Rome Theologian urges more positions for women in the Roman Curia

Rome-based, Australian theologian, Professor Gerald O'Collins S.J., has backed the call of the wife of the British Prime Minister, Cherie Booth, that "there is little reason why half of all Vatican curial positions could not be filled by women!" Fr O'Collins made his call last night in the course of delivering the annual Peter Slattery Lecture at the University of Notre Dame Australia in Fremantle. He has urged the opening of more senior management positions for women in the Roman Curia.

In a wide-ranging address exploring the impact of Vatican II on the world and the Church, and the changes in society impacting on the Church since Vatican II, Fr O'Collins argued the impact of Vatican II has been most significant in four major areas:

  • The elevation of the Bible in the life of the Church;
  • The greater emphasis on the role of the Laity;
  • Major changes in areas of Moral Teaching; and
  • The relationship of the the Catholic Church to other religions.

It is difficult to pick a single headline that best sums up the thrust of the entire lecture. Professor O'Collins was broadly optimistic both in terms of the changes wrought to Church teaching and thinking as a result of the Council and the capacity of the Church today to better deal with the many social changes and new moral challenges that humankind faces today.

His comments on the changed situation of women in the Church and in the world were particularly provocative though. He pointed out this is one area of Church life where there has been a much greater movement of women into lower positions of responsibility — he pointed out, for example, that 80% of lay ministers in the United States are women. This contrasted though with very few positions of responsibility being held by women in the Roman Curia. Professor O'Collins provided a number of examples in the higher governing bodies of the Church where women would seem to have special insights and abilities to lend to the work of the Church in the world.

Following is the full text of this section of Fr O'Collins address:

Transcript: So many things have happened and, in a way, Vatican II was a bit of a slow starter about all of this. The first session of the Council in 1962 took place without any lay participants. And so also the second section in 1963. It was only in the third and fourth sessions that lay participants were invited. There were something like 15 — women ... lay and religious women ... and some men were invited to take part in the Council as auditors. In the beginning though there were no lay people invited to be participants. It's astonishing — you couldn't get away with it today.

I'm interested very much in the role of religious and lay women. They have become considerably more prominent in the Catholic Church than they had been. Many women have served as part-time or full-time Catechists, and in many countries they made up the vast majority of those who passed on the faith through catechism. Nowadays women teach in theological colleges, university faculties and seminaries. In some countries women are judges in Marriage Tribunals. In the United States there are examples of women who are Chancellors of Dioceses and Archdioceses — like the Archdiocese of Washington, DC. Many women serve on pastoral missions for dioceses, some are administering parishes where no ordained priests are available. There are a huge number of examples of this in Brazil but a growing number in the United States also.

And apropos of parishes where there are lay ministers, whether there are priests or there are no priests, about 80% of lay ministers in the United States are women. And I've come to admire very much the many women who've come to serve on Commissions for Justice and Peace. They sprang up in many dioceses after the Council and some of those women have paid with their lives for protecting the rights and dignity of their brothers and sisters.

One place that's been backward here has been Rome and the Roman Curia. There's remarkably few women assisting the Pope in the Roman Curia and having anything like real power and influence. Take, for example, the Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life — women very much make up the majority of those who follow the religious life yet it is only a few months ago that we got an Italian nun in a position of leadership in that Congregation. Think of the Pontifical Council for the Family — why not have a married woman running that, or for that matter a married couple doing so? And then think of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of the Health Care Apostolate: very many women have excellent backgrounds in health care. It would seem very appropriate to have one or more women in leadership roles there.

So I can very much understand what the Catholic wife of the British Prime Minister, Cherie Booth said in December 2003: "There is little reason why half of all Vatican curial positions could not be filled by women!" I've provided some examples that fill-out what she intended in that passing remark in her Christmas address last year.

So a bit of stocktaking here about the things that have happened, or are happening, or remain to be done apropos the renewal of Catholic life through the roles of lay men and lay women: they're much more actively present but there is still a huge way to go. If lay people are largely responsible for the future of the Church much more should be taking place.

The lecture note outline provided by Fr O'Collins is provided below.

Professor Gerald O'Collins SJ is Professor of Systematic and Fundamental Theology at the Gregorian University in Rome. He is presently visiting Western Australia as Chair of Jesuit Studies which is a joint initiative of the University of Western Australia, the University of Notre Dame Australia and St Thomas More College at the University of Western Australia.

LINK: University of Notre Dame Media Release –

Report and Photos: ©2004Tom Scott/Brian Coyne/Vias Tuas Communications
Published: 26Aug2004

Lecture outline distributed by Professor Gerald O'Collins SJ

The Living Heritage of Vatican II (1962-65)


The Bible in the life of the Church (Dei Verbum, Ch. 6).


Hugh of St Victor and St Jerome ("ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.")

The revised lectionary: e.g. Palm Sunday. Families up to scratch? Bible study groups and base communities.


The Laity (Ch. 4 of Lumen Gentium; the Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People; sections of Gaudium et Spes).


All are baptized into Christ, priest, prophet and king; all the baptized are called to true holiness; all are responsible for the future of the Church.

New movements: e.g. San Egidio (founded 1968); Chemin Neuf. Older movements seem revitalized (e.g. St Vincent de Paul).

Individuals: e.g. John Wilkins, Peter and Margaret Steinfels, Jim Gobbo.

Women: 80% of lay ministers in the USA are women; chancellors of dioceses; parish administrators etc.
Lack of women working in leadership roles in the Roman Curia.
"There is little reason why half of all Vatican curial positions could not be filled by women" (Cherie Booth).


Moral Teaching (see Gaudium et Spes, December 1965).


 3.1 Four areas of change: in belief systems (e.g. fall of European Communism in 1989. End of master-stories?). Consumer globalization.

 3.2 Demographic explosion (3 to 6 billion between 1960 and 1999).
     At the end of 2003, 80 million chronically hungry people in the world.
     Deforestation, desertification; global warming.

 3.3 Scientific and technological advances: first heart transplant in 1967; first human beings on the moon in 1969; Boeing 747 introduced in 1970; e-mail, cell phones etc.

 3.4 Threats to human life: weapons of mass destruction; abortion (in the UK from 1967), capital punishment; euthanasia; experiments with human embryos; terrorism.

 3.5 Moral principles from Gaudium et Spes: "in the light of the Gospel"; natural law and its principles written in human hearts and founding authentic values;
     the voice of conscience gives voice to basic principles; the lessons of human experience.


Going beyond the evidence


Other Religions (Lumen Gentium in 1964; then Nostra Aetate and Ad Gentes "Truth and Grace," "light and life" etc. (= revelation and salvation)
LG on Jews and Muslims; NA included Hinduism, Buddhism and other religions. AG: "from the beginning, the Son reveals the Father to all."

Gaudium et Spes: "the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made sharers the Paschal mystery" (# 22).

Council for Interreligious Dialogue (Koenig, Arinze, Fitzgerald).

John Paul II: everyone shares in the mystery of Christ's redemption (Redemptor Hominis, 1979); the universal activity of the Holy Spirit (December 1986; Redemptoris Missio, 1990 common responsibility_for human welfare Casablanca in 1986 asking pardon more than 90 times.