Women in Church Leadership
Gender Policy: one path for women's equality in the Catholic Church


gpFutureChurch's Deborah Rose-Milavec leads a discussion on women's roles in the Church in the heart of the Vatican at Voices of Faith event!

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On March 8, 2015, FutureChurch's Deborah Rose-Milavec led a panel discussion on the roles of women in the Vatican and the Church.  

CLICK HERE to read the full transcript of the event.

Today, I have the honor of moderating a discussion with four amazingly accomplished women who will talk about their experiences as women working in the Catholic Church, and as the title “We have a dream” implies, we will hear not only about their experiences, but also about their hopes, dreams and ideas for the future of women’s leadership in the Church.    

With me, I have Gudrun Sailer, Ulla Gudmundson, Astrid Lobo Gajiwala and Tina Beattie.   I would like to share a little bit about each one of them with you.

Gudrun Sailer is originally from Austria, but has worked as a radio journalist in the German section of Vatican Radio in Rome for the past 12 years. She also works with German television news talking about the Vatican and the Popes.  She has written 3 books about the Vatican, 2 of which are dedicated to the topic of women.   Welcome Gudrun.

Ulla Gudmundson is a writer and career diplomat. She is a member of the Lutheran Church and served as Sweden’s ambassador to the Holy See from 2008 through 2013. She has served in many prestigious posts, has authored a book on NATO and has written numerous articles and essays on security policy, international relations, religion, literature, and other topics.  She has written for the Tablet and regularly contributes to L’ Osservatore Romano in their monthly insert on women and the church.  Welcome Ulla.

Tina Beattie is Professor of Catholic Studies and the Director of the Digby Stuart Research Centre at the University of Roehampton. Her research interests focus largely on the role and representation of women in the Church.  She has written and published extensively in the area of theology, art, psychoanalysis, Catholic social teaching and human rights.  Her latest research project is on maternal well-being, poverty, international development in the context of Catholic social teaching, with a focus on sub-Saharan Africa. Tina is part of the Theological Advisory Group of the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD) and a regular contributor to the BBC Radio 4, The Guardian online and The Tablet.  Welcome Tina.

Astrid Lobo Gajiwala is a Scientist with a doctorate in Medicine who established India's first Tissue Bank at the Tata Memorial Hospital.  She is a founding member of Sa- tya-sho-dhak, a feminist collective in Mumbai. She was the first woman invited to address the bishops of India at one of their plenary Assemblies and in 2008 she had a key role working with Sr. Lilly Francis and the bishops drafting the Gender Policy of the Catholic Church of India.  Released in 2010, this policy is the first of its kind in the Catholic Church - both practical and prophetic as it relates to women’s full and equal participation in the Church. Astrid is a member of the Indian Theological Association, has served as Assistant Co-ordinator of Ecclesia of Women in Asia, is a member of Indian Women's Theological Forum and a member of the Indian Christian Women's Movement.   She has written and published extensively on the concerns of women and inter-faith relationships since the 1980s.  Welcome Astrid.

Anyone who follows Pope Francis knows he has repeatedly said he wants to create a more incisive presence for women in the Catholic Church.  At the February consistory, the cardinals agreed.  We know more women are being appointed to decision-making roles.  For instance, Sr. Mary Melone has been appointed as the first rector of a Pontifical University in Rome. Still, you need only one hand to count the number of women in high-level offices in the Holy See.  From the position of undersecretary on up, there are only two.  

So, we see movement in the Church when it comes to women’s leadership but we also see there is an urgent need for expanding the roles women, especially at the highest, decision-making levels.

With this in mind, we will start with an opening question.

  • Tell us about your experience as a woman working in the Catholic Church.  What has been satisfying?  And where has it been less so?
  •  We see there has been improvement for women in some areas of leadership and decision-making.  For instance, the International Theological Commission has now appointed 5 women (out of 30 members, 17%) for this five year term and out of 17 members appointed to the Commission for the Protection of Minors, 8 (almost 50%) are women.   

Yet, we know there is much room to grow. 

  • So I ask each one of you to say a little about your own dreams and hopes for women in leadership, women in decision making roles in the Catholic Church.   What would you want to see enhanced or changed? 

Other questions we addressed in the course of the panel discussion:

  • We often hear another criticism.  That our work more decision making roles for women, more leadership roles for women in the Church is just a symptom of secularization.  Is there a Gospel impulse to this work?  Is it based on Catholic Social Teaching?  How do you respond to that criticism?
  • To Ulla - You have served as an Ambassador to the Holy See.   You have said you were treated no differently than your male counterparts. Do you think your experience is representative of women?
  • To Astrid - The term "gender" has become quite suspect.  Can you tell me what the Cathoic Bishops of India meant by that term when they developed the Gender Policy of the Catholic Church of India.
  • We often hear the term complementarity being used to locate women’s roles in the Church.  Women are equal in dignity to men, but in complementary positions.  Do you find this term useful for ascribing roles to women?  Does it still serve to constrain women’s expression of their gifts and talents, and therefore their potential for leadership and decision making?

