Pope Francis made some high profile appointments heading into last weekend, naming Sr. Nathalie Becquart and Fr. Luis Marín de San Martín as undersecretaries to the Synod of Bishops.
The appointment of Sr. Becquart has been hailed as historic, a watershed, a major and welcome development.
She certainly has an impressive resumé, to say the least: from her study of philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris, to volunteer work Lebanon as a Professor of Mathematics and French in a Catholic high school while pursuing advanced studies in philosophy and theology at ISSR-St Joseph Jesuit University of Beirut, to a two-year stint in marketing and advertising for NGOs and Christian organizations in Paris.
Sr Becquart Joined the Xaviere sisters in 1995 and took final vows in 2005, after a decade of formation.
She has worked in various leadership positions: for the Ignatian Youth Network in France and as National Coordinator of the scouting program for youth in poor urban multicultural areas; has been president of the Ignatian association “Life at Sea, entry into prayer”, director of campus ministry in Créteil; has served in several roles at the French bishops’ conference and other, Europe-wide Church billets, including the vice-presidency of the European Vocations Service.
She was part of the preparatory team for the Synod meeting on youth and an auditor at the assembly.
Sr. Becquart told Vatican Media that her appointment as undersecretary signifies Pope Francis’s “confidence in women in the Church.”
The General Secretary of the Synod of Bishops, Cardinal Mario Grech, confirmed that both Sr. Becquart and Fr. Marín will have full voting rights, making Sr. Becquart’s appointment a double-first: the first woman to hold a senior leadership position in the consultative body, and the first woman to have stable voting rights in the same.
“During the last Synods,” Cardinal Grech told Vatican Media, “numerous synodal fathers emphasized the need that the entire Church reflect on the place and role of women within the Church.” He further noted that Pope Francis himself “highlighted several times the importance that women be more involved in the processes of discernment and decision making in the Church.”
“With the appointment of Sr Nathalie Becquart, and the possibility that she will participate with the right to vote, a door has been open,” Cardinal Grech said. “We will then see what other steps could be taken in the future.”
Not so fast.
Pope Francis has named several women to “key positions” in the Curia, but he has also designed to govern the Church largely without the central apparatus. That may have been a necessity, a decision brought on by force majeure, or it could be a function of character (formation and disposition). It is likely a little from Column A and a little from Column B.
Either way, it is a fact: “On the basis of the principle that all Dicasteries are juridically equal,” Pope Francis said in his 2016 programmatic speech on curial reform, “a clearer organization of the offices of the Roman Curia was needed, in order to bring out the fact that each Dicastery has its own areas of competence.”
“These areas of competence must be respected, but they must also be distributed in a reasonable, efficient and productive way,” Pope Francis went on to say. “No Dicastery can therefore appropriate the competence of another Dicastery, in accordance with what is laid down by law.”
Then, the zinger: “On the other hand, all Dicasteries report directly to the Pope.”
The problem – not the first or second or even third time this Vatican watcher has noted it – is that some dicasteries must always in fact be more equal than others, if the bureaucracy is to function.
Francis hasn’t put a single woman (or any layperson) in a powerful curial position. He’s taken offices formerly reserved for major figures, high-fliers, and up-and-comers, and turned them into window dressing.
His appointment of a priest, Fr. Juan Antonio Guerrero SJ, to succeed – rather belatedly – Cardinal Pell in the prefect’s chair at the Secretariat for the Economy, did more than merely raise eyebrows. “A collective ‘Huh?’ [that] could be heard across Rome,” was how Charles Collins described the reaction for Crux. “Although a good case can be made that Vatican office heads don’t need fancy titles,” Collins argued in 2019, “the fact remains that the Church is hierarchical, and even bishops are a dime a dozen in Rome: Even the secretaries at Vatican congregations are archbishops.”
Collins went on to say: “The announcement that a ‘mere priest’ will be taking over the office could be seen as a signal that the office has been permanently cut down to size, and need not be feared by profligate officials.”
At the other end of the spectrum, there is the red hat Pope Francis gave to then-Fr. Michael Czerny SJ – who is an undersecretary at the Dicastery for Integral Human Development, with charge of the Migrants and Refugees section. Cardinal Czerny is not only an extraordinarily capable administrator, but also a highly effective communicator. That’s precisely why it was so surprising he got a new red hat but stayed at his old desk.
Francis wanted to send a message about a major issue for which he cares very deeply, and couldn’t have been more dans le nez if he’d made his horse a prefect.
Meanwhile, the Cardinal Secretary of State, Pietro Parolin, assures us that – despite the conspicuous absence of an actual reform law – the reform of the Roman Curia is a fait accompli. “I think noteworthy steps forward have been taken,” he said in a broad-ranging interview with French KTO Catholic TV just last month, “and the reform – de facto – has already been accomplished (It. realizzata, literally “realized”).”
Cardinal Parolin also cited the financial reforms as evidence of the reform’s accomplishment in fact.
Though technically now a permanent body outside the Roman Curia, the Synod of Bishops is no exception – and this appointment drives the point home. The Roman Curia is a prop for Pope Francis, and the Synod of Bishops is exactly as “synodal” as Pope Francis decides it is.