Pope Francis appointed a woman to be undersecretary of the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, NPR reported. Long-time Secretariat employee Francesca Di Giovanni will take the managerial role. Catholicism began modernizing with the Second Vatican Council.
According to NPR, Vatican appointee Francesca Di Giovanni has worked for the Secretariat for 27 years. Now, she “will be elevated to to the position of undersecretary for the section for relations with states,” the article said. “She’ll manage the Vatican’s relationships with multilateral organizations such as the United Nations.” The Roman Catholic Church doesn’t allow women to become ordained as priests, nor has a woman ever served in such a high-ranking position.
Di Giovanni’s promotion is another step toward the modern age for the historically conservative church. The Second Vatican Council, abbreviated as Vatican II, that took place in 1962 may have been the first step.
Inside Vatican II
In 1959, nearly a century after the First Vatican Council, the newly anointed Pope John XXIII announced a gathering of Catholic leaders to discuss church reforms. Nobody had any idea how big of a meet it would be.
“In October 1962, 2,700 bishops gathered at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome to convene the Second Vatican Council,” said Dr. Molly Worthen, Assistant Professor of History at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “This made it the largest gathering of bishops in church history. The Council would last more than three years.”
Most bishops enjoyed the challenge and opportunity of reconciling the Catholic Church with the modern world, but still, women found themselves largely left out.
“Women were finally allowed to attend as ‘auditors’ in the third [10-week] session of the Council,” Dr. Worthen said. “There were only 15 allowed—seven lay women and eight nuns—and the pope told them they could attend the discussions ‘of interest to women’ but they couldn’t vote or otherwise have a formal say. The council set up a separate coffee bar for the women so that there’d be no mixing of the sexes.”
“People nicknamed it Bar Nun.”
Results of the Second Vatican Council
According to Dr. Worthen, three of the biggest takeaways from the Second Vatican Council were on the topics of religious pluralism, authority in the Church, and human sexuality.
First, regarding religious pluralism, the bishops warmed considerably to other faiths—at least in comparison to their prior relationships with them.
“The Council issued statements that absolved Jews of the blame for the death of Jesus,” Dr. Worthen said. “This was a big deal, since blaming Jewish people for murdering the Messiah had been a major justification for anti-Semitism over the centuries. The bishops also transformed Rome’s official position toward Protestants. They declared Protestants ‘separated brethren’ who, while not in communion with the mother Church, were at least no longer heretics going to Hell.”
Second, the council chose to limit papal authority with the church and affirmed that bishops would act as a balance of power to the pope, which pleased poorer bishops greatly.
“Vatican II also loosened up many of the restrictions that had long marked ordinary Catholic life,” Dr. Worthen said. “Catholics no longer had to give up meat every Friday in memory of Good Friday; priests could wear pants instead of a cassock, and nuns no longer had to wear habits.”
Sexuality and birth control, the third topic and surely the most controversial, came up when a Belgian cardinal suggested the pope “appoint a special commission to study the Church’s teaching on birth control,” Dr. Worthen said. Another bishop pointed out that Catholics’ personal sexual practices were often contrary to the Church’s teachings and that maybe they should seek the advice of married Catholics in addition to the clergy, which was met with thunderous applause.
A Papal Aftermath
No further official action was taken on sexuality, but the cat was out of the bag and the commission formed. The public saw a possibility of real modernity and progressivism in the Catholic Church, but John XXIII died shortly after the council was convened and it fell to his successor to decide what to do.
“The pope who had followed John XXIII and wrapped up the Council was Paul VI,” Dr. Worthen said. “Some people thought of him as progressive, so liberals were hopeful that he would reform the Church’s teachings—especially after the papal commission came back and recommended that the Church should permit Catholics to use contraception. But Paul VI was unnerved by how quickly the church was changing, and he rejected the recommendation.”
Paul VI’s actions cost many Catholics their sense of unwavering faith in the pope; however, the modernization of Catholicism has continued to this day. Francesca Di Giovanni is proof of that.
Dr. Molly Worthen contributed to this article. Dr. Worthen is an Assistant Professor of History at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She received her B.A. in History as well as her M.A., M.Phil., and Ph.D. in Religious Studies from Yale. Dr. Worthen taught briefly at the University of Toronto before going to Chapel Hill in 2012.