Former New York Times Rome bureau chief Hofmann (Umbria, 1999, etc.) portrays influential women in the papacy’s history, culture, and work force.
About one-tenth of current Vatican employees are female, and the author speaks with more than 40 of them, including nuns, housekeepers, lawyers, and art curators. But before delving into contemporary life, Hofmann details the history of women in church legend. Among those featured are “Popess Joan,” a ninth-century German who, disguised as a man, so impressed the papal city with her learning that she was made a cardinal and eventually elected pope, until an untimely pregnancy revealed her true gender; and Saint Catherine of Siena (1347–80), who convinced Pope Gregory XI to move the government of the church back to Rome. The present-day church, many women feel, has a strong antifemale bias and a “purple ceiling” beyond which they can’t advance. “The great number of sainted virgins and matrons, as well as female martyrs, attests to the conspicuous role of pious women in early Christianity,” the author notes. “Yet Saint Paul wrote to the Corinthians that ‘women must keep silent in the church.’ ” Judging from the profiles here, Paul’s admonition is still in force. Even though Sister Johanna is a highly qualified nurse, she works as housekeeper to an elderly cardinal who requested her services (without consulting Johanna herself) for six months, a “temporary” position that has lasted more than four years. A translator of papal addresses and other documents who declines to give her name expected to be promoted after her superior retired—after all, she had 12 years experience in the department, was multilingual, and cheerfully worked overtime. Instead, the position was given to a man with limited Italian-language skills. The future seems to hold more promise; some Vatican insiders predict that the continuing scarcity of priests will lead to women’s admittance to the priesthood, as well as forcing the church to drop the rule of clerical celibacy.
Highlights an interesting aspect of the world’s smallest sovereign entity.