Is a ‘springtime’ of leadership blooming for women in the Vatican?

By Elise Harris.- With more opportunities opening for women to take leadership roles in Vatican councils and congregations, women are filling the ranks of the Roman Curia on a historically unprecedented level.

“I think we are at a point of seeing (a different model)…a springtime for new forms of leadership…in the Church,” Cardinal Peter Turkson said April 14.

Cardinal Turkson, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, was speaking to participants of an April 14 conference held at Rome's Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas.


He referenced numerous changes being made in the ongoing reform of the Church and the Roman Curia, noting that the process has led to the opening of new doors for both women and laypersons to take up roles of leadership that have never before been open to them in the Vatican's governing body.

The cardinal pointed out several recent examples of women serving in positions that until now have only been filled by men.


In 2012 Flaminia Giovanelli was appointed as the undersecretary for his council, the cardinal recalled, making her the highest ranking laywoman in the Roman Curia and the first laywoman to hold the position of undersecretary.


Before Giovanelli's appointment under Benedict XVI, only one other woman, Sr. Enrica Rosanna, had ever held the position. A religious of Maria Auxiliatrix, Sr. Enrica served as undersecretary of the Congregation for Consecrated Life and Society of Apostolic Life from 2004-2011.

Broken up into different dicasteries, the Roman Curia serves as the Vatican's governing body, and is composed of nine congregations, 11 councils, three tribunals, the Secretariat of State and three offices dedicated to organizing different areas of the Holy See – including the secretariat for the economy.


Each Vatican congregation is headed by a cardinal prefect, while presidents of the pontifical councils can be chaired by either a cardinal or archbishop, but never anyone below that rank.

Under the cardinals and archbishops of the dicasteries fall the ordinary of the dicastery, the secretary, a group of consulters, the undersecretary, the congress and finally the heads of specific offices and their officials.

Cardinal Turkson revealed that his council is currently looking for a new secretary after the former was reassigned. He recalled that in a conversation with Pope Francis, the pontiff gave the green light for the position to be filled by a woman.

The cardinal made a point to emphasize that while the role of women is increasing in the life of the Church, it's a process that “takes time.”

Pope Francis has been outspoken on the topic of women, calling for a more “incisive” feminine presence in the Church. Cardinal Turkson noted that previous popes have done the same, and pointed to Saint John XXIII as one of the first popes to draw attention to the advancement of women in his revolutionary encyclical “Pacem in Terris.”

John XIII devoted an entire paragraph to “the growing participation of women in public and political life, consistent with 'awareness of their natural dignity,'” he said.

“Far from being content with a purely passive role or allowing themselves to be regarded as a kind of instrument, they are demanding both in domestic and in public life the rights and duties which belong to them as human persons,” the cardinal said, quoting the encyclical.

St. John Paul II was also vocal on the importance, and specifically the dignity of women. He placed a strong emphasis on the “feminine genius,” and in the late 1990s shocked participants in a conference on “Women's Health and Human Rights” by declaring to listeners that “I am the feminist Pope.”

In 1988 John Paul II published the first papal letter dedicated entirely to the topic of women entitled “Mulieris Dignitatem.” The document became the basis for the Pope’s reflections on the role of women in society and in the Church.

Pope Francis has continued the work of his predecessors in calling for an increased presence of women in the life and governance of the Church.

Along with his council of nine cardinals selected and assist him in matters of Church governance and reform, Francis has begun to open new doors not just for women, but also laypersons in general, by allowing more spaces for their leadership on Vatican councils.

Cardinal Turkson noted that another topic on the table for discussion for the Council of Cardinals is the possible merge of the Pontifical Council for the Family and the Pontifical Council for the Laity.

When looking at possible heads for such a council, for Pope Francis “the Council for Laity can be managed by a parent, a man and his wife, and the Council for the Family can be taken care of by a similar group,” the cardinal explained.

Pope Francis has also made a point to include more women in his recent appointments to the Pontifical Theological Commission, including Sr. Prudence Allen, R.S.M., who has authored the multi-volume work “The Concept of Woman,” Moira McQueen of Canada, Sr. Alenka Arko, Loyola Community, from Russia and Marianne Schlosser of Austria.

The International Theological Commission is an advisory body which assists the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in examining questions of doctrine, and members are nominated for five-year terms. Women now make up 16 percent of the commission’s members.

Cardinal Turkson also responded to a question posed on how to embolden women in the conference’s theme, “Women’s Leadership in Conflict Resolution: Faith Perspectives.”

In his response, the cardinal noted one woman on his council is currently serving as a representative of the Holy See in Qatar, and that she had formerly been a representative in Strasberg, as well as a consultant at U.N. in Geneva on human rights issues.

Held at Rome’s Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, the event was organized by the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See, the Russell Berrie Foundation and the John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue.

In addition to Cardinal Turkson, other speakers and panelists included U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Kenneth Hackett, Jewish Philosophy professor Irene Kajon, Secretary General of the Italian Islamic Religious Community Dr. Ilham Allan Chiara Ferrero and Donna Orsuto, director of Rome’s Lay Center.

Cardinal Turkson ended his speech by calling to mind the words of Pope Francis during his Angelus address on the 2015 International Day of Women, saying that “a world where women are marginalized is a barren world because women not only give life but they also transmit the ability to see beyond, to see beyond themselves.”

Women, he said, “transmit the ability to see the world with different eyes, to feel things with a more creative, patient and tender heart.”

The cardinal closed by thanking attendees for their participation, and expressed his hope “that we may be enlightened by what women can do that we have not discovered yet.”

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