“The challenge today is this: to think about the specific place of women also in those places where the authority of the church is exercised for various areas of the church.”

Pope Francis said these words in his famous September 2013 interview with his fellow Jesuit, Fr. Antonio Spadaro, but in the more than seven years since, arguably only incremental or symbolic actions have been made in that regard, at least in terms of the leadership and ecclesial life of the Church. Certainly, he made headlines with appointments of women to various posts in the Secretariat of State and the communications office, and last August Francis appointed six women to key roles in overseeing Vatican finances.

Regarding official changes to canon law regarding the role of women in the governance of the Church and liturgy, prior to 2021 there was certainly much talk but very little concrete reform. Last year, for example, we spoke to Dr. Phyllis Zagano on our podcast. She served on the 2016 Vatican commission on women in the diaconate. Thus far, however, the Vatican has not decided to reintroduce women deacons (although Pope Francis did announce a reconvening of the commission and named its members last year).

The lack of concrete development in this area has led to some Catholics suggesting that Francis has a “women problem.” Others have determined that his record, at best, is mixed.

Two moves within the last month however, send a signal that real reform is possible, and that women truly can be leaders and decision-makers in the Church. The first move came on January 10, when Pope Francis officially opened up the lay ministries of lector and acolyte to women through his motu proprio Spiritus Domini. Dr. Zagano told the National Catholic Reporter that this was “the first official recognition” by Pope Francis “that women can be inside the sanctuary, women can be near the sacred.” Indeed, while women have served at the altar, have served as ministers of Holy Communion, and have served as lectors at Mass, they have always done so in an “extraordinary” capacity, and never as members of permanent ministries, officially installed by the Church.

This seems to be prompted, at least in part, by Francis’s recognition of the important leadership roles played by lay women in the Church in the Amazon. As he wrote in Querida Amazonia, “The present situation requires us to encourage the emergence of other forms of service and charisms that are proper to women and responsive to the specific needs of the peoples of the Amazon region at this moment in history” (102).  He goes on to say that “those women who in fact have a central part to play in Amazonian communities should have access to positions, including ecclesial services,” and that these roles should “entail stability, public recognition and a commission from the bishop. This would also allow women to have a real and effective impact on the organization, the most important decisions and the direction of communities” (QA 103).

In other words, it seems that the Holy Father recognizes the vital (and often thankless) work that women have long performed to keep the Church from falling apart at the seams, and it’s about time the Church officially recognized their ministries and leadership. With this change to Canon Law, it appears he’s made a concrete move in that regard.

While January’s move will have a wide-ranging impact on the Church at the local level, his appointment over the weekend is significant for the governance of the Universal Church. On Saturday, February 6, Francis appointed Xavière Missionary Sister Nathalie Becquart as an undersecretary to the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops, making her the first woman to be a voting member of the Synod of Bishops.

Cardinal Mario Grech was quoted as saying, “With the appointment of Sr Nathalie Becquart, and the possibility that she can participate with the right to vote, a door has been open. We will then see what other steps could be taken in the future.”

While Pope Francis has been clear that the doctrine of the Church teaches that ordination to the priesthood is off limits to women, it appears with these moves that he truly is seeking concrete ways to include women in the leadership of the Church.

Image: Sister Nathalie Becquart, Youtube

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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

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