Men have long dominated the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church. But there is a whiff of change in the air as women eye positions of power.

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Marianne Pohl-Henzen, who was appointed to a senior Catholic administrative post previously held by a priest, in Fribourg, Switzerland, 3 June 2020 (AP Photo/Nadine Achoui-Lesage)

A French woman theologian applies to become archbishop of Lyon. The papal ambassador in Paris agrees to meet seven other women eyeing church posts reserved for men. In several countries, bishops speak up and see no reason women should not belong to the college of cardinals that elects the next pope.

After film, fashion and sports, is the #MeToo movement finally coming to that 2,000-year-old bastion of male privilege, the Roman Catholic Church?

“Whoa!” many Catholics would say. Jesus picked only men as his Apostles. The Church “thinks in centuries” and will not bend with the wind. Change like this might require another Vatican council, and we all know how long it could be before that happens.

Yes, those arguments are out there. But they just might be undermined by trends pushing in a different direction. The trends are getting too visible to ignore, and the already weakened institution is struggling to respond to them.

Woman campaigns to lead Church in Lyon.

“In the Bible, there is no ‘chosen sex,’” Anne Soupa, a leading lay theologian, said in announcing her candidacy to head the Lyon archdiocese in May. “It’s beneath my Church, which I love, to think that half of humanity should be treated like this.”

Defying the Vatican, Soupa launched her campaign to lead the Church in Lyon after a sexual abuse scandal rocked the French city and ended the career of its previous Catholic leader, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin.

“All responsibilities they may have are always capped by a priest. This is not possible at the time of parity,” she said in one of the many interviews she’s given since then. “This is not a gesture against the Church, but for it.”

Instead of demanding women be ordained priests, Soupa proposed separating the spiritual and managerial roles of an archbishop. That would leave the sacraments to ordained men and let lay Catholics — including women — take over the day-to-day running of the archdiocese.

Abuse in Church has been covered up.

A 73-year old mother of four, Soupa argues that Lyon has been badly managed under its past four archbishops who covered up for priests abusing young people.

In the archdiocese’s worst case, Fr. Bernard Preynat was defrocked by the Church in 2019 for abusing boy scouts for decades. He was sentenced this year by the state to five years in prison.

Soupa knows she will not get the Lyon post but says her candidacy will advance the debate about ordained ministry and church governance. Pope Francis has asked theologians to investigate the issue, but nothing has been done about it so far.

More than 17,000 people have signed a petition in her favor. Rather than ignoring or criticizing Soupa’s decision, a Lyon archdiocese spokesperson called it “symbolic” and stressed what the Church has done for women.

French women apply for male-only posts.

As if to say these demands can no longer be ignored, the papal nuncio, or ambassador, in Paris has reacted to applications by seven other French women for male-only Church posts by contacting them to arrange meetings to discuss their demands.

The seven have fewer qualifications than Soupa, and Archbishop Celestino Migliore, one of the Vatican’s top diplomats, will certainly not promise them anything. But a start has been made.

Bishops conference leaders in both France and Germany have essentially echoed Soupa’s argument about opening senior posts in the Church to women.

“The Holy See will one day be led by the pope surrounded by a college of cardinals in which there would be women,” the Frenchman, Archbishop Éric de Moulins-Beaufort, said, referring to the central government of the Catholic Church. Moulins-Beaufort supports the ordination of women deacons and conferring voting rights at Vatican synods to nuns who head a congregation of women religious — two of many roles barred to females now.

Women may be priests some distant day.

In Germany, Bishop Georg Bätzing said Catholicism had to open up more posts for women, “otherwise the Church is finished.” He could not see “a mistake that would lead the Church astray” if women were ordained, although Rome still argues against such a reform.

“Its arguments are no longer accepted by large portions of the people of God, not out of bad faith but because good theological arguments speak against them,” Bätzing said, adding that he expected current internal debates in the German Church to produce a call for women’s ordination and that he would bring this to Rome to defend it.

In neighboring Switzerland, the bishop in Fribourg has appointed a lay woman to replace one of his five episcopal deputies. Marianne Pohl-Henzen is called episcopal delegate rather than vicar since she is not a priest, but she has all the other duties and privileges the men have.

Pohl-Henzen, who looks after the German-speaking areas of the mainly French-language diocese, is not seeking ordination herself. “Women may be priests some distant day,” she said, but “we have to take small steps because there is a reluctance to change.”

Some Catholic women say they would have prevented abuse.

Several trends have come together to promote ideas that would have been dismissed out of hand only a few years ago.

Pope Francis has fostered this new attitude by often criticizing the clericalism that makes ordained male priests into the ultimate authority in all things Catholic.

The continuing revelations of sexual abuse by priests, a phenomenon by now well documented in Europe and North America and admitted less freely in other parts of the world, has undermined the respect and authority the Church used to enjoy.

Many Catholic women say such abuse would not have happened if they had been in decision-making positions in the Church.

The rising average age of the clergy and dwindling numbers of new vocations in many developed countries means the Church is already turning increasingly to lay Catholics to do jobs priests used to occupy. This can only accelerate in coming years.

Perhaps aware that many Catholics are growing impatient with his many words but fewer deeds, Pope Francis unexpectedly appointed six lay women to the Vatican’s 15-member chief financial office last week.

Three questions to consider:

  1. Do you think the Roman Catholic Church will ever give women equal status to men?
  2. Could the sexual abuse crisis in the Church have been handled better if women had been in decision-making positions?
  3. Is the Catholic “stained glass ceiling” the hardest one for women to crack?

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Tom Heneghan was a correspondent, bureau chief, regional news editor and global religion editor during his 40 years at Reuters, with postings in Vienna, Geneva, Islamabad, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Bonn and Paris. He covered the Soviet-Afghan war, two papal elections and Germany’s reunification, which he analyzed in his book “Unchained Eagle: Germany After The Wall”. Based in Paris, he now writes regularly for The Tablet in London and Religion News Service in Washington.

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Human Rights Women's rights #MeToo in the Catholic Church? Not yet, but trends are there