Reflecting on her role as auditor at Vatican II, thirty four years later, Sister of Loretto Mary Luke Tobin, wrote, “This emerging women’s movement in the Roman Catholic Church has captured attention worldwide because it is challenging an intransigent and patriarchal tradition of that church and is making serious headway toward its goal: restoring the equality in theory and practice that belongs to a Christian and Catholic theology of persons.” 

Mary Luke Tobin was a pioneer, a change agent, and a dynamic, courageous, wise, self-effacing, and respected Catholic leader.  Prior to boarding a ship for Rome to observe the happenings at the Second Vatican Council’s third gathering, she had been appointed president of the Conference of Major Superiors of Women (now the Leadership Conference of Women Religious). Learning on the ship that she had been officially invited as an auditor by Paul VI, Mary Luke Tobin turned out to be force to be reckoned with at the Council -- a force for aggiornamento that wise men like peritus Bernard Haring appreciated and engaged.  

But most importantly for this look back at the progress Catholic women have made under Pope Francis, I am intrigued by this question. Was Mary Luke Tobin correct?  And would she still assert that we are making serious headway toward the goal of restoring women’s equality if she were alive today? 

Many Catholics, including me, are incensed by the most recent examples of clericalism.  Many Catholics, including me, are heart-broken for our sisters in the Amazon whose gifts are still relegated to the second tier by hierarchs.  For those who have eyes to see, women’s prophetic and courageous leadership, pastoral care, and ministry is THE CHURCH in a land constantly subjected to hostile, death-dealing takeovers. 

With full recognition of the lost opportunities for aggiornamento over the past seven years under Francis, I think Mary Luke Tobin would agree. There has been progress under his pontificate -- and in some areas -- serious progress in this world where persistent paternalism and misogyny is practiced by church men, including the Pope.

 Querida Amazonia and Broken Promises 

It has been nine months, since Pope Francis released his post synodal exhortation, Querida Amazonia. Pope Francis consistently delivered an uncompromising message to the wider Church that we need “all hands on deck” to protect and support the people of the Amazon and the beautiful, once-pristine world they inhabit. 

Many Catholics felt hopeful as the bishops and the women and men of the Amazon who shaped the final document forcefully called for the protection of the Amazon, as well as pioneering new ministries to carry out the work of the Gospel there.  But, the Pope stunned Catholics who believed he would deliver on his promise of a more synodal church – especially in light of what is at stake in the Amazon.  In following his lead toward a synodal church, we fully expected him to support the requests of regional bishops who had patiently and faithfully followed his synodal formula for renewing the church in a land where European models of priesthood are a non-starter and women who are already recognized as the leaders, teachers, pastors, and ministers of their struggling communities of faith called for ordination, or at least an honest discussion of ordination.

 What followed felt like a betrayal – on many levels.

Francis did not approve the final document of the Synod’s bishops when he released Amazonia Querida.  Thus, it did not become part of the ordinary magisterium as was expected when Francis strengthened the arm of the bishops and elevated their authority to magisterial level in his September 15th apostolic constitution, Episcopalis Communio.  

While Francis developed a compelling and prophetic vision for the Amazon in the first three sections, the fourth, “The Ecclesial Dream”, fell flat.  Massimo Faggioli nailed it. Chapter four was not penned by those who had been working inside the synod, but by outsiders to that process. Faggioli wonders about the Pope's rush to press, but, no doubt, the German and Australian bishops understand the meaning.  Querida Amazonia serves as a firm reminder of what happens to the promise of synodality and regional decision-making when the Bishop of Rome does not agree. 

Further, while the pope delivered on the promise to re-instate the commission on women deacons, after the promising composition of the first commission, the sad old pattern of choosing those who hierarchs know already agree with the status quo seems to be at play.

Querida Amazonia dealt a blow to our hopes for reform and renewal of Church structures. It was a reversal of statements Pope Francis made regarding married priests.  And, most importantly, it was a blow to the women of the Amazon who serve and sacrifice for the Gospel.

After nine months of sitting with this major setback, for faith and sanity's sake, I offer this examination, without apologetics, of the progress that has been made to raise the status of women in the Church. 

Witnessing the Rise of Women’s Status and Authority in the Catholic Church 

Whatever progress that has been made in the Catholic Church, is not the result of a few elite male leaders figuring it out on their own.  Our brothers have all been challenged and inspired by women.  And the unrelenting force of women pressing for full liberation and equality is shifting the balance of power in the world and altering an institution whose authority structure is rooted in a bygone era.  Women and their allies in societies, and Catholic women and their allies in the Church have been pressing for change throughout our history, recovering lost stories, creating new ones, and carrying out the hard work of the Gospel, even when clergymen tried to stand in their way.     


