New High-Level Appointments Signal Changing Vatican Role for Women

The Pope’s decision to include these women in an all-male dicastery responds to a desire to better represent the various realities of consecrated life and to strengthen the presence of women in decision-making positions.

Nuns attend the canonization Mass of Louis and Zélie Martin, Father Vincenzo Grossi and Sister Maria of the Immaculate Conception on Oct. 18, 2015, in St. Peter's Square.
Nuns attend the canonization Mass of Louis and Zélie Martin, Father Vincenzo Grossi and Sister Maria of the Immaculate Conception on Oct. 18, 2015, in St. Peter's Square. (photo: Martha Calderon/CNA)

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis appointed seven women members of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (less formally known as the Congregation for Consecrated Life), the dicastery that oversees consecrated life for men and women in the Catholic Church.

Six of the women are superior generals of religious orders: Mother Kathleen Appler, the U.S. superior of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul; Mother Yvonne Reungoat, of the Salesian Sisters; Mother Françoise Massy, of the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of Mary; Mother Luigia Coccia, of the Comboni Sisters; Mother Simona Brambilla, of the Consolata Missionary Sisters; and Mother Rita Calvo Sanz, of the Company of Mary Our Lady.

The seventh is consecrated laywoman Olga Krizova. She is the general president of the Volunteers of Don Bosco, a secular institute of pontifical title that follows Salesian spirituality. According to the Code of Canon Law, a secular institute “is an institute of consecrated life in which the faithful, living in this world, strive for the perfection of charity and endeavor to work for the sanctification of the world from within.”

The July 8 appointment marks the first time that women have become full members of this congregation, which has until now consisted of cardinals, bishops and superiors of religious orders for men. Headed by Cardinal João Braz de Aviz, the congregation is composed of five offices that promote and govern norms for consecrated and monastic life within the Catholic Church. Its members gather every two years in plenary assemblies to discuss general questions and issues connected to consecrated life. The Pope’s decision to include women members in the Congregation follows a series of appointments of women to key positions in the Vatican dicasteries and institutions over the past few years.

In 2018, Sister Carmen Ros Nortes, a Spanish missionary and member of the Sisters of Our Lady of Consolation, was appointed as undersecretary in the Congregation for Consecrated Life. Previously, in 2014, Sister Irma Luzia Premoli, the superior general of the Comboni Missionaries, was named a member of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. Sister Irma’s appointment was the first time a superior general of a female institute was named a member of a congregation.

Pope Francis has frequently encouraged the active role of women within the Church’s governance because, as he said, “If the Church loses women, she risks becoming sterile.” Other ways to involve women in the Church’s decision-making are also being discussed at the council of cardinals currently working on a reform of the Curia.  

Sister Carmen told the Register that her role as one of two undersecretaries in the Congregation for Consecrated Life is a fitting response to the call for more women to serve the Church in positions of authority and reflects the fact that, since 1967, when St. Paul VI authorized the new constitution of the Roman Curia with Regimini Ecclesiae Universae, the Church has recognized that consecrated life can take a variety of forms — for both men and women.

“Pope Francis is convinced that the Church cannot be itself without women and their role in the life of the Church,” Sister Carmen said, adding that his decision to invite women to be part of the Congregation for Consecrated Life is a “concrete gesture with which he amplifies the importance of this congregation through a more incisive female presence.”

According to Mother Yvonne of the Salesian Sisters of St. John Bosco — which currently has 13,000 members in 94 countries on five continents — the Pope’s concrete sign of trust is also a call for greater attention to female religious life within the Church and the work that women religious do on a worldwide scale.

“I think the Holy Father is simply giving women their rightful place,” she told the Register. “It will be for us an opportunity to dialogue with other female orders and to better communicate together the joy of consecrated life.”  


Better Representation

“The female consecrated life within the Church is far more numerous in terms of quantity [than their male counterparts]; therefore, these new appointments are an act of justice that Pope Francis strongly wanted,” Archbishop José Rodríguez Carballo, the congregation’s secretary, told the Register.

According to the Central Office of Church Statistics of the Secretariat of State, the number of consecrated women in the whole world on Dec. 31, 2017, was 670,967 (648,910 professed religious and 22,057 members of female secular institutes), whereas consecrated men numbered 513,596 (414,582 priests; 46,894 deacons; 51,535 professed religious other than priests and 585 members of male secular institutes).

Archbishop Carballo added that the addition of women to roles within the congregation has been gradual. For instance, in January, six nuns attended the congregation’s general assembly. Also, six superiors of female religious orders regularly take part in the congregation’s plenary assembly, which occurs every two years, together with six superiors of religious orders of men. Further, the congregation’s consultative body, the “Council of Sixteen,” which is held twice a year, includes eight women and eight men who are heads of religious orders.

“The number of women in the dicastery is slowly but constantly increasing because, if it is true that the Church has a feminine face, it is proportionally even more true that consecrated life has a feminine face,” Archbishop Carballo said. “Therefore, the women’s presence among us is made even more legitimate.”

According to Archbishop Carballo, women bring a unique contribution to the congregation’s discussions.

