ROME – A French nun who has become the first woman to hold a voting position at the Vatican said Wednesday that her appointment is evidence the “patriarchal mindset is changing” as more and more women assume high-level decision-making responsibilities in the Catholic hierarchy.
Sister Nathalie Becquart said during a news conference that her appointment as an undersecretary in the Vatican’s Synod of Bishops office was a “brave signal and prophetic decision” by Pope Francis, who has repeatedly stressed the need for women to have a greater say in church governance.
“What I hope is that this will be seen also in the field, in the dioceses, in the parishes," she said. “I hope this act will encourage other bishops, priests, religious authorities, and that all this will include women more and more.“
Women have long complained of having a second-class status in the Catholic Church, where the priesthood and top Vatican offices, including the papacy itself, are reserved for men.
Francis appointed Becquart and a Spanish theologian, the Rev. Luis Marín de San Martín, over the weekend as undersecretaries in the office that organizes thematic, weeks-long meetings of bishops at the Vatican.
The meetings, which are known as synods and usually take place every two to three years, have taken on increasing importance under Francis given his call for more decentralized and collegial leadership focusing on local bishops more than the Holy See.
While Francis has named a half-dozen female undersecretaries of various Vatican offices over the years, Becquart’s appointment carried with it a particular, and in some ways historic novelty: She in all likelihood will have a right to vote in the next synod of bishops, scheduled for 2022, given her professional rank.
“A door has been opened,” the head of the Synod of Bishops office, Maltese Cardinal Mario Grech, told the Vatican's in-house media. “We will then see what other steps could be taken in the future.”
It was a reference to calls to allow women religious superiors, who also participate in synods of bishops, to have the right to vote on proposals of pressing concern to the life of the church. The religious sisters are allowed to speak and participate in the bishops' debate, but have not been allowed to vote.
Their calls took on public form during a 2018 synod of bishops on youth, with prominent nuns calling for the vote and a popular movement promoted by progressive women’s groups #VotesForCatholicWomen.
As a result, Becquart’s appointment has been met with praise but also some bitterness that in 2021 it’s actually newsworthy that a lone woman might be able to cast a ballot alongside hundreds of male bishops about the future life of the Catholic Church.
“Could there be a more stark example of the unequal treatment of men and women in the church (than) that one undersecretary gets made a bishop, while for the other, it is an impossibility?" asked Kate McElwee, executive director of the Women's Ordination Conference, which advocates for women priests.
Becquart actually downplayed the significance of the vote, noting that the whole point of a synod is to discern consensus among the participants about particular proposals. But she nevertheless was well aware of the significance of the appointment, which she said was the latest in a continuum and now is “engraved in the structure of the church.”
Francis has made several high-level appointments of women in recent years, including making half of his economic advisory panel female with six women named to the Council of the Economy, which oversees the Vatican’s finances.
Recently, he changed church law to let women be installed as lectors, to read Scripture, and serve on the altar as acolytes.
Last year, he named Italian lawyer Francesca Di Giovanni undersecretary for multilateral affairs in the Secretariat of State, the first woman to ever hold a senior management position in the Vatican’s most important department.
The Vatican’s laity office has two female undersecretaries, Linda Ghisoni and Gabriella Gambino, while the Vatican’s office for religious orders counts Sister Carmen Ros Nortes as its undersecretary.
But aside from them the Vatican hierarchy is exclusively male and Francis himself counts no women among his closest advisers. Becquart, however, said he listens.
“Pope Francis is a man of his own generation that does not necessarily share the mindset of a young person, but he is close to and rooted in the people of God," she said. “He feels. He listens. He is the one who is writing history, with the Holy Spirit of course behind him."