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Pope announces plans to expand women’s role in Vatican

Pope Francis speaks during an interview with Reuters at the Vatican on July 2. (Remo Casilli/Reuters)

ROME — In a historic first, Pope Francis announced his intention to include two women on the committee advising him on the selection of bishops, in an interview published Wednesday.

In the interview with Reuters, conducted on July 2 at his residence, Francis said he was “open to giving [women] an opportunity,” including lay ones, to take on more top jobs in the administration, as allowed by a recent reform of the Vatican Curia.

“Two women will be appointed for the first time in the committee to elect bishops in the Congregation for Bishops,” he said, while stopping short of naming names or offering a time frame for the nomination. “This way, things are opening up a bit.”

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Giovanni Maria Vian, a former editor of the Vatican’s newspaper and historian of early Christianity, called it “a matter-of-factly novel signal, and a welcome one at that, wished for by the vast majority of the faithful, not just the public opinion.”

“Over 19 centuries there may have been exceptions, but as a rule the selection of the Roman church’s ruling class has always been strictly internal,” he told The Washington Post.

In the interview, Francis noted how, for the first time, he chose a woman, Sister Raffaella Petrini, to fill the No. 2. position in the city-state’s governorship.

Francis, who has hired other nuns and lay women to steer Vatican departments, also mentioned to Reuters the possibility of hiring women to lead the Department for Catholic Education and Culture, as well as the Apostolic Library — both currently headed by men.

Some Vatican watchers, though, said they were unconvinced that Francis’s move — if it actually comes to pass — would have much impact.

“When more women are involved I’m only happy, but we’re very late to this party,” said theologian Cettina Militello, the chair of Woman and Christianity at Marianum, a pontifical institute in Rome.

“It should’ve been obvious, as the [whole] people of God should be included, just like in the ancient church,” she said, noting that change may be limited by the thinking of the particular women selected. “Women who guarantee continuity, possibly conservative, are still mostly preferred.”

Lucetta Scaraffia, founder of an all-female monthly Vatican publication, was equally unsure.

“I’m always quite skeptical of these callings from above, of women being cherry-picked by the hierarchy, who are very obedient, and will only do what priests want,” she said.

The naming of bishops is not only dependent on the advisory board, Scaraffia said, but also involves assessments conducted locally, where written statements are required of many people, including bishops, priests and male notables.

“But only rarely the opinion of women is ever elicited. Even if they’re Superior Generals, nuns who would know the candidate well, and would also be freer to talk, as they’re not their competitors,” she said.

Regardless of what happens within the board, Scaraffia said, if women aren’t equally heard during these local assessments, the nomination of bishops will never change.