A woman's place is … not in the Vatican
While Pope Francis says he is in favor of advancing women to leadership roles, he often seems at a loss at how to do so.an City
Jesus and Mary Magdalene (Image: Pixabay)
Each year on July 22, the Catholic Church throughout the world celebrates the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene, "the first witness of the Lord's resurrection and the first evangelist".
But celebrating the woman known as the "Apostle of Apostles" with the exalted rank of "feast" is a very recent development. In fact, it dates only to 2016. That's when Pope Francis decreed that her liturgical commemoration would be elevated from being a mere "memorial".
The Magdalene is currently the only woman, besides the Blessed Virgin Mary, to be accorded a proper feast day — something reserved to the apostles, evangelists and a just a few others.
This may sound insignificant or trivial. But Catholics have always taken seriously the rule lex orandi lex credendi; basically, that our worship mirrors what we believe. And the Church has honored this by ranking the liturgical celebrations according to their importance.
The most highly ranked are solemnities. Then come feasts. And, finally, there are memorials, many of which are optional. So the pope has given new and official prominence to Mary Magdalene, and all women, in the Church.
At least that was his intention with the 2016 decree.
Advancing the role of women in the Church
Pope Francis gets mixed reviews when it comes to his efforts (or lack thereof) to promote women, especially to key posts inside the Vatican.
He often speaks a good game, but his critics charge him with failing to deliver. In September 2014, he raised the hopes of many when he appointed a woman — Comboni Missionary Sister Luiza Premioli, a Brazilian — as a full member of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.
This was a big deal and, it seems, a historical first. Up until then, "members" of Roman congregations — who constituted something akin to a board of directors — were always men: cardinals, bishops and sometimes heads of male religious orders.
But months and years went by and hopes evaporated that the appointment of Sister Luiza was the beginning of a trend. In fact, she remained the first and only woman to be a member of a top Vatican office. The move was seen as a one-off.
Moving the ball, inch by inch
Then this past July 8, almost five years later, Francis caused somewhat of a stir when he named seven women to be among the 23 people newly appointed as full members of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. Six of these women are superiors general of religious orders, while the seventh heads a secular institute.
Suddenly, the pope had got the ball rolling again. But, surprisingly, it has been traditionalist Catholics — rather than those who describe themselves as reformist or more progressive — who have interpreted this as a major breakthrough for advancing women to decision-making and governance roles inside the Church.
To say the traditionalists are not happy with this development is an understatement. They are outright alarmed. Especially because the move comes as the pope contemplates the final touches he will put to a draft document to reform the Roman Curia.
"What was an exception then [note: the 2014 appointment of Sister Luiza] is now becoming the rule," wrote Sandro Magister, an Italian who has long covered the Vatican beat.
"And it is to be expected that other similar appointments of women will follow in droves," he said.
Droves? Well, that would certainly delight many Catholics.
But is that really likely to happen? Certainly, the signals that are coming from Vatican in this anxious period before the final reform of the Roman Curia is signed, sealed and delivered are, at best, mixed and contradictory.
Setbacks and mixed messages
Just 10 days after the appointment of the seven women as members of the Roman congregation that deals with religious orders, the Vatican announced the appointment of the new, full-time director of the Holy See Press Office.
He's Matteo Bruni, a 42-year-old member of the Sant'Egidio Community who has been working at the press office the past several years.
At the same time it announced the selection of two deputies to assist Andrea Tornielli, editorial director for the Vatican's media operations, officially named the Dicastery for Communication (sic.).
One of the new deputies is Alessandro Gisotti, 45, who has done a stellar job the past six months as the temporary director of the press office. The other is Sergio Centofanti, 59, an employee of Vatican Radio since 1986.
The three newly appointed officials are all men. And all are Italians, although Bruni was born and lived briefly in Britain before being raised in Rome.
Men still in charge of crafting the message
Mary Magdalene — a woman — may have been the first person to announce the resurrection, but at the Vatican the men are still controlling the message.
Those who follow the happenings at Pope World on the Tiber had expected Bruni's appointment to be announced in these days. But there was also the expectation that a woman would be named as his deputy (vice-director of the press office).
But that post, which was vacated on Jan. 31 with the abrupt resignations of the former male director and his female deputy (Greg Burke and Paloma Garcia), remains unfilled.
At least three women have been asked to take the position. Two of them, one an Italian and the other a Latin American, have refused for various reasons. It is said that the third, a Brazilian who has worked at the Vatican for many years, failed to receive approval from the Secretariat of State.
The message and the optics this sends regarding women are not good.
And if you look at the roster of who's in charge at the Vatican's communications department it is even more disastrous.
There are 12 "superiors", with varying tasks, in the dicastery. Only 11 of these posts are filled at the moment (there is no press office deputy director). Men occupy 10 of them — nine are Italians and one is Argentinian. A Slovenian lay theologian is the only woman in the top brass.
Women are no better represented among the 17 full-time members (or board of directors) of this dicastery. There are only two of them. The rest consist of 14 cardinals and bishops and one layman.
As for the Vatican's newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, which is principally an Italian publication with weekly editions in six other languages, the editor-in-chief and his deputy are both men. There are 31 people listed among the staff of the paper's various departments and offices. Only three of them are women.
However, there is also a monthly Italian magazine on women's issues. Its staff and body of directors are all women, but it is a relatively small group.
So, at least in the communications department, people can rightly wonder how serious the pope is about advancing the role of women at the Vatican.
It cannot be emphasized enough, however, that Pope Francis does not normally effect abrupt and radical upheavals. Rather, he prefers to begin processes that will lead to gradual — and irreversible — changes. He likes to carefully lay the groundwork over time, which can be extremely frustrating for impatient people or those who are bent on seeking justice here and now.
But Rome was not built in a day and popes who try to change things too quickly can find themselves isolated, their directives ignored or obstructed, and their very health and welfare in danger!
Francis knows this. So he is carefully picking his battles. And while he keeps saying he's in favor of advancing women to leadership and decision-making roles within the Vatican and the entire Church, he often seems at a loss at how to do so.
Perhaps he's banking on getting more guidance and a bit of special intercession from two of the women he admires most — Our Lady, Untier of Knots, and St. Mary Magdalene. It certainly wouldn't hurt.