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The Women at the Top of the Vatican

PR consultant Francesca Chaoqui’s appointment to a Vatican commission ruffled feathers in Rome but behind the scenes, things are changing for women. Joanna Moorhead travelled there to meet the mould-breakers.

As Vatican appointments go, it was a pretty unusual one. Most of the time, a new face on a church commission is male, and the wrong side of 50. This one is female, and the right side of 30. But does PR consultant Francesca Chaoqui’s recently-announced new job, as a member of an eight-strong team set up to look into top-level church finances, signal a new direction for women in Rome and if so, how quickly could things change?

The doubters will tell you that Chaoqui’s appointment was a disastrous move (after it was announced, unwise internet postings and pictures, purporting to come from her accounts, were revealed). But whatever the truth of this particular situation, there are some interesting changes taking place at the heart of the Catholic Church for women.

On a balmy Roman day, I climbed the staircase of a handsome apartment block to meet distinguished academic Lucetta Scaraffia, who recently made history when she launched the first-ever women’s supplement in the 152-year history of l’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper. The supplement, produced monthly, focuses on women’s role in the church, both historically and now. ‘We wanted to give a voice to the women of the church women who, after all, make up two thirds of its membership,’ explains Scaraffia. ‘These women certainly exist: they are working hard for the church, doing a great deal that is important and worthwhile, and we want to ensure that it’s visible and acknowledged.’ She shows me some recent editions of the supplement, which was launched in May last year: they focus on issues like the fight against human trafficking, and some research that found that a well-known 18th century book about spirituality, previously believed to be authored by a Jesuit priest, was written by a nun. There are features on great female saints from history, people like St Joan of Arc and St Catherine of Siena.

In any other institution, this would be anodyne enough: but in a male-dominated institution like the Vatican, it’s ruffling feathers. ‘Some people have complained it’s too feminist, and some conservative clerics have said they won’t read it,’ says Scaraffia. But none of that puts her off: the truth is, she says, that the Church at its highest level has got to change the way it deals with women. ‘Women should have more power, even within the Vatican,’ she says. ‘In the run-up to the conclave earlier this year, many thought it was unfortunate that no women were invited to speak at the meetings that helped give the cardinals a sense of where the church is at the current time. There’s a feeling that we can’t carry on like this, other institutions have given women a voice and found they benefit hugely from opening up in that way, and now it’s time for the Catholic Church to do the same.’

Scaraffia’s voice is important, because she’s extremely well thought of in the highest Catholic clerical quarters: she’s managing to walk a line that is both feminist (she considers herself to be a feminist, she says) and orthodox. ‘Women, Church, World’, the supplement, was launched with the full backing of Pope Benedict, who had earlier encouraged l’Osservatore Romano to take on more women in senior editorial roles it now has several. Central to Scaraffia’s position is her absolute clarity on priesthood: women, she is clear, absolutely cannot be ordained. ‘I believe in the value of difference, women and men are not the same, and those who argue for the priesthood for women are pushing a model in which women would become like men,’ she says. ‘We need to preserve difference, but we do need change.’
‘I think the Church could look at the possibility of women becoming deacons not as a step to the priesthood, but in order to give them a bigger role.’

But the more immediate change Scaraffia would like to see is an opening-up of high-level Vatican jobs to women. At present, only a handful of these positions have female incumbents: so how do the women occupying them find their unusual role, and how do they believe being women makes a difference? I left Scaraffia and travelled across the Eternal City to the leafy neighbourhood of Trastavere, south of the Vatican, home of two of the Pontifical Commissions set up in the wake of Vatican II. Flaminia Giovanelli is third in command at the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace; she’s the highest-ranking laywoman in the Vatican. I met her in a vast, marbled office under a portrait of John Paul II.

Giovanelli has worked at the council for 35 years and climbed the ranks. She started out as a librarian and never imagined, she says, that she would end up so close to the top of the organisation: she’s always known, and understood, why the top jobs have to go to men, since they’re occupied by priests and bishops. And yes, she says, it definitely is good for the Vatican that over the time she’s worked here, a few like her have broken through at least the first layer of the ceiling. ‘Women are very good for the Vatican. I think they’re more ready to help even if something is more difficult, even if it demands a bit of sacrifice, women will go the extra mile. Men have different qualities they’re often more concentrated, more driven. We have changed the way things are done, in a subtle way, and we change the way things are discussed and the topics that are brought to the table.’

‘Recently I was among three women at a big Vatican meeting, there were 15 of us round the table. And that’s a big change in the Vatican, and a very welcome one. I wouldn’t say I’m a feminist, but I would say I’m becoming one! In a way I didn’t see the issues in the past, but now I’m beginning to and I can see things are changing.’

Across the courtyard at the Pontifical Council for the Laity, Ana Cristina Betancourt takes a very similar view. She’s head of the women’s section of the council. Like Giovanelli she’s a laywoman, although in her case she’s a member of a lay order, the Marian Community of Reconciliation, and has taken vows including a vow of chastity. She’s been in her post for the last four years and yes, she says, having women in top jobs does make a difference to how the Vatican is run. ‘Women bring a different perspective, a different way of doing things, a different viewpoint. Their participation enriches the way things are done,’ she says. And there’s a welcome, rather than a resistance, to that. ‘The priests and men around me aren’t opposed to hearing women’s voices: they listen to what we have to contribute, they can see the advantages of having us at the table.’

One of the big changes in the years ahead, says Betancourt, is that more women than ever before are studying at the pontifical universities and that, in turn, will broaden the pool of women qualified to do senior Vatican jobs, since many depend on postgraduate qualifications from these institutions. Gradually, she believes, things are changing although change will take time, and it won’t help to get angry about the fact that women are currently so under-represented. ‘Getting angry just closes doors it doesn’t help at all,’ she says. ‘We just have to carry on doing what we do as well as we can. Of course the world is different now, and young women like me have been raised expecting to be able to do the same things as men. And the Vatican can see that too, but in Rome things don’t change overnight.’

According to Scariffia, those who find the Vatican’s male-domination hardest are the women who work in the heart of Vatican City women like Sister Angela (not her real name) who does an administrative job. She’s been in Rome for three years, having been transferred by her order from her home in the US. ‘When I was told I was being sent here I was excited I thought how wonderful, to have a chance to work at the heart of the Church,’ she says.
‘But I’ve been disillusioned, because some of the men you encounter here are arrogant and clearly see themselves as vastly superior to a woman like me. It’s not a kind attitude, and I find it hard to keep quiet, I talk to the other sisters about it, and some of them agree.’

‘Now I see it is as a cross that I have to bear, and I do it for God and for Christ and for the Church, because I believe in this work and in the power of Christianity. But I can see that things should be different in the Vatican, and women should get better treatment. Nuns like me work from 8am to 6pm, for no pay at all, and we have no power whatsoever. That’s not fair, and it’s not helping the church. Younger women aren’t going to come into an order like mine to do this sort of work, and then the Church won’t have anyone to do it. So things will have to change, and I do believe that under Pope Francis, they will.’

Scaraffia thinks the same: she has heard too, she says, of nuns saying the sort of things Sister Angela is saying inside the Vatican. ‘They feel powerless, and scared, and undervalued, and that shouldn’t be happening in a Christian institution,’ she says. Things will change slowly, she has no doubt of that but what would be really wonderful, she says, is a gesture from Pope Francis that women are on his agenda, and that he is rooting for reform. ‘For example, a person who’s a cardinal doesn’t have to be a priest,’ she says. ‘What kind of signal would it give if the Pope were to appoint a woman as a cardinal? That would be a wonderful thing to happen for women, and for the Church.’

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