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Pope Francis' Latest Moves To Empower Women In Roman Catholic Church


Women cannot be priests in the Roman Catholic Church, but Pope Francis is now giving them more leadership than ever before. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli explains.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: On Saturday, the pope appointed French Sister Nathalie Becquart as co-undersecretary of the Synod of Bishops, which organizes meetings of world bishops. She's a member of the Xaviere Missionary Sisters. And in her new position, she will have a right to vote in their assemblies, which many Catholic women have been demanding for years. The head of the synod office, Cardinal Mario Grech, said in an interview with Vatican News that a door has been opened. Kate McElwee, executive director of the Women's Ordination Conference, which fights for gender equality, including the right that women become priests, is moderately pleased.

KATE MCELWEE: You know, all of these steps are important to greater inclusion of women in the decision-making and leadership of the Vatican. And so if it takes one woman at a time, you know, that's the pace of the Vatican, so I think those are significant but, again, small steps for women.

POGGIOLI: On Friday, Francis appointed Italian magistrate Catia Summaria to be the first woman prosecutor in the Vatican's Court of Appeals. Under Francis, the Vatican's criminal justice system has become more active with major prosecutions of financial crimes involving the Holy See.

And last month, Pope Francis changed church law to explicitly allow women to take a greater liturgical role during mass. The decree allows women to serve as readers at liturgies, altar servers and distributors of communion. And while in much of the Western world of women already do so, it's not the case everywhere. By making it official, conservative bishops can no longer block women in their dioceses from those roles. While not a radical shift, McElwee says it officially recognizes common practices globally.

MCELWEE: Well, again, it seems quite small for us, especially Westerners. It could have very significant impacts for women around the world, as it will kind of - it gives them an authority and a recognition for the ministries that they do on the ground.

POGGIOLI: Francis has also set up commissions to study the history of women deacons in the early centuries of the Catholic Church, of which there is abundant evidence in the many frescoes in the ancient catacombs scattered throughout Rome.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

(SOUNDBITE OF POPPY ACKROYD'S "RESOLVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.