The Dicastery’s Latest (and Most Unusual) Addition

For years, I have been fascinated by the endless parade of officials that move through the Vatican offices and councils. There’s something comforting about it; I feel as though I can almost see the Church’s “always changing, yet ever the same” nature on display. And so, National Catholic Reporter writer John Allen’s blog post on the Pope’s recent appointment of Dr. Flaminia Giovanelli to serve as under-secretary to the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace struck me as particularly interesting.

See, Giovanelli’s a layperson, so the appointment is fairly unusual. But she’s also a woman. And that’s almost unheard of:

On Thursday, another crack in the glass ceiling appeared in the Vatican itself: For only the second time, a lay woman was appointed to one of the three key leadership positions inside a dicastery, or department, of the Roman Curia.

On Jan. 21, Pope Benedict XVI named Italian lay woman Flaminia Giovanelli, 61, a longtime official of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, as the new under-secretary of that council.

…Giovanelli now joins Salesian Sr. Enrica Rosanna, also an Italian, as the only two women to hold a “superior”-level position in the Vatican. Rosanna was appointed in 2004 as under-secretary in the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. (That was generally held to be a slightly more significant move, since a congregation has greater authority in the Vatican than a council.)

Giovanelli is the second woman who is not a member of a religious order to hold such a job. The first was Australian lay woman Rosemary Goldie, who served as undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for the Laity from 1966 to 1976.

Whispers has more, as always

Commentary on this story seems likely to fall into two distinct camps: either the “cracked glass ceiling/finally the Church is giving women a real role” camp that seems anxious to think about this (and all things) in relation to their ever-fervant hope for a female priesthood, or the “they’ve let a bull into the china shop or perhaps a bat into the belfry” camp that sees it as another example of the laity’s never-ending efforts to wrest control of the Church from its rightful guardians, the clergy.

I can’t find an ax worth grinding on this one. Not knowing much about what the duties of  the “Under-Secretary to the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace” might entail, I cannot speak definitively — (not that this has ever stopped me, of course). But I don’t see anything that would preclude the under-secretary from being either a member of the laity or female.

Mostly I must admit to being impressed by what little one might glean about Giovanelli from the article itself. In responding to Allen’s question as to whether or not she thought this appointment should be seen as a harbinger of things to come, she answers perfectly (and in a way that probably gives us a bit of insight into why Benedict considered her fit for the position):

You are the only lay woman who holds this kind of role in the Vatican. Is the role of women in the church growing?

Maybe it’s growing in what I might call a visible way, but it’s always been there, and anyone who knows the life of the church and its mechanisms, including its institutions, knows that women have always had a very important role. Now, I would say, that’s becoming more visible.

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Joseph Susanka has been doing development work for institutions of Catholic higher education since his graduation from Thomas Aquinas College in 1999. Currently residing in Lander, Wyoming -- "where Stetsons meet Birkenstocks" -- he is a columnist for Crisis Magazine and the Patheos Catholic portal.

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