- The Washington Times
Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Women seeking a greater voice in the all-male hierarchy of the Catholic church are hailing Pope Francis’ announcement that women will be named to a ministerial board of the Vatican’s powerful Curia.

“This is a quite historical in a number of ways,” said Sister Carol Zinn, executive director of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. “These people, traditionally, have been clerics. Now, this office will have members who will actually be impacted by their decisions.”

For the first time, not only women but also persons who are not ordained as priests will have a vote within the Catholic church’s governing body.

Pope Francis on Monday surprised reporters who follow the Catholic Church by naming seven women and the head of the De La Salle Christian Brothers, a religious order of teachers, to the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.

The Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life is one of nine congregations within the Roman Curia, and has been described as a disciplinary body — or vetting board — for a variety of religious life and apostolic orders.

Sister Zinn said questions about the importance of such a post reminded her of when married family members ask her for advice.

“I really have no idea,” Sister Zinn said. “And it is similar with consecrated life.”

The presence of women on the congregation also strikes a chord among Catholics who wish for women to hold greater leadership roles beyond individual parishes.

“Women religious are always being disciplined by men,” said Melissa Wilde, a sociologist from the University of Pennsylvania who has written on the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican of the 1960s. “It’s yet another sign of Francis being more open to change.”

“It’s a good start and about time,” said Jeannine Pitas, a professor an English/Spanish professor at University of Dubuque and a Catholic writer. “Even if it’s a symbolic gesture, it’s an important one to reforming the male-dominated hierarchy.”

Six of the women are superiors of religious orders, such as the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul. A seventh woman, Olga Krizova, is general president of the Volunteers of Don Bosco, a group of consecrated laypeople.

The Vatican made no formal announcement, and the women’s names appeared along with other nominees to the previously all-male congregation. But the presence of women and a Christian Brother on a congregation presents a stark image of Francis’ belief for the global church to rely on a diverse group of laypeople to have a say in church affairs.

“The Holy Father believes in the involvement of everyone in the life of the church, and this is one more example of creating inclusivity,” said Sister Zinn.

It also represents a contrast from his papal predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who retired in 2013.

The congregation to which the women were named oversees lay and women religious societies, and has exhibited skepticism toward female religious orders.

Under Benedict, the congregation — then led by Cardinal Franc Rode — ordered an investigation of 127 women orders. In a speech, Cardinal Rode said some American nuns had “opted for ways that take them outside” the church.

A separate investigation of nuns during Benedict’s tenure focused of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the group Sister Zinn now leads, and was ordered by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the oldest of the Curia’s nine congregations.

Both investigations ended quietly under Francis.

The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor-at-large for America Magazine, issued support for the inclusion of women on the congregation, calling it a “highly significant step” on Twitter.

It also represents for some a crack in the doorway to female ordination — though only a small crack, if that.

“You have to remember that Vatican II ended in 1965, right after the publication of the ‘Feminine Mystique,’” said Ms. Wilde. “In some ways, the feminist movement has not yet had an impact on the Catholic church.”

• Christopher Vondracek can be reached at cvondracek@washingtontimes.com.

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