The Light of God Shines Best Through a Glass Ceiling

The Vatican is an independent, land-locked religious city-state located near the western coast of central Italy. It officially became a country in 1939 as a result of the Lateran Treaty. Around 800 people make up Vatican City’s official population. The foremost citizen of the Vatican is the Pope, a religious leader who has great political sway and control over large undisclosed amounts of wealth. In addition, the group of Cardinals who elect the Pope also live within the city. The remaining Vatican City residents are members of the Swiss Guard, a group of mercenaries who protect the Pope. Only about half of the official population lives within the city, while the rest serve the Vatican as official representatives in foreign countries.

Sister Enrica Rosanna  2

Sister Enrica Rosanna, courtesy of Catholic Press

Historically, women haven’t exercised much of a presence in the Vatican. They populate a small percentage of the Swiss Guard although they have difficulty fulfilling the prerequisites. The Vatican allows the official electrician and the official gardener to have families, and they are some of the only people inside the walls of the Vatican who are not celibate, but the women involved have little to no authority in these situations. In fact, only one woman in the Vatican had any sort of power at all. Specifically, Sister Enrica Rosanna served as an undersecretary to an important organization during the reign of Pope John Paul II, a more liberal Pope who pushed for major reforms in the Catholic Church.

In order to analyze further what this means, I need to offer a brief biographical overview. Sister Rosanna grew up in the Church in Turin, an important trade city in Italy, and eventually became a sociologist. The first woman to graduate from her school, she gained an impressive reputation for her achievements in Catholic Academia. Pope John Paul himself appointed her to her position as the undersecretary of the Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. This position entails overseeing some aspects of determining the rights, studies, and government of organizations that are dedicated to living a life of faith, chastity, and poverty. In other words, Sister Rosanna oversaw Holy Orders of nuns and clerics around the world. She was the first woman to hold a position of power and jurisdiction within the Vatican itself, and in this position she was regarded with great prominence. As an undersecretary, her duties consist of collaboration with various offices within and outside of the Vatican, helping bridge a communication gap between the actual offices and organizations and the actual secretary. She performed her work with great passion until she finally retired in 2011, probably because of age.

Sister Rosanna viewed her position as one of service, and when first appointed, she caused a big stir in both patriarchal Church circles and the outside world. The former viewed her appointment as a terrible disruption that destroyed a millennium of tradition, while the latter took it as a sign that the Church was beginning to change what some would view as sexist discrimination. Sister Rosanna believes that her position resulted from what Pope John Paul wrote and taught about women, and even though she was shocked at her appointment, she continues to view it as the natural and direct outcome of “Mulieris Dignitatum,” a document in which John Paul writes about his high regard for women.

Courtesy of Vatican

Courtesy of *Vatican*

When Pope John Paul appointed her, it would be the first times in history that a Catholic priest would have to report to a woman as his overseer. To put it another way, she was the first non-ordained person within the Vatican to hold authority over an ordinated person. Before her appointment, ordinated priests held all of the power, and to become a priest, the first requirement is having XY genes. Because of this, she proceeded with caution during the first few months of working at her post, always ready for sexism, but she was not afraid. As she said, “I’m somewhat accustomed, so to speak, to breaking the ice. In 1972 I was the first woman to gain a doctorate at the Pontifical Gregorian University with a thesis on secularization. And moreover I was the first woman […] to teach in a Pontifical University.” She has spent much of her life “breaking the ice” and serving as an example of the progress the Church is making in gender equality.

However, the Church still has a long way to go in this regard. The Papacy usually depicted Sister Rosanna as the model of femininity and the set expectation for women, often comparing her to Mother Mary. This seems to have been the fate of many woman in the Catholic Church, assigned a glorious title with little to no real power. Although Sister Rosanna was given authority, her post didn’t approach the highest positions available in the inner workings of the Church given only to men. In fact, she was the first woman in almost 2,000 years to hold a respectable degree of authority within the Universal Church.

Although she does not identify herself with feminism (which has long been a taboo subject in the Catholic Church), Sister Rosanna is a beacon of hope for Christian women around the world. Outside of the church, however, it is a slightly different story. Again, she is celebrated for achieving this position, but the rest of Catholicism must follow the steps that Pope John Paul II took in order to end gender inequality in the largest religious group in the world. Women have just as much potential for leadership as men, and giving them authority will not cause the total collapse of society as some in the Papacy might believe. Her appointment still matters today because since then, the Catholic Church has not named any other woman to a post of authority.

Courtesy of Salesian Sisters of Don Bosco

Courtesy of Salesian Sisters of Don Bosco

Sister Enrica Rosanna helps illustrate a very important issue in the Catholic Church. Women have begun to populate positions within the Church, but none have broken through the glass ceiling that keeps them from gaining positions of real power. Men have long dominated Christianity for a number of reasons, not allowing women into teaching positions or positions of authority. Sister Rosanna’s appointment also exemplifies a cultural shift that started with John Paul II, ended briefly with Pope Benedict XVI, and might be restarted by the newest Pope, Francis. However, giving women titles like “Mother” while keeping their authority in check won’t do. Hopefully, some key members in the Catholic Church appointed Sister Rosanna for the right reasons.