“We are pleased to welcome these women who bring their special expertise, in addition to their fundamental and very specific female sensitivity,” he said, adding that it’s natural that women should play a part in the Congregation for Consecrated Life, since this dicastery often deals with female institutes of consecrated life.


Promoting Complementarity

The women newly named to the Congregation for Consecrated Life have indeed different backgrounds and, like Mother Yvonne, are in charge of important female congregations serving the Church around the world.

The Daughters of Charity, for instance, headed by U.S.-born Mother Kathleen Appler, represent one of the world’s largest religious groups, with 14,070 members in 94 countries in January 2019. Mother Luigia Coccia, the superior of the Missionary Comboni Sisters, brings to the congregation the experience of promoting the New Evangelization in Africa, where the order is very active. Olga Krizova, the general president of the 100-year-old secular institute of the Volunteers of Don Bosco, is the first representative of lay consecrated women. According to Congregation for Consecrated Life in its 2018 instruction Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago on Ordo Virginum (an instruction designed to promote and direct this growing form of religious life), the number of lay consecrated women is steadily increasing.

Archbishop Carballo and Mother Yvonne reaffirmed the importance of having different and separate ministries in the Church and stressed how women complement the hierarchy in addressing Church affairs related to these ministries.

Both the archbishop and mother superior acknowledged that women see things in a unique way and have distinct perceptions about humanity’s inherent frailty. This outlook is helpful in addressing delicate issues in the Church’s life.

“As women, we have a specific sensitivity that is complementary to what men provide to the Church,” Mother Yvonne said. “We are called upon to assume our responsibilities and to take the place that is being given to us, thinking about the contribution we can provide, without being afraid to commit ourselves, without standing back.”

Speaking of her recent appointment, Mother Yvonne said she appreciates the opportunity to bring to the table another point of view regarding both consecrated life and, more generally, the relationship between women and men in the Church. But she also noted that to better equip women to answer the call to serve in this way, they must also be offered greater opportunities for education.


A Notable History

Although the recent appointments are historic, the presence of prominent female figures in the Church is not a new phenomenon.

Christianity has, from its beginning, attracted a majority of women — of all social classes. History bears witness to this fruitful relationship through the countless female saints, heroines and intellectuals who have acted in the name of Christ over the centuries. To this day, there are four women doctors of the Church: St. Teresa of Avila, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Thérèse of Lisieux and St. Hildegard of Bingen.

The Catholic Church alone made possible the holiness of women “like St. Catherine, St. Hildegard or even St. Angela of Foligno,” Alessandra Bartolomei Romagnoli, professor of Church history at the Pontifical Gregorian University (and author, among other books, of Santità e Mistica Femminile nel Medioevo [Holiness and Female Mysticism in Medieval Times], 2013), told the Register, observing that, historically, civil society has been far more closed toward women than the Church.

“Rationalist philosophic culture, for instance, is totally silent with regards to women. Schopenhauer’s essay ‘On Women’ (1851) is to this extent very emblematic of philosophers’ historic misunderstanding about the symbolism of women,” she said, also recalling the widely known contempt of Enlightenment and French Revolution thinkers toward the fairer sex.

In this sense, it is no accident that Benedictine oblate Elena Lucrezia Cornaro was the first woman to receive a university academic degree — a doctorate in philosophy — in the 17th century and that Pope Benedict XIV created a university chair in science for Italian physicist Laura Bassi, the first woman to earn a professorship at a university — against the will of many lay professors in the 18th century.

According to Romagnoli, a commitment to virginity was at the origin of women’s emancipation in classical times, as it allowed the recognition of women’s spiritual identity, which partly explains why so many women were drawn to the Church in the early centuries. Within the Church, women found their intrinsic worth and could express their very nature through a specific language. Such language finds its highest expression in the theme of “co-redemption.” Indeed, “it is a woman’s flesh, the Virgin Mary’s flesh, that saves the world, and to this extent, women are perhaps the best representative of Jesus Christ as they live the mystery of substitution,” Romagnoli said. This co-redemptive dimension is, in her opinion, typical of femininity. Through a woman, the Logos, the Word, comes to life, making her the privileged channel of God on earth.

But if women’s nature invites them to be even more spiritual than men, this doesn’t mean that they must have commanding roles within the Church. “God took on a male identity in history through Jesus Christ, and this excludes female priesthood, for which feminist theologians are fighting,” said Romagnoli.

However, the historian noted women’s influence is not diminished, but rather, through the witness of saints such as St. Catherine of Siena or St. Bridget of Sweden, shown tremendous strength in times of crisis, when the Church particularly needed their charism.

“Women can have an extraordinary charismatic function,” Romagnoli said.

The central place of women in the history of the Church was also affirmed by Archbishop Carballo.

“Since the whole history of Christianity began with the Virgin Mary, who has always been considered the highest model of Christian life, those who see in the Church an intrinsic enemy of woman are totally wrong,” he said. “The Pope himself called Mary Magdalene the ‘Apostle of the Apostles.’ There couldn’t be any higher sign of consideration.”  

“Just because men and women don’t minister in the same way does not mean that the Church does not value women,” he added. “On the contrary, the Church has always venerated, and continues to venerate, women as the model of Christian life.”


Solène Tadié is the Register’s Rome-based Europe correspondent.