In profound ways, Pope Francis has dramatically changed the course of the Catholic Church.  He has challenged Catholics to embrace the radical demands of the Gospel by profiling Catholic Social Justice.  He has taken prelates to task for their cold hearted adherence to doctrine, their lack of transparency, their naval gazing, elitist, and insular vision.  He has called all of us all to be caretakers and co-creators for our earth and all its creatures.  And, in most cases, he has backed his words with action and new structures for reform and leaped ahead of previous popes by appointing more women to positions of authority. 

At nine months into his papacy, Francis released Evangelii Gaudium writing,  “We need to create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the Church.” He wasn't the first pope to make such statements, but he has been willing to take meaningful action. And unlike his predecessors who chose women who were unquestioning of Vatican policies, many of Francis’s appointments were women who challenged him and other prelates to think more broadly about women’s gifts and potential. 


The First Woman Appointed Rector of a Pontifical University

In 2014, in a historic “first,” Sr. Mary Melone, became the first female rector of a Roman pontifical university. As rector of the Pontifical University Antonianum, Under Sr. Melone's leadership, other women have been able to publicly challenge the status quo.

Women Appointed to Commission for the Protection of Children

In that same year, Pope Francis appointed Marie Collins, Irish survivor of priest abuse, and a number of other women to the first ever Vatican Commission created to protect children from clerical sex abuse.  A bold woman of impeccable integrity, she did not shrink from her appointed task to make children safe and to hold criminals and those who covered up crimes accountable.  Collins got into what Civil Rights icon John Lewis called “good trouble.” When it became clear that players in the Vatican intended to stand in the way of the commission’s effectiveness and progress, she resigned (2017). Undeterred by criticism at the highest level. when Pope Francis traveled to Ireland in 2018, she personally challenged him to implement a zero tolerance policy for the universal church.  


Vatican Ends Crackdown on LCWR 

In 2015, Francis called a halt to the Vatican crackdown on Leadership Conference of Women Religious that began under Pope Benedict XVI and for the first time ever, invited the leadership team to meet him in Rome where he thanked him for their work and encouraged them to keep going.   

At 2015 Family Synod, Women’s Voices Become Part of Deliberations on Working Document

In the lead up to the Synod on the Family in 2015, the International Union of Superiors General, under the leadership of Sr. Carmen Sammut, fought hard to get seats at the table. After steady lobbying, three women religious were invited. 

During that synod, Canadian Archbishop Paul-Andre Durocher raised the need to bring more women in leadership roles and called for a discussion of women deacons. It was a first that would snowball in 2019.

Pope Francis changed the structure of the Synod working groups that year giving women auditors more influence over the final document.  Previously, the lion’s share of time was spent in the synod hall listening to one prelate after another, cutting short the time when language groups might comment on the working document.  But, with the new rules, small language groups that included women worked together for the better part of the 3 week period recommending changes, additions, and deletions to the final document. 

That year it was noted at the Synod that one male religious superior who was not ordained was, by exception, able to cast a vote, opening the door to a vigorous multi-year campaign to get women religious who have the same ecclesial status as non-ordained male religious superiors the same right to vote.


Women Officially Included in Foot Washing Ritual

In January 2016, Pope Francis issued the Decree on Holy Thursday’s Foot Washing Ceremony which called for the inclusion of women in Holy Thursday foot washing rituals, an act so controversial in some parishes that women themselves had to lobby to enact the change. In other places, the decree was ignored or the ritual was eliminated rather than include women. 

Commission Appointed to Study and Discern the Question of Women Deacons

In May 2016, the International Union of Superiors General requested that Pope Francis re-open a study of women deacons. At jet speed in Vatican time, Francis created the commission in August 2016 inviting some of the women UISG president Sr. Carman Sammut and others proposed.  The commission was gender balanced with an even number of women and men, and included Phyllis Zagano, a well-respected researcher on the topic who has educated Catholics about the evidence that ordination rites for men and  deacons were identical.    

The Memorial of St. Mary Magdala is Elevated to a Feast Day

In June 2016, Pope Francis elevated the memorial of St. Mary of Magdala to a feast day giving her new prominence in the Church as “the apostle to the apostles.”  Elevating the celebration ofSt. Mary of Magdala places her in a new category in the Communion of Saints, a category she shares with only a handful of saints of the most significance in the life and history of the Church. This promotion also brings new liturgical benefits to her celebration that make it more likely that Catholics will learn who Mary of Magdala really was.  

