VATICAN CITY — In the first two years of his papacy, Pope Francis has stirred great expectations for change among Roman Catholics who believe that the Church has not kept pace with the social transformations of secular society.
Nowhere are those hopes felt more keenly, perhaps, than among women, often the driving force behind local Church communities, but who say that their voices remain marginalized.
Though the pope has repeatedly cited the importance of women in the life of the Church, critics say he has, at times, proved strikingly tone-deaf toward the sensitivities and needs of women (for example, describing five women he appointed to a committee as “the strawberries on the cake”).
Some momentum is nevertheless gathering behind women’s issues, however, if only because women, correctly or not, see his papacy as an opportunity and have begun pushing their agenda forward, challenging various corners of the Vatican’s male-dominated status quo.
On Sunday, International Women’s Day, Voices of Faith, an initiative sponsored by a Liechtenstein-based foundation, will — for only the second time — bring together women from various walks of life to discuss women’s issues at a seminar inside Vatican City, a hard-fought victory, said Chantal Götz, the president of the foundation.
“It becomes all the more symbolic when it’s inside the Vatican. It’s a step ahead,” she said. Participants in the seminar could provide a sort of de facto think tank. “If the pope needs advice, there are women who can provide it,” she said.
Women and their status in the Church were on the agenda of the cardinals who met at the Vatican for last month’s Consistory. The Vatican’s chief spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, told reporters that several speakers had expressed the hope that they would play an “increasingly active role” in the Church, and in particular in the Curia, as the hierarchy that runs Vatican affairs is known.
Last month, too, the Pontifical Council for Culture’s annual assembly specifically focused on women, acknowledging a decline in church attendance, vocations, and “a certain diffidence toward the formative abilities of religious men,” among younger women in Western countries, according to the assembly’s working paper.
It called on participants to reflect on how better to engage women in the Church “in full collaboration and integration with the male component.”
And any debate on the role of women, however, is curtailed by one irremovable premise: There is no place for women priests. Pope Francis has rejected such a change outright.
Beyond that, the pope’s own acknowledgment that women need to play a more incisive role has opened the door to discussion of women’s status to growing hopes.
“This is the most sensitive issue in the Vatican, more difficult than so many others because it is fundamental to so many others,” said Tina Beattie, a professor of Catholic studies at the University of Roehampton in London.
“We need to make him understand that this is a make-or-break issue for the Church,” she added. “It would be an unbearable blow if he left the papacy as he found it with regards to women.”
Currently women have little voice at the Vatican. Though women make up a notably higher percentage of those devoted to consecrated life — 702,529 sisters and nuns compared to 55,314 religious brothers and nearly 420,000 priests and bishops, according to 2012 figures, the most recent available — in tangible terms, they play little role in the decision-making of the Church, observers say.
On Thursday, Vatican Radio reported that even though the number of women employed at the Vatican had risen over the past decade to 782 in 2014, female staff still accounts for only about 18 percent.
Only two women hold top positions in the Curia, the Vatican’s administrative arm, and last year a woman was named to the supervisory board for the Vatican bank while another became the first woman rector of a pontifical university in Rome.
Though numerically negligible, some say these nominations “should be appreciated because they are big, even if they are small,” said Cristina Simonelli, who leads an association of Italian women theologians.
“Like nominating the first black bishop, they are signs of change,” she said.
Outside the boundaries of the Vatican, women lead lay movements and pastoral ministries. In many developing countries, nuns and female missionaries are at the forefront of efforts to empower local women, providing health care, education, and training.
“The Church could be proud of these achievements,” but it barely acknowledges them, said Lucetta Scaraffia, a feminist intellectual and the co-editor of a monthly insert on women and the Church distributed with the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, a rare mouthpiece for women introduced under Benedict XVI.
Women are an untapped resource, she said. “They should be listened to, seen, and heard; instead, they are neither.”
Their quotidian reality can be even bleaker than numbers suggest. For many clerics at the Vatican, “nuns practically don’t exist, it’s as if we were transparent,” said one sister who works in a Vatican office and declined to be identified for fear of repercussions.
“In the male world of Rome, a nun needs to be anchored to her consecration, to remind herself why she is where she is,” because she will receive few acknowledgments from the men around her. “They look at you, but see right through you. There’s very little else to say,” the sister said.
In the United States, some observers say the negligible status of women has fueled the growing disenchantment of female faithful.
“People report leaving because they feel that the institutional Church is not relevant, and much is related to the issue of women’s voices not being fully embraced by the hierarchy,” said Jim FitzGerald, the executive director of Call to Action, a group seeking change in the Church.
Critics say that as long as positions of relevance within the Church are tied to ordination, then women will continue to remain subordinate, and there have been calls to delink governance from consecration to allow women greater participation.
Others want to see more women teaching in seminaries, “because it’s a question of culture and of raising awareness,” among young priests to overcome the chauvinism rooted in the Church, said Caterina Ciriello, who teaches Church history at the Pontifical University Regina Apostolorum.
A document adopted in 2010 by the Catholic Bishops Conference of India recognized the need for gender equality in decision-making and urged greater empowerment of women.
“Our focus was changing mindsets,” said Astrid Lobo Gajiwala, who worked as a consultant for the bishops’ group, and is in Rome this week to participate in Voices of Faith.
So far, the policy has been adopted with mixed results in India. “These are slow processes,” she said, “overcoming the conditioning of centuries.”