Once a rare sight in the Vatican’s halls of power, women are increasingly being seen in senior posts under Pope Francis, but the gender battle is far from won.
The centuries-old institution has an inherently patriarchal image, from the Swiss Guards at the gates to the cardinals seated in St Peter’s Square.
It reflects the wider Roman Catholic Church, which outlaws the ordination of women.
Photo: AFP / VATICAN MEDIA
Yet the pontiff’s push for reform has seen more women given roles in administrating the Vatican — even if they are mainly behind the scenes.
From economists to secretaries, historians and archivists, 649 women worked in 2019 for the Roman Curia — 24 percent of employees — compared with 385 in 2010, the latest available data showed.
While the shift within the state is hailed in public, about 10 women interviewed on condition of anonymity described facing resistance and condescension.
One denounced “a glass ceiling and a generally paternalistic attitude in the corridors,” with a backward-looking vision of “the sensitive, gentle woman, which we find in the pope’s speeches.”
“We sometimes feel they consider us as interns. There are little gestures, a hand on the shoulder, a lack of consideration, almost daily remarks about appearance and dress,” she said.
Some described feeling subject to an implicit order for female employees to be silent and docile. Others expressed frustration at being relegated to lesser roles.
“There is still a long way to go,” one woman said.
In 2016, the Women in the Vatican association was created, a network of about 100 members that meet every month “to enhance the role of women,” association president Margherita Romanelli told reporters.
It followed the creation just four years earlier of a monthly women’s supplement by L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s official newspaper.
The surprise initiative was lauded by many, but quickly ran into trouble.
Its founder, Lucetta Scaraffia, a journalist and historian, resigned in 2019, denouncing a “climate of mistrust.”
Francis’ reforms were essentially “cosmetic” and actually concealed a “macho mentality” that implied that “women must serve without asking anything in return,” she told reporters.
Scaraffia pointed to the “modern slavery” of nuns employed in the Vatican and elsewhere as “servants” in the homes of priests, bishops or cardinals, doing the “cooking, cleaning, clothes washing” while being “underpaid.”
And she said that there was sexual abuse of nuns in Rome and elsewhere in the world.
Despite these criticisms, many welcome the acceleration of a process begun about 20 years ago. The number of women in positions of responsibility at the Vatican has tripled since the election of Francis 10 years ago, from Vatican Museums director Barbara Jatta to Alessandra Smerilli, the first woman to be appointed the equivalent of a deputy minister.
“The Vatican is late, but women have a voice today. They don’t let themselves be pushed around anymore,” one female official said.
Protestant churches took the lead in propelling women to the top of their ranks and some theologians, such as Anne-Marie Pelletier of France, say the pope must now grasp the opportunity to move faster and more decisively.
The ordination of women as deacons or even cardinals “would be a strong symbolic gesture to erase these stereotypes,” Pelletier said.
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