ROME – Of late, voices from Pope Francis on down have called for women to have a bigger voice within the Catholic Church. Yet judging by the Vatican itself, the real issue today may not be only women but also laymen, both of whom lack the one traditional prerequisite for wielding real power – a Roman collar.

Though three-quarters of the Vatican’s work force are laypeople, very few, male or female, have any real power.

A growing, and understandable, focus on women

The perceived “issue of women” in the Vatican has become so prominent that, according to Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops and President of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, it “cannot be postponed. It’s among the urgencies of the Church.”

Last March, the Commission for Latin America held a plenary assembly on the issue of women, and, in an exceptional move, invited some 15 women to participate.

Conclusions included a call for a Synod of Bishops on women, and according to an interview Ouellet gave to L’Osservatore Romano’s monthly magazine “Women, Church, World,” such a gathering would include women, even if it means “changing the way synods are made.”

The trend to focus on women, such as on the International Theological Commission (whose female members Francis once controversially described as “strawberries on the cake”) began with Pope Benedict XVI. Now, across the board, the Vatican has made a point to elevate women, including some as consultants in offices that have never had female members before.

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There are an estimated 750 women working in the Vatican. This represents one-fifth of the close to 4,600 people who work within the walls of the world’s smallest state, combining the payrolls of both the Roman Curia, the administrative bureaucracy for the global Church, and the Vatican City State, responsible for the 108-acre physical space in Rome.

According to an investigation by Austrian journalist Gudrun Sailer, herself a Vatican employee since 2003, almost half of the women working in the Vatican are academics and have university degrees, but it’s unclear how many of them are lay and how many religious.

Though much is left to be done, the change when it comes to women in positions of leadership, some say, has become noticeable.

In January 2017, Italian laywoman Barbara Jatta was appointed as director of the Vatican Museums. Since 2016, Spaniard Paloma Garcia Ovejero has served as the pope’s deputy spokesperson, and there are several Vatican offices which have women leading media relations, including the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors and the Migrants and Refugee section of the Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development, which responds directly to the pope.

Two Italian women, Gabriella Gambino and Linda Ghisoni, both of whom are married with children, are undersecretaries in the powerful Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life headed by American Cardinal Kevin Farrell.

However, on Tuesday the dicastery released new statutes eliminating a requirement that the office have three separate sections – for laity, for family and for life – each presided over by an undersecretary. The new statutes said the office will have “at least two lay undersecretaries.”

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Italian Flaminia Giovanelli is on her way out as undersecretary of the Dicastery for the Promotion of Human Development, but when she was appointed to the number three position in the former Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace back in 2010, she was widely described as the first laywoman appointed to a high-level position at the Vatican.

Yet not everything that glitters is gold: Attempting to explain the gap between the recent promotion of women over men without collars a former Vatican employee told Crux that “there’s a lot of press to be had” for promoting the first, none for promoting the second.

In addition, the source ventured that the low pay the Vatican offers is at least partially the reason why there’s a subtle preference for women: “Clerics tend to think women aren’t heads of family, and therefore don’t need a living wage.”

Others, such as layman Christopher Altieri, a former staffer at Vatican Radio from 2005 to 2017, wonder if women who’ve been named as undersecretaries are simply “token appointments.”

Attempts to address the lack of laity in leadership as “one of public relations management” he said, “will actually make the long-term structural problems more difficult to deal with, and dealing with them is not something that can be postponed indefinitely if the Vatican wants to be a credible witness in the world.”

A place for laymen?

The Pontifical Commission for Latin America is an exception to many informal rules, in that Guzmán Carriquiry Lecour, the second in command, is a layman from Uruguay. Those two things combined make him a rarity, and he’s been the “highest ranking layman in the Vatican” since John Paul II named him undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for the Laity back in 1991. He’s been in his current position since 2011.

Other than Carriquiry, not a single secretary or undersecretary in the Vatican’s many offices is a layman or a non-Italian woman. There are a few unpaid consultants here and there, mostly on financial matters. The Council for the Economy, for instance, has eight cardinals and six lay members, all men, though none are full-time Vatican officials.

Together with Carriquiry, the other exceptions to the “no laymen need apply” rule are René Bruelhart, who currently serves as the President of the Board of Directors of the Financial Information Authority of Vatican City, and American Greg Burke, who serves as the pope’s spokesman. (Burke is a numerary of the personal prelature Opus Dei, and although a layman, has made a promise not to marry.)

Though their salaries have not been disclosed, they are paid outside the official Vatican payscale.

“The Church is hierarchical, orders are important to the order of the Church,” said Altieri, whose eventual decision to resign was in part motivated by salary concerns.

Yet, he argued, that is not to say that there aren’t things laypeople can do within the Roman Curia and the Vatican City State.

“For instance, the governor of Vatican City State, I see no reason why it should have to be a cardinal, or frankly, even a cleric,” Altieri said. “The positions of undersecretaries in many different dicasteries might very easily be filled with laity. It’s inexplicable that there’s no layman or laywoman in real decision-making and agenda-setting responsibility in the dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.”

Going from words to actions

In his monthly prayer video released last week, Francis says that laypeople “are on the front line of the life of the Church,” and he asks for prayers so that “the lay faithful may fulfill their specific mission, the mission that they received in Baptism, putting their creativity at the service of the challenges of today’s world.”

