the first woman with the right to vote. But the female sector asks that this right be extended to each of these specific assemblies.
The Spanish Cristina Inogés was just in charge of opening the last Vatican synod dedicated to synodality (how to make decisions in a more collegial way in the Church) at the beginning of October. The theologian believes that “recent changes mark a line of no return”. “Many women are taking on important positions. Petrini’s appointment breaks another glass ceiling, but the women’s presence is more real and substantial since Francisco arrived. There is still a lot to be done, and the great challenge is the pastoral tasks – therein lies the battle. This would mean a restructuring of many Church offices, which this synod addressed. A rethinking of the dioceses themselves. And these are already long-term challenges.” It will be time, then, to reform the interior of the Holy See.
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