ROME – Amidst some objections, the Vatican participated for the first time at a United Nations session on the role of women on Tuesday, sending one of its most prominent examples of female leadership to say that “the Holy See is clearly adapting to the times.”
“It’s the first time that the Holy See sends a representative to this assembly,” said Barbara Jatta, the first-ever female president of the Vatican Museums who represented the Vatican at the UN gathering, in an interview with Vatican News.
“I’m personally honored, but I think it’s an important symbol that the Holy See wished to send about the presence of women in its structures,” she added.
The conference, organized by the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), began its 63rd edition March 12 and saw the participation of the President of the UN’s General Assembly, Ecuadorian Maria Fernanda Espinosa Garces, and the female heads of state from Estonia, Lithuania, Nepal, and Trinidad and Tobago.
Thousands of experts from different fields and backgrounds attended the event, which this year focused on access to public services for women, female empowerment and obtaining the gender equality goals detailed in the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.
Jatta was invited to attend several round tables at the event, including one on “the future of women’s leadership” along with other prominent female representatives from government, media and other civil institutions.
“The social doctrine of the Church has some extraordinary intuitions that are absolutely being applied,” she said in the interview. “I am the example, as a woman, wife, mother but also worker within the Vatican structure, where I have always been respected, valued for the work I have done but with a special regard to my being a mother and wife.”
The art historian continued to say that as society changes, the Vatican has been keeping up by promoting initiatives that favor women, which is visible in the growing number of women who have leadership roles within its structures.
Jatta quoted her experience at the Vatican Museums as an example.
“Women represent almost 50 percent of the nearly 1,000 employees and collaborators in the Vatican Museums currently,” she said, and they occup high-level roles. “So, there is truly an equality in the male and female presence, at least in the structures where I worked at the Holy See,” she added.
Rome hosted several conferences in early March to celebrate the UN’s International Day of Women, with some praising the Vatican and this pontificate for its efforts for further female inclusion and others claiming that the road ahead is still long.
Jatta attended a conference in Rome March 8, accompanied by the undersecretary of the Vatican department for Laity, Family and Life, Gabriella Gambino, and Natasa Govekar, head of the theological-pastoral office of the Vatican’s communications department. There they agreed that while providing more leadership for women in the Catholic Church is “complex,” the overall experience “is more than positive.”
Depending on one’s definition of leadership roles, the number of women holding such positions in the Vatican is at best a handful, and at worst, zero.
Like Jatta, there are other women who have taken over roles traditionally held by men – often members of the clergy – at the Vatican. Mariella Enoc, Pope Francis’s choice as head of the Vatican-owned pediatric hospital Bambino Gesù is one example of female leadership, as well as British Sociologist Margaret Archer, who heads the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Sciences.
Other prominent roles are taken by women who are placed under the direct supervision of a cardinal or bishop. This is the case for Gambino and Linda Ghisoni who work as undersecretaries in the Vatican department led by Irish Cardinal Kevin Joseph Farrell. The same can be said of Sister Bernadette Reis, Assistant to the interim Director of the Holy See’s Communications office and Sister Carmen Ros Nortes, appointed undersecretary to the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.
Italian Lucetta Scaraffia, who is the editor-in-chief of Women Church World magazine published by the Vatican, also deserves a mention on this short list. While she does not fall under the heading of a Vatican employee, she wields considerable influence both in and outside the Vatican, often advocating for the further participation of women in the Church at the highest levels and advocating for abused religious sisters.
However, some critics point out that these positions do not have any role in the direct governance of either the Church or the Vatican City State.
Some progressive and liberal Catholic groups have used the fact that the number of women in power within the Holy See has not significantly increased since the 1988 publication of John Paul II’s apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem on the female condition as the basis to expel the Vatican from UN Panels.
“The Holy See does not merit inclusion in the Commission on the Status of Women,” said Sheila Peiffer, President of the National Board of the Women’s Ordination Conference, in a March 7 press release.
Representatives from women and sexual abuse survivor activists – such as SNAP, Catholics for Human Rights and Catholics for Choice – organized two events, titled “Catholics for Human Rights: Challenging the Holy See at the United Nations,” to make a case as to why the Vatican is unfit to attend the CSW annual gathering. The group also made their case in a formal complaint sent to the UN’s Secretary General.
According to the advocacy groups, the Holy See is a) “led, totally and absolutely, by a small, elite class of celibate males,” b) based on an ideology that “prevents women from having any decision-making power” and c) as such “should not be given power to influence policies with massive impacts on the health, safety and wellbeing of women, children and families.”
As shown by the events that constellated the Women’s celebrations in Rome in early March, Catholic women remain divided as to what female leadership and involvement in the Church means. While Jatta may be an enthusiast of the Church’s current efforts, other women claim to be still left in the passenger’s seat.
During an event hosted in Rome by the Peruvian and English embassies to the Holy See March 5, an attendee said that she wanted “nothing to do with the concept of giving more power to women, because that is not part of the solution,” a position that can often be heard by women in and around the Catholic Church.
But for the Portuguese Secretary General of the United Nations, António Guterres, who opened the UN event on women, power “is the crux of the issue.”
“Gender equality is fundamentally a question of power,” he said in his inaugural speech, calling women activists “to push back” against the resistance to change by those who do not wish to see their power lost.
“Power is not given, it’s taken,” he said.