In a document released in early May with the approval of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s theological commission said that, even though the pope and the bishops, assisted by their priests, retain their decision-making authority, “the participation of the lay faithful is essential.”

RELATED: Theologians call for regular consultation of laity in Church decisions

Yet laymen lag behind women, and laity behind clerics. Why?

One possible explanation is money: Though not that far off from a normal salary in Italy, and with the added bonus of functioning as a posto fisso, meaning a public job that basically can’t be lost, the Vatican rarely offers someone with the qualifications to be a manager a competitive salary.

Three-quarters of the Vatican’s workforce are laypeople. The overall annual budget is around $300 million, with salaries and benefits being the largest single expense. That’s not pocket change, but Harvard University, for instance, has a budget 10 times greater at $3.7 billion.

As a result, the Vatican has to economize, and often it’s lay employees who make up the slack. While a Rome-based cardinal gets a “cardinal’s check” of roughly $5,600 a month, a lay person usually draws a salary of around $22,000 a year – admittedly, tax-free.

Despite access to a tax-free high-end supermarket and clothing shop (“that are only useful if you’re already rich,” as a former employee said), as well as up to 475 gallons of gas a year at discounted prices, a Vatican salary just won’t do for foreigners who need to add monthly rent to living expenses.

“Payment is a serious issue,” another ex-employee of the Vatican told Crux. “These guys are the worst paying patrons in the world.”

According to Altieri, there’s a “cultural problem in the curia, that is also found in the Church at every level:” The clerical and hierarchical leadership of the Church “very often behaves as if the social doctrine of the Church is something that applies to everyone else.”

He concedes that it might not be “conscious hypocrisy,” but it’s nevertheless “generally true that the clerical leadership of the Church very often doesn’t consider if what it is doing is consistent with the Church’s social doctrine.”

And this, Altieri argues, creates a situation in which lay people can be abused: When the time comes for a layperson to renegotiate his or her contract or talk about a raise, “everything becomes a mission, a service that you’re doing for the Church.”

The laity, he said, are seen by the Vatican and the broader clerical leadership of the Church as “paid or stipend volunteers, almost as if their paychecks are charity.”

Until that culture changes, he said, the Church will not be able to tap fully into the vast human resources that they have throughout the world.

Coming from a different perspective, American Kerry Robinson agrees on the need for the Church to recognize the contribution laywomen and men from around the world can make to the Church.

In many parts of the world, lay Catholics have risen to levels of influence and affluence and count among the highest echelons of leadership in every sector and industry, Robison told Crux via email.

An American, she serves as the global ambassador to the Leadership Roundtable, that promotes best practices in the management, finances, communications, and human resources development of the Catholic Church, including greater incorporation of the expertise of the laity.

“Many laywomen and men have leadership and management expertise, financial acumen, problem solving capability, and exceptional skill in communications, technology, human resource development, and strategic planning,” Robinson said, adding that many have studied and teach theology, ethics, pastoral planning, canon law and ecclesiology.

In her view, there has never been a more urgent time for the Church “to avail itself of such lay expertise and perspectives.”

“Failure to recognize and enlist the talents of laity in decision making processes is a failure of stewardship of the Church’s greatest asset: Its people,” she said.

The fact that it’s virtually impossible for the Vatican to fire a layperson, even when deserved, is also used to justify the fact that the Church tends to gravitate towards priests when hiring new people: A rightly placed phone call to the bishop, in their case, means they’ll be packing their bags the next day.

Another reason often used to justify the scarcity of laity in high-ranking Vatican jobs is canon law, but most experts say that’s just an urban legend.

According to young Italian canonist Claudia Giampietro, there’s no reference in Church law about any requirement to have a cardinal heading a Vatican department, “because it is not established anywhere that ordained ministries should be leading the dicasteries.”

“In fact, it would be great to have someone who is not a cardinal in charge of the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life for example,” she told Crux.

“It’s just a matter of tradition, which reinforces power dynamics among cardinals,” she said.

Not second-class contributors

Several of the sources consulted by Crux agree that at the end of the day, as one of them put it, the Vatican is in a “desperate need to change its culture” if the Church’s clerical and hierarchical structure wants to turn words into action when it comes to involving the laity.

“It’s not enough to hire a layperson,” Altieri sad. “You need to hire a layperson and give that person actual power, and then let that person exercise his or her power. If that means making them able to fire a cleric, and making that decision stick, then that’s what it means.”

The Vatican Radio veteran acknowledged that he hasn’t “been through all the records of all the dicasteries, and I don’t know the internal cultures of each, but the impression is that sort of thing does not happen. Until it does, it’s all talk.”

Robinson said that Church leaders can begin by recognizing the value of including laity, “especially women,” in meaningful leadership positions, since, after all, “great leaders surround themselves with the most capable people with expertise in areas different than their own, for the sake of the mission of the organization.”

Diocesan finance councils, parish pastoral councils, boards of trustees of Catholic institutions, and advisory bodies to pontifical congregations and councils can all be strengthened by diverse and experienced laity.

According to Robinson, the Church would do well to begin to invest in young adults, prepare those who don’t discern a vocation to the priesthood or religious life for meaningful lay leadership, “not as second-class contributors to the Church’s mission, but as vital partners in its flourishing.”

“The Church deserves to benefit from such talent,” she said.