National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  May 7, 2004

Sister named to high-level Vatican post

Some see appointment as attempt to open doors to women


In a historic breakthrough, a woman has been named to one of the top three positions in a congregation, the most powerful type of Vatican office. The move could defy conventional wisdom under John Paul II that because congregations exercise ecclesiastical power in the name of the pope, their top officials must be clergy.

Vatican-watchers say the appointment could also have broad implications for the role of women in the church, especially taken in tandem with other recent “firsts” -- the appointment of two women to the International Theological Commission and a woman to head a pontifical academy.

On April 24, John Paul II named Salesian Sr. Enrica Rosanna, a 65-year-old Italian, as undersecretary of the Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life and the Societies of Apostolic Life. The office is commonly known as the “Congregation for Religious,” and it has responsibility for the 140,000 religious order priests in the world, 55,000 brothers and 800,000 sisters.

Among other things, Rosanna will now have authority over a staff of 30, including some 15 priests.

Rosanna told NCR April 25 that she hopes to bring “a distinctively feminine way of seeing things” to her work. (See accompanying interview.)

Women religious have responded positively to the news.

“I think the appointment will be welcomed by women religious, since a large majority of religious in the world are women,” said Sacred Heart Sr. Clare Pratt, an American who is the superior of her order.

“The fact that Rosanna is from a large international congregation is also a plus since she will be conscious of the different situations facing women religious in various parts of the world, and the challenge to welcome truly inculturated expressions of each congregation’s charism,” Pratt said.

The nomination does not affect, at least in any direct way, the debate over women priests.

The Roman curia is composed of three types of offices: congregations, tribunals and councils. Because the congregations exercise what is known as “jurisdiction,” meaning the power to issue binding decisions that draw upon the pope’s own delegated authority, they have long been regarded as “first among equals” in the Vatican. Each has three superiors: the prefect (a cardinal), a secretary (usually an archbishop), and at least one undersecretary (usually a monsignor).

The extent to which positions that exercise jurisdiction are open to lay people is a debated point.

Prior to the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), the general understanding among canonists -- experts in church law -- was that bishops receive their power to consecrate priests and other bishops through the sacrament of holy orders, but their power to govern from the pope. Vatican II, on the other hand, taught that bishops receive all their powers, including jurisdiction, from holy orders. This triggered debate over the extent to which those powers can be delegated, especially to non-ordained persons. Two schools of thought emerged: one holding that lay people could “participate” in the exercise of delegated powers, another that lay people may only “cooperate” and hence cannot exercise jurisdiction themselves. That view prevailed in the 1983 revision of the Code of Canon Law, in Canon 129.

The idea, according to canonists, is that lay people are called to sanctify the world, while jurisdiction in the church is the province of the clergy. Hence laity may not hold positions such as judicial vicar or function as a voting member of a Roman congregation.

If Rosanna were to exercise jurisdiction, it would thus amount to a belated victory for the “participation” school. Vatican sources told NCR April 26 that Rosanna’s predecessor as undersecretary, Claretian Fr. Jesús Torres, was the primary signatory on official documents such as indults, releasing religious from solemn vows, a seemingly clear exericise of jurisdiction.

Rosanna told NCR April 25, however, that her tasks have not yet been defined.

Noted American canonist Fr. Ladislas Orsy told NCR April 26 that an undersecretary is often not involved in jurisdiction, so Rosanna’s appointment does not necessarily mean a reversal of policy.

“Psychologically and socially, however, the move is significant and for the better,” Orsy said, “because the undersecretary is a major official and the appointment of a lay person, a woman in this case, has no recent precedent and may have an impact that we cannot foresee.”

A handful of lay Catholics have occupied an undersecretary position in pontifical councils, but without exercising jurisdiction. The current undersecretary of the Council for Laity is an Uruguayan layman named Guzmán Carriquiry. The director of the Vatican’s press office, a post considered the equivalent of an undersecretary, is Spanish layman Joaquín Navarro-Valls.

The last, and only, woman at this level was Australian Rosemary Goldie, who served as an undersecretary in the Council for the Laity after it was created in experimental form under Pope Paul VI in 1967. When that office was erected as a pontifical council in 1976, however, Goldie was removed and given a teaching job at the Lateran University. At the time, many observers connected Goldie’s exile with the 1976 Vatican document Inter Insignores, which rejected admitting women to the Catholic priesthood.

