Women chip at Vatican glass ceiling

Although there are still few women working at the highest levels of the Holy See hierarchy, the percentage of women working in Vatican offices has nearly doubled from 11 to 21 per cent since the beginning of John Paul II's pontificate.

According to a Catholic News Service report, the presence of women at the Vatican has increased dramatically over the last 30 years but, with rare exceptions, they have not broken through to the upper levels.

Six months ago Pope Benedict said that, leaving aside the ordained priesthood, women need to "make their own space" in the church and that the hierarchy shouldn't stand in their way.

The Pope expressed satisfaction that women today were "very present in the departments of the Holy See." But he noted one problem: The power to make legally binding decisions in the Roman Curia is linked to holy orders.

That means the top two positions in each Vatican agency are filled by cardinals and bishops.

In a breakthrough in 2004, Salesian Sr Enrica Rosanna was named an undersecretary of the Vatican congregation that deals with religious orders. This is No 3 in the chain of command, and it made her the highest-ranking woman at the Vatican.

However, it failed to settle the question of whether she could exercise the power of governance - traditionally reserved to clerics - in her role.

"I've definitely seen a change," Filomena D'Antoni, who has worked at the Congregation for Eastern Churches for 25 years, told CNS.

"When I came here, there were not only fewer women but they were also more closely monitored, in terms of behaviour, dress and mentality. Today it's much more open and women are more accepted," she said.

Others who work in these offices, however, pointed out that most women are in support staff positions and have little decision-making input.

And there are whole sectors of the Vatican that still have no women: the tribunal system, for example.

The Vatican's diplomatic corps also remains all-male and all-clerical. The thinking is that these men are not only diplomats, but personal representatives of the Pope to the local church and therefore should be ordained.

Among the top curial departments, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments is the only one with no women employees.

The agency with the most significant female presence is the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Travellers, where women make up about half the staff and fill some of the most important positions.

"It's an unusual situation. Probably it was not done by design, but we're happy with the outcome," said Archbishop Agostino Marchetto, secretary of the migrants council.

Strangely, women remain a small minority - about 10 per cent - in the ranks of consultors to Vatican agencies. These are experts around the world who advise the congregations or councils on matters under study, and who generally come to the Vatican once or twice a year for meetings.

Most congregations have between 30 and 40 consultors. But at present, the congregations dealing with doctrine, liturgy, clergy, saints' causes and Eastern churches have no women consultors at all.

Some sources noted that while attention is often given to the men-women ratio at the Vatican another slow but significant shift has occurred in the number of lay employees in the Curia.

Laypeople now represent about 38 percent of employees in major curial agencies, numbering close to 300 people. Fifty years ago, half of the 12 Vatican congregations had no laypeople on their staff; among the handful of laity who did work there at the time, none were women.

Women chip Vatican's glass ceiling with increased numbers, influence (Catholic News Service, 2/3/07)

Vatican needs more women, says Italian professor (CathNews, 20/12/06)
Vatican plea at UN for greater role for women (CathNews, 10/3/04)

5 Mar 2007