Last year I spent about six months writing a feature story and an accompanying podcast episode for America on how women rise to leadership positions in the Vatican. It’s one of my favorite subjects: in 2019, when I traveled to Rome to report on the historic Vatican summit on the prevention of sexual abuse, I took the time to interview Lucetta Scaraffia, the incendiary historian and journalist who founded Women Church World, the Vatican women’s association. magazine, and who, just weeks after our interview, resigned from her post – along with the entire editorial board – in protest at alleged censorship.
The stories Mrs Scaraffia told me, both then and in an interview last year, were disturbing: she described nuns who moved to Rome from distant lands and were forced to work in the houses of bishops and cardinals with little or no pay; in some cases they were sexually abused. Ms Scaraffia said when she tried to report about it, a senior Vatican official told her not to publish the story. She therefore resigned and her reporting was removed from the Vatican website.
I’ve often said that as a Catholic feminist covering the Vatican, I can’t wait for it to be more newsworthy when women take on bigger leadership roles in the church, but it’s strictly.
What allegedly happened to these women exemplifies the most heinous ends of the Church’s age-old clericalist culture, the result of centuries of sexism that obliterated Saint Mary Magdalene’s role in three of the four gospels as the first messenger. of the Resurrection and made proclaiming the Gospel at Mass a right exclusively reserved for men. It is a culture that has been slowly shaken by mystical women like Teresa of Ávila, who said to the women of her reformed Carmelite communities in the face of the Inquisition: “Since the judges of the world are sons of Adam and all of men, there is no virtue in women whom they do not regard as suspect.
[Read next: Lucetta Scaraffia on Women in the College of Cardinals]
In recent years, reforms that recognize the power of women to evangelize, lead communities and even govern church offices have accelerated. Only a hundred years ago, the first lay woman was employed in the Vatican; this week, the new Constitution of the Roman Curia declared that “any faithful member may preside over a department or an organ, taking into account his competence, power, governance or function”, which has been widely interpreted as meaning that a woman could head any Vatican office, except perhaps the Dicasteries for Clergy and Bishops. Previously, many important roles of prefect and secretary were reserved for priests or cardinals; the new constitution has no such limitations. Clarifying the document at a press conference at the Vatican on March 21, one of its editors said that “the power to govern in the Church does not come from the sacrament of [Holy] Orders” but from a mission given by the pope.
It remains to be seen, of course, how this plays out and who is actually appointed to these positions. At present, only the Communications Dicastery is headed by a layman – a man – and the pope said he had to ‘fight’ resistance from other Vatican officials in order to appoint a woman instead of number 2 of the department. There will undoubtedly be resistance to women filling these roles in a Vatican still rooted in a clericalist culture.
It is also possible that if women are allowed to hold higher administrative positions, church leaders will be quicker to dismiss advocates of women’s ordination to the priesthood or diaconate. But these Vatican appointments will not eradicate the sexism that shapes many people’s primary experience of the Church: the liturgy. Although Pope Francis has opened new lay liturgical ministries to women, women are still not allowed to proclaim the Gospel at Mass, except in the absence of a priest, and cannot give homilies. Instead, women are relegated to offering reflections at other times, such as after Communion, if their priest allows them to preach. This is all based on the problematic theology, as Phyllis Zagano pointed out, that a woman cannot “image” Christ.
I’ve often said that as a Catholic feminist covering the Vatican, I can’t wait for it to be more newsworthy when women take on bigger leadership roles in the church, but it’s strictly. But as I learned more about the history of the church and the Vatican, my perspective changed: after centuries of sexism in the church, any woman breaking a stained-glass ceiling will be a story worth telling, lest we forget what we were up against.