In appointing seven women to the Vatican congregation that oversees religious orders earlier this month (July 9), Pope Francis achieved a double win. In one stroke, he has advanced both the role of women in the church and the reform of the Vatican Curia. This is significant because his efforts so far in these areas have been mediocre.
The Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (CICLSAL), colloquially known as the Congregation for Religious, is responsible for setting policy for Catholic nuns, brothers and consecrated lay people. Acting like a board of directors, members are appointed by the pope for terms of five years to review major policy recommendations before they are approved by the pope.
Six of the women were elected superiors by their religious orders, indicating the respect they have in their communities. They are experienced and knowledgeable on the issues facing religious. The seventh is the president of a group of consecrated lay people.
Of all the Vatican offices, CICLSAL is the one that most directly impacts religious women. This is the office that instigated an infamous investigation of American nuns in 2008. It is crucial that the congregation have diversity in its membership. For example, with women religious at the table, it will be impossible to ignore the issue of sexual abuse of sisters by priests.
In the past, the congregation was composed solely of cardinals, bishops and a few priests who were heads of religious orders. It has had women on its staff and as advisers, but these seven women will have a vote when decisions are made. However, they will be a minority of its membership with women only seven of the 23 new members appointed by Francis.
The appointment of women to the congregation is important because so far, progressive women have not been pleased with the pope’s handling of women’s issues. While most women admire his pastoral style and concern for the poor and marginalized, many cringe when he talks about women. He has referred to their role in the church as like strawberries on a cake.
He continues to use the language of complementarity that women found objectionable from John Paul II. Francis opposes the ordination of women and supports the church’s traditional teaching on birth control.
For progressive women, he is the grandfather they love, but when he talks about women, they roll their eyes.
Pope Francis may not be able to understand the language of feminism, but he has made incremental changes that advance the role of women in the church. In 2014 he appointed five women to the Vatican’s International Theological Commission. Now he is adding women to a Vatican congregation.
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Source: Religion News Service