Ulla made some of the following points:

  • It is impossible as a professional woman not to be struck by the fact that though there is a lot of talk about women, there is an almost total absence of women in executive positions in the Vatican.
  • One might expect a Church that emphasises the differences between women and men in its teachings to be particularly eager to hear what women have to say for themselves - how can a male hierarchy claim to know anything about women if we are so different?
  • It is strange experience too to hear qualities like ”motherliness, tenderness, sensitivity” being ascribed collectively to women, as if women were all alike. Women are individuals, w different professions, theologies politics etc. If I were to choose one adjective to characterise myself, it would be ”curious”. Curious about the world, about ideas, about politics.It seems to me that the Catholic Church equals individualism with selfishness. But I would equal it with adulthood.
  • Of course the world needs sensitive, emphatic, considerate people. But I think it diminishes women to imply that they only have those qualities, and it diminishes men to imply that they lack them. I am touched every time I see a young Swedish father with his two-yearold on the metro, interacting in a very caring and tender way.  Because Pope Francis reaches out to people with love, I think he is an excellent example of a man who has these qualities, who can be said to embody ”feminine genius”.
  • Women must be subjects, not objects, speaking for themselves, and if they have the freedom to do that and to develop their human potential we will have empiric evidence as to whether women and men are more alike or more different.

Gudrun made some of the following points:

  • When it comes to working in the Vatican, my career prospect as a woman in limited.
  • A little less than 20% of all Vatican employees are women.  Most are in the lower eschelons of decision making.  But women and men earn similar wages for the same level of service.  The Vatican might be the only country in the world where this feminist demand is fulfilled.
  • On the other hand women in the Vatican are underrepresented at decision making posts. What must happen to change this?
  • We need to change Canon law and also the mentality of leaders in the Vatican.
  • Claiming more decision making jobs for women in the Church should not be attributed negatively to secularization.  The Church has always learned and been responsive to what is going on in the secular world.  Thisi is also true of the women in the Church and this particular "sign of the times."


Pope Francis has called for “a more incisive presence for women” in the Catholic Church.  At the most recent Consistory of cardinals February 12 and 13, 2015, Fr. Federico Lombardi reported that the cardinals expressed the hope of “an increasingly active role” for women.  Although Pope Francis stated the door is closed on the question of ordination for women to the priesthood, he has been emphatic in his call for a stronger presence of women elsewhere.  He recently appointed Sr. Mary Melone, the first women, to head a Pontifical University, Sr. Luzia Premoli as a member of the Congregation on Evangelizaion and has stated that women should take up positions of greater leadership within the Vatican. So how many women are in positions of leadership within the Curia?  How many assert real influence? While it is difficult to accurately measure the level of influence women exercise, the chart below has been generated to further that discussion by showing the roles women currently play in Vatican congregations, pontifical councils, and other commissions, committees and offices. 


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While women have slowly gained certain leadership roles in the Vatican, you still need just one hand to count those who hold top-level positions in the secretariats, congregations and pontifical councils.  Sr. Nicoletta Vittoria Spezzati serves as undersecretary for the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life and Dr. Flaminia Giovanelli serves as undersecretary for the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.  There are other women of course, but if you count up all the high level decision making positions from undersecretary and above, only about three percent of those positions are being filled by women. 

Pope Francis has consistently called for a more “incisive presence” for women in the Catholic Church.  Last week at the Consistory, cardinals voiced the same clarion call. Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Holy See Press Office, reported a number of speakers expressed the hope of “an increasingly active role” for women, especially when it comes to the issue of women holding positions of leadership within the roman Curia.  

If Francis and the cardinals are serious about a more incisive presence for women in the Church, there is a roadmap.

On March 8, 2015, Voices of Faith (voicesoffaith.org) will sponsor an event in the Vatican featuring women from around the world who are working to create a more just world for women and children, often in the face of difficult circumstances. One of the speakers, Dr. Astrid Lobo Gajiwala, a life long Catholic and leader for women’s equality in the Church, worked with the bishops conference of India to draft the first gender policy of its kind in the Catholic Church.  She will touch upon this experience in a panel discussion moderated by FutureChurch’s Deborah Rose-Milavec.

Approved in September 2009, the Gender Policy of the Catholic Bishops of India (http://cbci.in/DownloadMat/Gender_Policy.pdf) has yet to receive the attention it deserves.

Rooted in scripture and Catholic Social Teaching, the document contains a solid roadmap for opening doors to women’s leadership. 

  • Without qualification, the bishops state, “The ultimate goal of the policy is to achieve gender equality.”(2)  They say the Church’s mission is to form a “discipleship of equals,”(11) effectively avoiding the “complementarity” language that evokes gender apartheid rather than the full equality of women and men.
  • The document recognizes, “Gender equality is a cross-cutting issue that needs to be integrated in all the Commissions, Church bodies, institutions, policies and programs of the Church.”(12) Recognizing the current restrictions on women’s roles imposed by a ban on ordination, they seek to maximize women’s equality in all other ways possible.
  • The bishops of India understand achieving gender equality means women should have a right to decision making in the Church and must speak in their own voice.  The bishops write, “Gender equality is achieved through equal partnership and involves women’s equal right to articulate their needs and interested as well as their vision of society and the Church and to shape the decisions that affect their lives.” (13)
  • There is recognition that training for seminarians, women religious and even priests, bishops and major superiors is critical.  It recommends that these groups receive courses in “gender sensitivity” and feminist theology in their formation and ongoing education.
  • The bishops recognize that in order to achieve gender equality, “time-bound action plans” (xiv) must be developed that include monitoring mechanisms and strategies for “affirmative action” in reserving leadership positions for women. (33)
  • The bishops hope the Gender Policy of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India will inspire the Universal Church to create a world of co-partnerships. (x)

The bishops of India have written a remarkable document.  Pope Francis values the voice of bishops’ conferences when it comes to making vital decisions for the people they pastor.  He could showcase this initiative as a roadmap for creating more room for women’s leadership inside the Vatican and in the world-wide Church.  This would be one marvelous way to create  “a more incisive presence” for women in our church!