Women now help select Catholic bishops. It is historic and long overdue.


Reforming the church has been compared to transforming a great ship: you can’t speed it up or you risk capsizing the ship. Last week (July 13), however, Pope Francis hastened his reforms a lot. The appointment of three women to the Dicastery for Bishops is a huge change in the life of the Roman Curia and in the life of the universal Church.

The Dicastery, known as the Congregation for Bishops until the reforms implemented by Francis at Pentecost, is the body that receives the dull — lists of three candidates — apostolic nuncios dispersed throughout the world for all open bishoprics that are not located in mission territory. The Dicastery for Evangelization deals with the dull for mission dioceses and the Dicastery for Eastern Churches manages Catholic Eastern Rite appointments. Dicasteries review nominations and then may approve dull and send it to the pope, modify the dull by changing, for example, the order of the names, or by rejecting dull and ask the nuncio to start over.

Most popes, especially once they have been in office for a while, will have ideas of who they might wish to appoint in a large diocese. But most nominations are for smaller, less important dioceses, and no pope would have control over the large number of priests who might be candidates. Most dull received from the Dicastery for Bishops are approved. This means that members of this congregation wield tremendous influence in selecting the next generation of church leaders.

Women have been involved in selecting bishops before, but only when the process was largely in the hands of lay leaders. For much of modern church history, a Catholic sovereign had the right to nominate candidates for open bishoprics. In addition to powerful female rulers like Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, it was not unheard of that a king’s mistress could exert influence in the process. Madame de Maintenon, the Jansenist mistress of Louis XIV, helped put Louis-Antoine de Noailles on the cathedra of Notre-Dame de Paris in 1695.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, however (and ironically often because of the separation of church and state, which the Catholic Church fought against), the pope took control of the process of appointment of bishops in most countries. The task of nominating candidates was entrusted to Vatican diplomats and the Consistorial Congregation, as it was then called, and it became the Congregation for Bishops in the reforms after Vatican II. Popes have never had so much power over the universal Church as in the past two centuries.

Now women will once again be part of the process. Two religious sisters – Franciscan Sister of the Eucharist Raffaella Petrini and Daughters of Mary Help of Christians Sr. Yvonne Reungoat – and a laywoman, Maria Lia Zervino, will help the pope choose the next generation of church leaders. It is almost impossible to overstate how far behind the involvement of women in church decision-making is.

Petrini has a connection to the United States: the generalate and motherhouse of his order are located in Meriden, Connecticut, a former mill town that has seen better days.

More is at work here than bringing women into decision-making roles. Zevino is a layman. The decision to decouple decision-making authority from ordination touches on deep theological questions.

The pope is declericalizing decision-making in the Church, opening up positions to nonclerics and those without vows. There is something to be said for entrusting decision-making in the church to those who have made a vow or promise of obedience. The life and ministry of Our Lord, and above all his passion and death, were marked above all by his obedience to the Father, so that the Church which bears the name of the Lord and continues his ministry must center obedience in his inner life. I fear that the laity too easily forget that obedience, like prayer and suffering, are the true sources of power in the Christian faith.

But we will see. The mash-up clericalism perpetrated on the church in our time has certainly made it necessary to try something new. The vow of obedience was not enough to prevent the practice of arrogance.

This declericalization of decision-making invites the whole Church, including the clergy, to see ordination for what it is, a gift. If we view ordination as a ticket to authority and power, we will very quickly turn the clerical state into a breeding ground for pride, not a vehicle for grace. The camaraderie of the presbyterium will become – and has become – clicky and unhealthy. The concern to protect the power and the assets of the institution has taken precedence over the concern to protect the integrity and the mission of the institution.

These reforms therefore do not only consist of reorganizing assignments on an organizational chart. They are not primarily managerial at all. At their deepest level, the reforms renew the Church both in light of contemporary needs but also from the source of our theology of grace. Francis, with his call for a universal synodal process, invites us all to address these deeper questions. In his reform of the curia, he shows what it can do to deal with such profound questions.


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