ROME — Masculine authority has been on vivid display at the Vatican during the last week, as the princes of the Roman Catholic Church gather to elect a replacement for Pope Benedict XVI.
The world has watched the all-male college of cardinals lining up to say goodbye to the retiring Benedict, sweeping past hordes of television cameras to enter the cardinals’ pre-conclave discussions, and gathering in the Basilica of St. Peter to pray for the church.
Three men, all priests, serve as the multilingual media team at the Vatican’s daily press conferences. At briefings last week, they showed clips of conclave preparations under way — men marring the seal in the papal garden with rakes and hoes to signify the papal vacancy, men hauling the cast-iron stove for ballot burning into the Sistine Chapel.
A reporter, noting that one video clip showed a woman appearing to sew a tablecloth for the event, asked if there were any other women involved in the conclave. A Vatican spokesman replied: “There could be other women involved in the whole preparation of the conclave, in serving the fathers working with” the cardinals at their Vatican hotel.
It is against this backdrop that some leading cardinals, including Boston’s Sean P. O’Malley, have expressed a desire to open new leadership opportunities for women in the Roman Catholic Church, saying the matter will be an important concern for the next pope. There is a sense among some prelates that some movement on the gender front is essential; less evident are what steps could win the approval of the pope who will be elected in the days ahead.
The reflections by O’Malley and others come at a dramatic moment in the life of the church, and although the cardinals are not suggesting radical change, they offer a striking contrast in tone from the Vatican’s censure of American nuns last spring.
O’Malley, Boston’s archbishop, made clear in an interview at the Pontifical North American College here last week that he did not believe women could become priests. But he said women should be able to run some Vatican departments traditionally led by clergy.
“Given the fact that the church is not going to ordain women, we have to make sure we are using their talents and gifts to the maximum,” O’Malley said.
Cardinal Leonardo Sandri of Argentina, who heads a Vatican department, also suggested women could hold major positions in the Vatican. And two German cardinals last month spoke of creating a deaconlike role for laywomen. Deacons are ordained ministers who can preach and perform some sacraments, such as baptism.
As women have taken on larger roles in the world, Sandri told Reuters last week that offering them more opportunities in the church “is something the church has to ask itself about.”
Whether the next pope will agree remains a question. But the prelates’ remarks seem to suggest a change in the dynamic between the male-dominated church hierarchy and women who are asking for more authority in the church. It could also presage an alternative, if temporary, route forward that does not involve seemingly intractable arguments about ordination of women.
Ashley McGuire, a traditionalist Catholic who is in Rome this week on behalf of the Catholic Association, an advocacy group, said she and a group of female friends, some of whom work at the Vatican, talked about the cardinals’ remarks over coffee the other day.
“It’s a great thing,” said McGuire, a 27-year-old Tufts University graduate who now lives in Washington and blogs on faith and gender at AltCatholicah. “There are a lot of Catholic women who really love the church and want to participate and want to be involved, and who are not hung up on the issue of female ordination.”
Sister Christine Schenk of FutureChurch, which advocates for women’s ordination, is disappointed the German bishops stopped well short of considering whether to allow women into the diaconate. But Schenk, who will be in Rome this week delivering postcards to Vatican officials asking for the restoration of married priesthood and women deacons, said “it is a good thing” that cardinals are discussing the role of women.
The debate about that role has often played out as a battle between Catholics who support women’s ordination and a hierarchy that considers that out of the question.
Supporters of women’s ordination say Jesus considered Mary Magdalene a disciple and that evidence points to women occupying leadership roles in the early church. But church teaching holds that because Jesus was a man, and because he chose male disciples, priests must be men as well.
The church appears unlikely to change its stance anytime soon. In 1994, Pope John Paul II wrote that the matter was closed for debate, and Pope Benedict XVI agreed, making it a sin punishable by excommunication to participate in women’s ordination.
The cardinals’ remarks may indicate that prelates are trying to respond to the obvious challenge confronting the church, as an institution struggling to remain relevant in secularized, modernized societies where women take for granted a right to equality with men.
“If you look at the last 50 years in this country, the transformation for women in American society has been dizzying, and the church has changed really not at all on this particular issue,” said Kathleen Sprows Cummings, professor of American studies and director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame.
Women, she said, “look at this all-male priesthood, and the farther you go up the chain of command in the Catholic Church, the more male it becomes. It just doesn’t square with their experience, and all they’ve been taught about what is possible for them.”
