Pope Francis has named three women to the Dicastery for Bishops. It is the first time that women have been appointed to the Dicastery responsible for identifying future bishops: Sister Raffaella Petrini, F.S.E., Secretary General of the Governorate of the Vatican City State; Sister Yvonne Reungoat, F.M.A, former Superior General of the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians; and, Dr. Maria Lia Zervino, President of the World Union of Catholic Women’s Organizations (the latter is also the first laywoman).
The Heraldreported on this on July 7. In the teeth of liberal opposition, Pope Francis had already indicated he wanted to give women more high-level positions within the Holy See. A new constitution for the Holy See’s administration – which came into effect in June – now allows any baptised Catholic to head most Vatican departments. Sister Raffaella Petrini had already been appointed Secretary General of the Pontifical Commission for Vatican City State, the second highest ranking position.
In 2021, Pope Francis had appointed Sister Alessandra Smerilli as Undersecretary for the Faith and Development Sector of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development of the Roman Curia. She became, as interim, the first woman secretary of the Dicastery later that year, making her the highest-ranking woman in the Curia. This April, she became the Secretary for the Dicastery. Pope Francis also named religious sister Nathalie Becquart an Undersecretary of the Synod of Bishops, making her the first woman to have the right to vote in the Catholic Synod of Bishops.
Yet again, this would seem to suggest the Pope is keen to secure some sort of legacy. Speaking on Spanish television recently, Pope Francis did little to calm rumours of a potential resignation. The Pontiff said he would not live in the Vatican or return to Argentina if and when he retires. While the Pope again denied he was planning to retire, he said “the door is open” after Pope Benedict XVI stepped down, hinting at a possible exit. Many Vatican-watchers have seen the Pope’s plans to host a consistory to create 21 new cardinals as an attempt to secure his legacy. After the consistory, 82 of the 132 cardinal electors will have been appointed by Pope Francis.
What this all adds up to is a Church increasingly likely to elect another less-than-conservative Pope, or at the very least – depending on how long Pope Francis lives – for the current Pope (should he retire) to cast a shadow on the Church and its next leader, acting as a lodestar for liberal Catholics rather as Pope Benedict XVI has acted as a lodestar for conservatives. There is going to be a balancing act in the years ahead since the Church is increasingly divided between liberals and conservatives – not least in the United States.
Increasingly the Church means different things to different Catholics, inspiring the conservatism of central and eastern Europeans on the one hand, and Liberation Theology on the other. The Pope himself has called capitalism a source of inequality at best, and at worst, a killer. While many conservative Catholics in Hungary, Poland and the US associated St. Pope John Paul II with ideological purpose and saw him as a crucial figure in the collapse of European communism – with Pope Benedict XVI very much cut from the same cloth – Pope Francis has been seen as very much a break from this past.
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