Lay women appointed to important Vatican congregation

By Christopher Lamb | Contributor
Wednesday, April 25, 2018

A man enjoys his ice cream cone donated by Pope Francis at a Sant’Egidio soup kitchen in Rome April 23. In honor of his name day, the feast of St. George, the pope donated 3,000 servings of ice cream to soup kitchens and homeless shelters around Rome. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

A glass ceiling has been broken in the Holy See. On April 21, Pope Francis named the first female advisers to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the church’s central doctrinal body. 

The three women theologians will serve as consulters, which is more significant than it might sound. Consulters offer important advice to Vatican departments, even more so at the powerful congregation, where they will be asked to give their views on a wide range of theological matters. 
Among those appointed are Laetitia Calmeyn, who, at age 43, is young by Vatican standards. She is a theologian based at the College dés Bernardins in Paris. A consecrated virgin and former nurse specializing in palliative care, her combination of expertise in theology and nursing corresponds with Francis’ desire for theologians to have exposure to pastoral realities. 

Then there is Linda Ghisoni, who already works in the Roman Curia as undersecretary in the Dicastery for Laity, the Family and Life. She holds a doctorate in canon law, a subject she has taught at the Gregorian University, along with degrees in theology and philosophy. Aged 52, she is married with two children. 

Last is Michelina Tenace, a professor and head of the department of fundamental theology at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University. Aged 63, she is another consecrated lay woman and studied literature at Rome’s La Sapienza University before receiving a doctorate in theology from the Gregorian. 

These appointments are part of the pope’s strategy to give more roles to women inside the Holy See. There are those, however, who think he’s moving too slowly, pointing out that the top two executive roles in every Holy See department remain occupied by priests. 

While there is frustration about the pace of change, small breakthroughs are happening. Up until this pontificate, every consultant to Vatican departments was a man, something the pope changed in January 2017 when he appointed two female advisers to the Congregation for Divine Worship. He also appointed the first female director of the Vatican Museums and established a commission to examine the role of female deacons in the church, although that group has yet to report its findings. 

The key point about Francis’ reforms is that they are work in progress. The pope is trying to open up discernment inside the church, setting a trajectory that will be hard to reverse. For Francis, reshaping institutions corresponds to the reform required of every person in the spiritual life: It’s not perfect, can be messy and requires an openness to look at things differently.  

On that front, Francis started another round of meetings with his Council of Cardinals, the group he has been working with over the past five years on an overhaul of the church’s central bureaucracy. 

They began their latest session on St. George’s Day, a public holiday in the Vatican given that it is the namesake of the pope — Jorge Bergoglio. In honor of this, and given that Rome was bathed in warm sunshine that day, Francis ordered 3,000 ice creams to be given out to the homeless and needy. 

The pope and his kitchen cabinet of cardinals have a lot to sort out. This includes a new constitution for the Roman Curia and, more broadly, a reflection on how to ensure what Francis describes as a “healthy decentralization” of power from Rome to local churches.

A test for this idea has just arrived with proposals from German bishops to allow for a loosening of the restrictions over giving Communion to Protestants who are married to Catholics. Germany has a high number of interdenominational marriages. While the majority of German bishops voted in favor of the plan, a group of seven, including one cardinal, asked the Vatican’s doctrinal body to issue a ruling. 

The pope is scheduled to discuss the matter with Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the German bishops’ conference and a member of the Council of Cardinals, along with Cardinal Rainer Woelki, who is less keen on the idea of offering such eucharistic hospitality.  

Under Francis, it is not about the Vatican giving a thumbs or thumbs down to local bishops on what is being presented as a pastoral, rather than a doctrinal matter. Church teaching already allows for Communion to be given to non-Catholic Christians in special circumstances, and German bishops are building on that. By meeting with the cardinals, the pope will try to mediate the differences between them in order to find a resolution. 

It is Francis’ hope that eventually local bishops will feel a greater freedom to apply church teaching to their dioceses and countries. Francis made it clear in “Amoris Laetitia,” his document on family life, that “not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issue” need to be settled by Rome, while in “Evangelii Gaudium,” the major manifesto of his papacy, he called for bishops conferences to be given “genuine doctrinal authority.” The question is: How will that work in practice?


  • pope francis
  • women in the church

Related Articles