Women in leading positions at Vatican increasing

by Christa Pongratz-Lippitt

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Pope Francis' insistence on greater decision-making roles for women in the church is certainly making itself felt in the Vatican, Austrian journalist Gudrun Sailer, who has been working for the German section of Vatican Radio since 2003, told the Association of Austrian Catholic Publicists on a visit to Vienna.

"There is a fresh wind blowing in the Vatican as far as women's role in the church is concerned," she said. "The Francis effect has clearly made its mark."

A greater role for women in making decisions and holding responsibilities in the church is one of the many "construction sites" Francis has opened up in the Vatican, Sailer said. Even if the pope has not been able to give any concrete answers, he has already "done more than any other pope." Impressing on the church to forge ahead "rather than aim at a final clarification," is "after all" one of Francis' defining features, she said.

According to Sailer's own research, there are about 750 women working in the Vatican, which means that one fifth of Vatican employees are women.

"And they are not doing the cleaning jobs, moreover, as those are done by men. Most of the women are academics," she added.

The percentage of women working in the curia is particularly high. Women work as archivists, art historians, office heads and journalists. The number of women in leading positions is also on the increase. The film archive, the maintenance department of St. Peter's Basilica and the German edition of L'Osservatore Romano are all headed by women now, Sailer said.

The topic of giving women a greater role has "even" reached the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith she said, welcoming the fact that Francis has invited "critical voices" to a high ranking CDF symposium on women in the church planned for fall 2016. Sailer and other women employees in the Vatican have been consulted regarding which "critical voices" might possibly be considered to attend the symposium, she said.

The Pontifical Council for Culture, which is responsible for fostering the relationship of the Catholic church with different cultures, is "also a place where one feels heard as woman," Sailer said. The council is preparing to form a new body of 25 members, which will be made up entirely of women and will include non-Catholics. Its job will be to take a critical look at the council's activities.

But, of course, this open approach to women has not gained acceptance everywhere in the Vatican. It is "incomprehensible" for instance, that the Secretariat for Communications is made up exclusively of men, despite the fact that this is not mandatory. It is also regrettable that priests are "overrepresented," she said.

Sailer has been researching the role of women employees in the Vatican for several years now, a chapter in Vatican history that has hardly been looked into before, she said. She has published several books on the subject in her native German including Women in the Vatican -- Encounters, Portraits, Images (Frauen im Vatikan -- Begegnungen, Portäts, Bilder) published by the St. Benno publishing house at Leipzig in 2008. 

In 2014, Monsignorina -- the German Jewess Hermine Speier in the Vatican (Monsignorina -- Die deutsche Jüdin Hermine Speier im Vatikan) was published by the Aschenddorff publishing house at Münster and immediately roused great interest.

Hermine Speier (1898-1989) was one of the first women ever to be properly employed by the Vatican. She began her career as head of the Photographic Archive of the Vatican Museums after being fired by the German Archaeological Institute in Rome as a result of Hitler's racial laws which forbade German institutions to employ Jews. Although she converted to Catholicism, Speier had to hide in a Catholic convent during the German occupation of Rome in 1943-44. 

[Christa Pongratz-Lippitt is the Austrian correspondent for the London-based weekly Catholic magazine The Tablet.]

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