Pope Francis on Wednesday appointed women for the first time to the office that advises him in the choice of bishops across the globe, a move that bolsters efforts to give women a greater voice in the church’s operations.
The decision to name the three women — two nuns and a laywoman — as members of the Congregation for Bishops will put them in a position to influence the selection of the 5,300 bishops who lead dioceses and play a prominent role in the church’s interaction with the faithful all over the world.
“The Pope is saying that the church is choosing bishops together with women,” said Paolo Rodari, a Vatican expert for the Italian daily La Repubblica. “Even in the most male chauvinist niches of the church, his message will resonate.”
The priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church is restricted to men only, based on doctrinal teaching that all of Jesus’ apostles were male. But women’s groups have been pressing for more authority, given that women participate so actively in church life.
The three women who were selected are Sister Raffaella Petrini, the highest-ranking woman in the Vatican City State and the deputy governor of the area; Sister Yvonne Reungoat, the French former superior general of an Italian religious order, the Daughters of Mary the Helper; and a laywoman, Maria Lia Zervino, president of the World Union of Catholic Women’s Organizations.
The office’s members meet a couple of times a month in Rome to evaluate candidates for bishop submitted by Vatican ambassadors and archbishops. It then advises the pope, who has the final word and has the latitude to appoint candidates who have not been assessed by the panel.
The size of the office varies, but the group announced on Wednesday includes 14 people — the three women, along with 11 cardinals, bishops and priests, who will serve five-year terms.
“I see it as an important development,” Mr. Rodari said. “Not alone, but they will help decide the new bishops, an area that has historically been male-dominated in Rome.”
Francis signaled his intention to appoint women to the office in an interview with Reuters earlier this month. “I am open to giving an opportunity,” Francis told Reuters, referring to women. “This way, things are opening up a bit.”
The pope noted in the interview that the new Constitution for the Holy See, which went into effect last month, allows any baptized Catholic to lead most sections of the Vatican’s central administration, indicating that he planned to appoint more women.
He cited the department for Catholic Education and Culture, and the Apostolic Library, now all run by male prelates, as well as other prominent positions that might soon be held by women.
In recent years, Francis has appointed other women to influential roles that had previously been held only by men, including Sister Alessandra Smerilli, who was named to a deputy position in the Vatican’s development office, which deals with justice and peace issues.
Yet not everyone was convinced that the presence of women on the bishop-selection office would lead to meaningful change.
“These women were chosen because they are in line with the Vatican’s hierarchy,” said Lucetta Scaraffia, a feminist, church historian and founder of Women Church World, the Vatican’s women magazine that exposed the economic exploitation and abuse of nuns, said in a phone interview. “Nothing will change, I think.”
Although women will now be significantly involved at the end of the process of evaluating potential bishops, she expressed concern that the pipeline for identifying and proposing candidates begins at the local level, which is dominated by men.
The process begins with bishops, who identify the priests who are deemed to be suitable. Their names are vetted by Vatican ambassadors, who then forward them to the Rome-based office.
Ms. Scaraffia is a Vatican critic on the role given to Catholic women. She resigned from her editorial post at the magazine, citing an “arid method of the top-down selection, under direct male control, of women who are perceived as being reliable.”
“Things change slowly at the Vatican,” she said.