Pope Francis’ small steps to promote women at the Vatican

The news came on August 26 during a hot and lazy day at the tail end of the Roman summer holiday period. But it did not go unnoticed.

Sep 11, 2021

Sr Alessandra Smerilli recently named secretary ad interim of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development on Aug 26, 2021. (Vatican Media)

By Loup Besmond de Senneville

The news came on August 26 during a hot and lazy day at the tail end of the Roman summer holiday period. But it did not go unnoticed.

Pope Francis had just appointed Alessandra Smerilli, a 46-year-old economist and religious sister, to be secretary ad interim of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.

In Vatican jargon that makes her the "Number 2" official in a mega-office headed by Cardinal Peter Turkson.

The dicastery deals with some of the issues that are dearest to the pope -- migrants, charity, the economy and ecology.

What makes Smerilli's promotion so striking is that it's a first. Never before has a woman been secretary of a dicastery within the Roman Curia.

Some see it as another step towards finally breaking the Vatican's glass ceiling and allowing women to take their rightful place in the Church's upper echelon.

But others say it's little more than a public relations move.

A wave of female appointments
To be clear, Sister Smerilli is not the first woman to be chosen for a top position of responsibility in the Vatican.

Nathalie Becquart, a French Xaverian sister, was named an under-secretary of the Secretariat for the Synod of Bishops last February.

But there were also other women before her.

Italian diplomat Francesca Di Giovanni was put in charge of multilateral relations at the Secretariat of States at the beginning of 2020.

Sister Carmen Ros Nortes was made under-secretary at the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life in 2018.

And a year before that the pope appointed two laywomen -- Gabriella Gambino and Linda Ghisoni -- as under-secretaries of the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life.

In all, Francis has put six women in positions of high responsibility that were previously reserved for priests or bishops.

Not everyone is impressed, however.

Lucetta Scaraffia, an Italian journalist and committed feminist who once worked for L'Osservatore Romano, compared them to "cosmetic procedures".

"There is no change whatsoever in the way the Vatican considers women," she said.

"As proof of this, look at the abuse committed against nuns, which has never been taken seriously, even though there are many testimonies," she argued.

"This may seem remote, but for me it is proof that the Church does not give any weight to the word of women."

"Do not underestimate the lack of support the pope faces"
Others take a less harsh view.

Bénédicte Lutaud, a French journalist who wrote a book on the popes and women, said one needs to "place these appointments in a broader context".

"The pope is breaking down barriers one by one, little by little, giving a place to women in other areas, such as liturgy or theology," she pointed out.

In fact, Francis has re-opened reflection on female diaconate, and he recently decreed that women could be permanently instituted as lectors and acolytes, which had technically been reserved for men.

"Obviously, on paper, he could have gone further. But do not underestimate the lack of support he faces," Lutaud noted.

And that is not only from people inside the Vatican.

"After Sister Smerilli's appointment, you can't imagine the number of messages I received from priests who asked me what the pope was doing," said a non-European woman who works in the Roman Curia.

"Francis knows that he is being watched by Catholic leaders around the world. What he is doing here is sending them a clear message," she said.

The movement to introduce more women into leadership posts also goes hand in hand with the professionalization of the Curia, something that has been underway for several years.

Benedict XVI began the process and Francis has accelerated it.

In fact, the six high-level officials the Jesuit pope has appointed were all chosen for their competence in their specific fields -- economics, diplomacy, theology and the family.

More and more lay people being promoted
This feminization of the Roman Curia is taking place alongside another phenomenon -- promoting more and more lay people to positions of responsibility.

"The real glass ceiling was the access of a lay person to the direction of a dicastery," said one Vatican source.

"In fact, the whole thrust of Pope Francis is to disconnect responsibility from ordination," the person noted.

This works in favor of the laity, both women and men.

The appointment in July 2018 of Italian journalist Paolo Ruffini as prefect of the Dicastery for Communication broke the first barrier.

"Is it easier to be a lay man or a lay woman in the Vatican? Frankly, I don't know," one employee said.

"Between a male director and a female director, the male director has more weight. Further, some prelates do not accept the presence of women," said another person who works in the Vatican.

In fact, the feminization of the Roman Curia goes well beyond the superiors and executives.

For example, according to the association Donne in Vaticano (Women in the Vatican), women make up 22% of the Vatican's employees. Numerically, that means about a thousand of the pope's 4,500 employees.

"There are many more female assistants than female superiors or office managers," admitted one careful observer.

Slowly but surely
Despite everything, opening up to women seems to be taking place slowly but surely.

"Our place has clearly become more normalized, whereas 20 years ago being a woman was a handicap," said Romilda Ferrauto, a consultant to the Holy See Press Office and a co-founder of Donne in Vaticano.

"I can see it in the eyes of the people I speak with," she said.

Ferrauto spent 25 years as head of the French news section at Vatican Radio.

"At the beginning of my career, when I met a prelate, he thought I was an assistant. When I had an appointment in a dicastery, I could see that they wondered what I was doing there. They made me feel that I didn't belong," she recalled.

But she said that, now, that feeling has "almost disappeared".

Among women who work in the Roman Curia or in various levels of the hierarchy who were interviewed for this article, many said they were certain the movement the pope has initiated is irreversible.

"These are very small steps, patience is needed, but it is underway," said one.

"I don't see how we can go back," said another.

"Young priests and bishops are more open than their elders. And the abuse crisis also reinforces the idea that the clergy won't make it out on their own."--LCI

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