BY CHRISTINA FARRELL
THE VATICAN has appointed an American woman law professor to a key advisory post, breaking the almost exclusive male dominance of the Roman curia.
Mary Ann Glendon’s appointment as chair of the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences, makes her the most senior — and possibly the most influential — woman in the Vatican.
Her appointment comes just days after the appointment of the first two women ever to serve as members to the International Theological Commission which advises the Pope and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on doctrinal issues.
The Vatican was quick to stress that the appointments of Sister Sara Butler, an American missionary, and Barbara Hallensleben, a lay German theologian were not a concession to feminism but were made simply because they were “good theologians”.
Prof Glendon, who is a professor of law at Harvard Law School, has proved herself to be a key papal ally. In America she is regarded as one of the 50 most influential women lawyers in the country.
Her areas of expertise include international human rights and American and European constitutional law. She is a strong opponent of abortion and a leading commentator on bioethics — an important issue for the Church in its battle against cloning and other areas which involve the manipulation and destruction of unborn human life. She is the author of a number of books including an acclaimed biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of the American president FDR.
Prof Glendon has already taken a leading role in Church diplomacy. In 1995, John Paul II appointed her to head a Holy See delegation to the fourth United Nations Women’s Conference in Bejing.
In her opening address, she warned the conference that humanity faced a conflict between a culture of death and the civilisation of love, a recurring theme in papal addresses.
Her appointment has been widely welcomed by women all over the world. Sister Sharon Holland, one of four section leaders at the Congregation for Religious and Secular Institutes, told the Washington-based Catholic News Service that the Pope wanted women to take a more decisive role in the Church and the appointment of Prof Glendon signalled the way ahead.
But the greater involvement of women, and of the laity, is not generally indicative of the way the Church structures its theological and advisory bodies. Of the 400 people working in the 10 key offices in the Church, only 38 are women. Of the 35 chief administrators in those offices none are women.
Critics of the male-dominated Church hierarchy insist that the absence of women is noticeable in the Vatican the closer one gets to the centre of influence.
Although the expanded Roman Curia includes hundreds of officials, Church rules stipulate that a cardinal or a bishop must hold the top two posts in Vatican departments. But in recent years laymen have been moved into the third or under-secretary position. Before women can reach the upper-echelons of power, that “all-male” barrier has to be breached.
The debate on the role of women in the Church is not restricted to the laity. In his book, At The Heart of the World, published this week, Cardinal Cormac MurphyO’Connor highlighted the growing disparity between the involvement of women in the Church at parish and at Vatican level.
The spiritual leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales paid tribute to the influence of his own mother, whom he described as “much more adventurous and open to developments than my father”.
The Cardinal said: “She saw flaws in the Church which my father would be more likely to overlook.
“I think women are like that over all sorts of things in the Church, and I do question whether we use their gifts of wisdom and discernment enough. These gifts are generally widely appreciated and used in our parishes, but the same cannot always be said at diocesan level or at some levels in Rome.” Last week the Vatican told the United Nations that an increased role for women would benefit society.
“Through feminine insight, women enrich the world’s understanding, and help to make human relations between and amongst people more honest and authentic,” a spokesman said.