Goldie wrote that on Feb. 16, 1977, she had an audience with Paul VI in which she expressed concern about the absence of women in senior curial positions. Paul VI, Goldie wrote, “listened and demonstrated that he understood my concern.”

In the intervening 27 years, however, no woman has been appointed to a superior-level post.

As recently as last June, a senior Vatican official told NCR that he did not believe women could hold “management” positions in the Roman curia.

“Right now the dicasteries have jurisdiction, and so they participate in episcopal authority. We’re a hierarchical organization and power comes from ordination. So for now, there cannot be a woman,” said Belgian Cardinal Jan Schotte, at the time head of the Synod. “If the job is redefined, you could have a woman, but then it would not be the same dicastery as we think of now when people say there should be a woman.”

Rosanna’s nomination comes on the heels of the March 6 appointments of American Sr. Sara Butler of the Missionary Servants of the Most Blessed Trinity, and German laywoman Barbara Hallensleben to the International Theological Commission, plus the March 9 nomination of Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon as president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. In both cases, it was the first time women have been selected for those roles.

Taken cumulatively, some observers see these nominations as an attempt to reshape the sociology of the Vatican, opening doors to women’s participation in roles that do not require ordination.

Rosanna is a professor at both the Auxilium, a pontifical institute on education, and the Claretianum, an institute on consecrated life. John Paul has previously named her an auditor at three Synods of Bishops: on consecrated life in 1994, on Europe in 1999, and on the episcopacy in 2001. She has served as a consultor to the Congregation for Catholic Education and the Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life and the Societies of Apostolic Life.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is

'A distinctively feminine way of seeing things'

Salesian Sr. Enrica Rosanna, appointed April 24 as the new undersecretary in the Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life and the Societies of Apostolic Life, said she has been surprised at the wide public interest in her appointment.

“I may be slightly less amazed than everyone else, because I’m accustomed to work [in this environment],” she said in an April 26 interview with NCR. “At the same time, I do agree there’s a distinctively feminine way of seeing things. … It’s to some extent about a gift for sympathy. There’s a relational capacity, a sensitivity to details, an interpersonal emphasis.

Is Rosanna worried about becoming the first female superior in the Vatican with authority over priests?

“Whether or not this creates problems for anyone depends a great deal on personalities,” she said. “I have to say that in my experience working with the Salesians, sometimes as a superior myself and sometimes not, I’ve had very good experiences, and some difficulties. It depends upon character, upon many things. I suppose it’s possible someone might think, ‘This woman has swindled me out of my post,’ even though I didn’t do anything to have this job.”

Rosanna said she was aware of the implications if she exercises ecclesiastical jurisdiction, but said it is too early to know how this will play out. “Everyone says this, all the newspapers have written that the job is part of the power of governance, but who knows exactly what I’ll have to decide? No one has yet explained to me exactly what I have to do. We’ll have to see.”

Rosanna said she doesn’t want to become a fix-it person for female communities.

“I hope that the superiors don’t torment me too much!” she said. “I hope that all the women’s congregations who know me don’t suddenly imagine that I’ve become the magic solution for all their problems.”

Rosanna said she believes firmly that religious life has a future.

“St. Catherine of Siena said if you were what you should be, you would set Italy on fire,” she said. “Maybe we allow ourselves to be a little too conditioned, we don’t make that leap of quality to which John Paul II aspires, to which our superiors aspire. We too are perhaps a little secularized. I believe the church, religious life, has to walk a path of authentic daily holiness. Maybe sometimes we’re a little too focused on our work, on what we do, rather than who we are.”

Demonstrating flexibility, Rosanna said that the full habit she wears is only one possible expression of religious identity. “The habit can be a sign, and so can a crucifix. But one’s face can also be a sign. Fraternity can be a sign,” she said. “In itself, the habit is not the essential thing.”

Finally, Rosanna said she does not see a tension between the new movements in the church and religious orders. “It’s not a competition between movements and religious, but collaboration,” she said. “In such a big church, there’s space for everyone.”

-- John L. Allen Jr.

National Catholic Reporter, May 7, 2004

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