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Pope Francis gives women jobs at the Vatican. But the appointments are only a fig leaf.

That’s been the way of the Roman Catholic Church ever since he became the pontiff: Hope for real change, and then something much less.
Pope Francis meets a group of Franciscan nuns in St. Peter's Square on May 9, 2018.Andrew Medichini / AP file

Why have women been recruited to the Vatican only when things look bad and resources are depleted? The financial management of the Roman Catholic Church has been the source of chaos and scandal, so Pope Francis has finally chosen this moment to enlist women so they can help clean up the mess.

The Vatican’s own news outlet observed that while more women have risen in the ranks, they don’t lead any of the 22 most important Vatican offices.

The appointment of six women last week to serve on the Vatican Council for the Economy, which oversees how the Vatican uses its resources, was clearly a public relations win for the Vatican. Media outlets have called it a “big shift” and “a progressive step” that marks the largest elevation of women to senior Vatican positions ever.

But this latest move is just another fig leaf that serves to make Francis look progressive and the church more inclusive of women, while doing nothing to give them a voice in the church policies and religious practices that would actually represent the true elevation of women.

The women’s roles, which help set the rules for how the Vatican’s various departments operate, largely concern administrative matters. They will also need the votes of at least some men to pass anything in the body. And if their backgrounds are any indication, they won’t be speaking for Catholic feminists the world over pushing for substantive change in the church.

Even if these women were inclined to do so, they couldn’t have any say in whether the church reverses its ban on artificial birth control, a particular problem in the developing world where women are often the victims of rape, have AIDS-infected spouses and live in poverty. They won’t be able to weigh in on the push, so far resisted by Francis, to give women even the limited powers that married men who are not priests have in the church — the right to baptize and preside over weddings and preach at Mass. They won’t have the power to defend the rights of LGBTQ Catholics, who often lose their jobs in Catholic institutions because of who they are.

So even assuming that the Vatican sincerely wants to include more women in leadership positions, this case of flooding the zone seems to be mostly symbolic. The Vatican’s own news outlet observed that while more women have risen in the ranks, they don’t lead any of the 22 most important Vatican offices — even though Francis has the power to fill many of those positions with women.

Six years ago, in an effort to bring some order to chaotic Vatican budgets, the pope created the Council for the Economy, the Secretariat for the Economy and the Office of the Auditor General to get a handle on the Vatican’s mismanagement. The council was supposed to develop processes and policies that make it easier to know where the Vatican’s money was going, while the secretariat had the power to enforce these new rules, and the auditor made sure everybody was actually following them.

Despite these new institutions, the Vatican’s financial problems continue. As recently as last year, leaked documents exposed the Vatican’s involvement in a questionable $200 million real estate deal.

Now, the Vatican’s financial prospects are grim. Because of the pandemic, money-makers like the Vatican Museums have lost millions in ticket sales, and the pope’s annual “Peter’s Pence” solicitation of donations to support his charitable efforts was postponed. The deficit will likely be in the tens of millions of dollars.

The women Francis named have the kind of experience that could help right the Vatican’s leaky ship. Germany’s Marija Kolak studied management at Harvard Business school and has had a long career in banking. Spain’s Eva Castillo Sanz is a former president of Merrill Lynch Spain and Portugal.

And the council’s work is important — it sets the rules for how the Vatican’s various offices and departments operate, with the goal of using resources efficiently and ethically. Even so, council members, who meet just four times a year, can’t order any Vatican bureaucrat to follow their regulations. That’s the job of the Secretariat for the Economy.

Indeed, the secretariat is far more powerful than the council. The secretariat had been led by Australian Cardinal George Pell, who left his position in 2017 after being charged with child abuse by Australian authorities. (Pell’s conviction ultimately was overturned by the courts.)

There was talk that a woman would replace Pell and wield real power over the Vatican’s investments and spending. Claudia Ciocca, then holding a senior post at the secretariat, was rumored to have been the pope’s choice.

Instead, though, Francis went with a fellow Jesuit and Vatican outsider with limited experience in financial oversight. And that’s the way it has been with Francis for the past seven years — hope for real change, and then something much less.

The pope also backtracked on the diversity he pledged to bring to the council in appointing these women. When he created the council, Francis said that the members should be geographically diverse and guided by the gospel values of serving the poor and marginalized.

While the men on the council come from different regions of the globe, the women are from the U.K., Germany and Spain. In an email to me, feminist theologian Mary Hunt called the lack of diversity among the group “indefensible.”

It’s also not clear whether these women will use their new positions to push for greater power for women, who represent more than half of Catholicism’s 1.3 billion adherents. As Hunt described it, they “seem more like successful businesswomen” than advocates for female empowerment.

The pope also backtracked on the diversity he pledged to bring to the council in appointing these women.

Consider, for example, the background of new council member Ruth Kelly, who held Cabinet positions in the Labour government when Tony Blair was prime minister. She has been criticized by women’s rights advocates for her membership in the ultra-conservative Catholic group Opus Dei, which stresses the value of obedience to higher authorities.

“I don’t mean to suggest that there is nothing good here,” Hunt added, but she predicted that these new council members “will toe the party line.”

Having more women at the Vatican is better than having fewer. But don’t be misled. This isn’t a breakthrough, by any means. And once again, Francis fails to empower women to make a real difference in their church.

CORRECTION (Aug. 11, 2020, 11:30 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misspelled the first name of a feminist theologian. She is Mary Hunt, not May Hunt.