The prevailing view of the Catholic Church is that of a patriarchy to which women contribute very little except in subservient roles.  The media coverage of the conclave has touched on this, and commentators have repeatedly wondered whether the next Pope will finally allow women into roles of power within the Vatican and the church around the world.  In yesterday’s Washington Post, Ashley McGuire of The Catholic Association says the media has missed the transformation that began decades ago, and is in full flower at this conclave:

One by one, I spoke with these women, asking them especially about life as a woman in the Vatican. When I told Sara, an Italian mother of two, that many in the American press have an impression that women are underrepresented in the Vatican and the Catholic Church, her eyebrow arched with suspicion and she leaned back, almost as if offended. “No,” she said. “Maybe twenty years ago.” (She was working at the Vatican then as well.) “Very important women are leading Vatican offices. Women are very, very important [here].”

Carolina chimed in, saying:

“We have a special place here. Because so many of the men here are priests, we have a different form of brightness and character that we come in with, it’s lightened the mood and the ambiance here.”

She continued: When we come in the door, they’re all wearing their clerics. And us lay women, we really bring it when we come in. When people see us come in and out, they do a double take. Romina leaves on her moped, Sara’s driving in with her Badgley Mischka Carter shades. People are looking through the gates and they can’t believe how many women are coming out. Fabulous women that are very well-educated and very well put-together.”

Carolina, who has a degree from Notre Dame, is wearing floral skinny jeans, black suede boots, purple cat-eye glasses, and her voluminous blonde waves are tied up in a chignon.

The women pointed out that the growing presence of women in the Vatican has led to a very pro-family environment. The Vatican, whose workforce is approximately 40 percent female, has a very progressive maternity leave policy, allowing women paid leave beginning two months before their due date and allowing them a year of paid leave after birth. When the women return, they are allowed to create a “milk schedule” so that they can structure their hours around their nursing needs.

In an interview with me this morning from the Vatican media center, Ashley reaffirms that women hold an increasing  number of powerful positions in the Church, and not just here at the Vatican:

Note: My volume is a little low due to a mixing issue, but I’m still audible.

Part of the “patriarchy” misconception comes from a failure to note the fundamental changes in the view of vocations in the church.  George Weigel does a good job of covering this decades-long transition in his book Evangelical Catholicism, but any Catholic active in his or her parish would know this without explanation.  Bishops and priests don’t run dioceses and parishes as CEOs any longer, at least not in practice if still in nominal authority.  Most of those duties have devolved to the laity, in order for the ordained to focus on pastoral and catechetical tasks for which they are sorely needed for the “new evangelization.”  Anyone with personal experience in the parish will know just how many of those managerial and supervisory spots are held by women, and that’s apparently true here at the Vatican as well.

That is, of course, one reason a papal conclave can be of value, other than in choosing a new pontiff.  It’s an educational opportunity, and hopefully the attention on the Vatican now will bear some fruit in the future.