Women as full members of Vatican Congregation

Theologians and women religious are praising Pope Francis’ first-of-its-kind appointment of seven women as full members of the Vatican congregation that oversees the world’s Catholic religious orders.

Jul 18, 2019

By Joshua J. McElwee
Theologians and women religious are praising Pope Francis’ first-of-its-kind appointment of seven women as full members of the Vatican congregation that oversees the world’s Catholic religious orders.

They are also expressing hope that the move could portend similar appointments of women at other Vatican congregations, where membership remains exclusively male.

“These new appointments are of great importance in advancing Pope Francis’ concern for the rightful place of women in the Church,” said Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr Sharon Holland, who is also a noted canon lawyer and a former president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

The members of a Vatican congregation are somewhat akin to a board of directors, meeting occasionally to consider the direction of the office’s work or to make high-level decisions. Most congregations have several dozen members, the majority of which are cardinals or archbishops.

Only one other congregation has previously had a female member. Comboni Missionary Sr Luiza Premioli, a Brazilian, was appointed as a member of the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples by Pope Francis in 2014.

The lack of women members of the religious congregation had drawn special scrutiny in recent years, as Vatican statistics estimate that there are about four times as many women in Catholic religious orders compared to men.

The Rome-based umbrella group of Catholic women religious, called the International Union of Superiors General and representing about 450,000 sisters and nuns, is known to have raised the issue.

Sr Carmen Sammut, who stepped down from leadership of UISG earlier this year after serving two terms as its president, said that while the religious congregation had included women religious in some of its deliberations in recent years, it was time for a wider systemic adjustment.

“The system had to change so that women will be named and be there by right,” said Sammut, who leads the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa.

“This is a big step,” she said. “It is important that women are there, for we usually bring what pertains to the daily living of the Gospel, the nearness to the poor and the excluded, our difficulties as women to be fully part of the local Church sometimes.”

“We thus enlarge the reflection and give it a dimension that men alone would not have,” she said. “For me, it is of capital importance, not only for women, but for men and women, that all sit together at the same table of reflection.”

Holland called the appointments to the religious congregation “very useful,” as “women religious know their life better than others can.”

“The appointment of these women as ‘full members’ means that they are equal members, with the right to vote,” she said. “They are not simply auditors or persons consulted.”

Catherine Clifford, a theologian, who has focused her research on the teachings and interpretation of the Second Vatican Council, noted that the women who served as non-voting auditors at the 1962-65 council were denied the opportunity to contribute to the crafting of its decree on the renewal of religious life, Perfectae Caritatis.

“The recent move of Pope Francis represents a new and significant development in that it would give women a deliberative voice in the governing body of the congregation, which until now has been the domain of cardinals, bishops, and the heads of men’s religious orders,” said Clifford.

(This article first appeared on NCRonline.org, the Website of National Catholic Reporter, and is being used with permission)

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