In the past ten years, the number of women employed at the Vatican has risen significantly to 1,165. Never before has the number of female employees and their share of the total staff been higher, according to a Vatican News survey of the relevant Vatican authorities. The number of women in Vatican leadership positions has also grown under Francis.
By Gudrun Sailer
There are currently 1,165 female employees working for the Pope, compared to only 846 in the year Francis took office in 2013. The percentage of women in the total workforce at the Vatican rose in the current pontificate from just under 19.2 to 23.4 per cent today. These figures refer to the two administrative units Holy See and Vatican City State together.
The increase in female employees is even more pronounced if one looks exclusively at the Holy See, i.e. the Roman Curia. Here, the proportion of women has risen from 19.3 to 26.1 per cent over the past ten years. This means that more than one in four employees at the Holy See is now a woman – in absolute figures 812 out of 3,114.
In the ten-part salary scale used in the Vatican, most women in the Curia have been found for many years on the sixth and seventh step. They thus exercise professions that usually require an academic degree, such as lawyers, department heads, archivists or administrative specialists. In 2022, 43 per cent of the women employed at the Curia worked at the sixth and seventh levels.
Women in senior positions
In the meantime, women have sporadically made their way up to the executive level, which goes beyond the ten-step salary scale. Today, five women hold the rank of undersecretary and one the rank of secretary at the Holy See. Secretaries and undersecretaries are the second and third levels of management respectively in most curia authorities and are part of the management team together with the prefect, i.e. the superior of the authority; all three levels are filled by appointment by the Pope. At the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, Pope Francis appointed a female secretary for the first time in 2021, the Italian religious Alessandra Smerilli. It is the highest post ever held by a woman at the Holy See.
Undersecretaries at the Holy See currently work at the Dicasteries for Religious, for Laity, Family and Life (two female undersecretaries), for Culture and Education, and at the Secretariat of State. However, the lawyer Francesca Di Giovanni (70), who works there, will soon leave for reasons of age and will be replaced by a priest. The General Secretariat of the Synod also has an undersecretary, Nathalie Becquart, a French nun, although it should be noted that the Synod is not part of the Holy See (but is part of this statistical survey).
A recent development
Historically, the appointment of expert women to high Curia offices began with Paul VI. In his pontificate, the Australian Rosemarie Goldie worked at the Pontifical Council for the Laity from 1967 to 1976 as one of two vice-secretaries. After a long break, it was not until 2004 that John Paul II appointed the next undersecretary: Sister Enrica Rosanna at the Congregation for Religious.
Under Pope Francis, appointments of women to leadership positions have multiplied, even though they account for less than five per cent of all leadership tasks in the Curia currently entrusted to women, and for now, there is no female prefect as the “number one” of a Curia authority. But the course has been set: In the basic text for the Curia reform Praedicate Evangelium (2022), Francis made it possible that in future lay people and thus also women can lead dicasteries as prefects. This was previously reserved for cardinals and archbishops. In an interview last December, the Pope announced his intention to appoint the first female prefect in about two years.
In the Vatican City State, which is a separate administrative entity from the Holy See, Pope Francis appointed two women to top positions in the ten years of his pontificate: Barbara Jatta, director of the Vatican Museums in 2016, and Sr Raffaella Petrini, secretary general of the Governatorate in 2022. While lay people had always headed the Vatican Museums, the Italian nun took the place of a bishop in the Governatorate.
At the same time, the percentage of women employed in the Vatican State stagnated at around 19 per cent during the pontificate of Pope Francis.
Regarding leadership positions, Francis has not only placed some women leaders in the Vatican, but has also appointed others to positions where they can “influence the Vatican while maintaining their independence”. He himself wrote this in his book Let us Dream. Thus, for instance, Francis was the first pope to appoint women as “members” of curial offices, a measure that went largely unnoticed. Until then, only cardinals and some bishops were members of the traditional “Congregations”. Members – along with prefects and secretaries – have voting rights in the plenary assemblies.
The Council for the Economy, consisting of 15 members, currently includes eight cardinals and seven lay people, six of whom are women, including the British Leslie Jane Ferrar, formerly Treasurer to Prince Charles of Wales. In 2019, Francis nominated seven female religious superiors to the Dicastery for Institutes of Consecrated Life in one fell swoop. In 2022, he appointed two women religious and a lay woman as members of the Dicastery for Bishops, where they participate in the process of selecting bishops for the universal Church, along with cardinals and bishops who are members of the Dicastery as they are.
In the ten years of his pontificate, Pope Francis has increased the presence, visibility and influence of women in the Vatican. Several times, however, he warned against seeing the task of women in the Church as well as in the Vatican from a purely functionalist point of view. In “Let us Dream”, Francis described it as a challenge for him to “create spaces where women can take leadership in a way that allows them to shape the culture and ensures that they are valued, respected and recognised”. By setting a course in favour of women, Francis ultimately wants Rome to become a model for the universal Church in this respect.
(Note: The statistical data on which this article is based covers the Vatican City State and the Holy See, including the Dicastery for Evangelization and the Pontifical Mission Societies, the tribunals and the Institutions Associated with the Holy See. The only institution not included is the Fabbrica of Saint Peter, which is under its own administration, but which provided figures from 2022. According to these figures, women make up exactly ten per cent of the Fabbrica’s staff, 17 out of 170.)