BUT, SHE SAID, “YOU DON’T HAVE TO HAVE A DEBATE ABOUT WOMEN IN ORDAINED MINISTRY IN ORDER TO DEMONSTRATE THAT THE CHURCH VALUES WOMEN’S GIFTS AND TALENTS.”
Kerry Robinson, executive director of the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management, agrees. She is among a half-dozen women whose families are associated with US Catholic philanthropic foundations who traveled to Rome three times during the last few years to speak with Vatican officials ABOUT THE ABSENCE OF WOMEN IN POSITIONS OF AUTHORITY.
They met with about 20 cardinals, all in top Vatican posts, expressing their devotion to the church and their concern that the absence of women in major church leadership positions would alienate young Catholic women — and, over time, their children — from the church.
“They really heard this message, but there was no sense of what to do about it,” she said.
Robinson and her colleagues suggested reviewing what percentage of major leadership roles in the Vatican and its advisory councils are held by women and then focusing on appointing women to more of those positions. They also proposed appointing women to high-visibility jobs in the Vatican diplomatic corps or press operation. Robinson described the meetings as “cordial, warm, and engaging,” and said cardinals expressed “genuine interest and desire to respond to this.”
Outside of its bureaucracy, the Catholic church has a rich tradition of women leaders. Long before management roles and advanced degrees were common among women in American society, nuns and religious sisters were running major hospitals, educational systems, and social service organizations. Today, women executives lead Catholic Relief Services, the international aid organization for the US church; the Catholic Health Association of the United States; and Catholic colleges and universities.
US dioceses are beginning to make strides toward including women in leadership roles; in Boston, men still hold many of the top jobs, but O’Malley hired former Boston and Milton school administrator Mary Grassa O’Neill to run the Catholic schools and supported the appointment of two successive female heads of Catholic Charities of Boston. For years, one of his top advisers on sexual abuse was also a woman.
“He has always reached out to women leaders for advice,” said Regis College president Antoinette M. Hays, a nurse who added that O’Malley has consulted her on health care and poverty issues.
But O’Malley’s traditionalist sensibility, like that of the church he loves, upset women in a couple of episodes early in his tenure. In his first year in Boston, he drew criticism from Catholic women for including feminism in a list of societal ills, in a homily. Shortly thereafter, he excluded women from the ritual of foot-washing on Holy Thursday. He later apologized for the upset he had caused, praising Christian feminists and, during Holy Week the next year, washing the feet of women as well as men.
The Vatican’s crackdown last year on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the major confederation of nuns in the United States, underscored the vast disparity in power between the Vatican’s male hierarchy and religious women within the church. And many laity found the tone of the Vatican’s rebuke insulting to religious sisters. Laypeople held hundreds of vigils across the United States on their behalf.
The Vatican upbraided the women’s conference for doctrinal problems, saying it failed to speak out strenuously enough against abortion, allowed speakers with unacceptable viewpoints, and seemed to embrace “radical feminism.” Several bishops were assigned to oversee the organization.
The president of the sisters’ leadership conference told the Daily Beast after Benedict’s resignation last month that the nuns hope to start fresh with a new pope.
O’Malley did not criticize the content of the Vatican’s report but said he regretted that the situation fostered a perception that the church is hostile to women, something he called “a great concern” given the church’s strenuous efforts to redouble its evangelization efforts and reconnect with inactive Catholics.
The proper place of women is hardly a matter of unanimity, even within the church. Just outside the Vatican walls, Sister Bernadette Reis, dressed in a slate blue jacket and skirt, radiates good cheer as she greets people from the neighborhood around her convent.
Reis is a member of the Daughters of St. Paul, an order that observes many of the traditional aspects of communal life and focuses on communication of the gospel through its multimedia publishing company and bookstores. She lived for years at her congregation’s convent in Jamaica Plain but moved to Rome about a year ago to be an English language specialist in the bookstore.
At 45, she has no desire to be running a Vatican department. Books and blog posts are her homilies, she says; she does not want a pulpit.
She was glad to hear the cardinals talk about opening more doors to women, and she wants women’s voices to be heard and respected. But she is proud to be part of a tradition of religious sisters that are part of the church, yet set apart from its hierarchy. “The role women religious have in the church is prophetic,” she said. If the hierarchy fully integrated sisters, she says, “we would lose our prophetic voice.”