Vatican Museum Gets the First Woman Director 

In December of 2016, Pope Francis appointed the first woman to serve as director of the Vatican Museums.  Barbara Jatta, who had worked in the Vatican Libraries for two decades, was the only woman in a field of male candidates and became a feminist symbol as the highest-ranking female administrator in a country state where the senior positions have always been assumed by cardinals and bishops.


Pope Francis Appoints Two Women as Undersecretaries in Dicastery for the Laity 

In November 2017, Pope Francis appointed two Italian women, Professor Gabriella Gambino and Dr. Linda Ghisoni as under-secretaries in the Vatican Dicastery for the Laity, the Family and Life, which is headed by Cardinal Kevin Farrell.   


Bishops at the Synod on Youth Call the Inclusion of Women "a matter of justice" and Some Synod Fathers Support Votes for Catholic Women

In October of 2018, after a three week Synod on Youth, for the first time, the final document called for the inclusion of women as a “matter of justice.”  Two non-ordained male religious superiors voted on the final document, but no women religious superiors were able to vote.  Women from around the world gathered outside the synod hall to protest the injustice and to call for the vote for women religious, while members of the media like Sheila Pires of Radio Veritas in South Africa, yours truly from FutureChurch, and others helped keep the questions about this disparity alive during the press briefings.  Many bishops became educated about the disparity as a result of the campaign.  The Union of Superiors General (male religious) and the International Union of Superiors General (women religious) sounded their intentions to propose changes to the Synod voting structure to Pope Francis.  


Pope Francis Finally Acknowledges the Sexual Abuse of Women Religious

In February 2019, Pope Francis, for the first time, publicly acknowledged, what Catholics already knew well -- that women religious were being sexually abused by priests.

Pope Francis Appoints Four Women as Consultors to the Synod of Bishops

In May 2019, Pope Francis appointed the first women consultors to the secretariat of the Synod of Bishops, which under his pontificate has become a crucial vehicle for setting the Church's pastoral agenda. The four women appointed will offer advice and strategic direction to the body which organizes the synod of bishops gatherings.

Pope Francis Appoints Seven Women to the Governing Body of the Congregation on Religious Life 

In July 2019, for the first time, Pope Francis appointed women – seven of them -- to the governing body of the Congregation for Religious Life.  This is highly significant because, beyond a consultative role, women will have a deliberative voice in that governing body.  

The Synod of Bishops on the Amazon Wants the Commission Studying Women Deacons to be Reinstated  

At the end of October 2019, the bishops at the Amazon synod agreed in the final document that the commission that was created in 2016 should be reinstated to further discern if the Church should open the door to women deacons.


Pope Francis Reiterates His Determination to Include Women

 In January 2020, on the Feast of Mary, Mother of God, Pope Francis reiterated his determination to include greater numbers of women in decision making processes.

First Woman Appointed to High Ranking Diplomatic Post in Secretariat of State

In January 2020, Pope Francis named the first woman to hold a high-ranking post in the Secretariat of State.  Only men served prior to her appointment. Italian lay woman Francesca Di Giovanni, 66, will serve as under-secretary and one of two deputy foreign ministers.  

Six Women are Appointed to the Council for the Economy

In August 2020, Francis appointed six European women with backgrounds in finance to join eight cardinals and one layman as members of the Council for the Economy. The Council was created in 2014 to oversee and monitor the financial activities of both the Holy See and the Vatican city-state. Only Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Germany and Cardinal Wilfred Napier of South Africa of the previously all-male 14 member group will continue to work with the new members.   

What to Make of It All

The examination I have undertaken is partial. There is more to this unfolding story of women taking their place in the Roman Catholic Church. Yet, if we are to assess the progress of women's status under Francis, we, like Mary Luke Tobin, recognize there has been serious progress.

Pope John Paul II spoke of equality while exhibiting the highest form of intolerance and censorship for those who proposed equality in ministry and, thereby, governance. Subordination of women, under the guise of complementarity, was the project of the "new feminism."

And yes, even the abysmal failure of the Pope to live up to the expectations and hopes of the women and bishops of the Amazon, the UISG and the rest of us on women deacons is a sign that new conversations, halting and fragile as they may be, are in and of themselves a sign of progress and a reason to hope.

As Jamie Manson shows in her most recent article on suffrage, women fighting for the vote for women in the Catholic Church stand on the shoulders of the visionaries of the past who sacrificed in order that all women -- daughters, aunts, sisters, mothers, and grandmothers -- could vote and be represented in our government. It is just such representation in governance that we must enact in the Catholic Church.

Women and their allies will do it.

And God, who puts her big dreams in our hearts, will smile.