Lay Women Study at Pontifical Universities

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An interview with Dr. Ana María Celis Brunet - Lay Centre alumna 1992-1993, 1994-1995

Lay Women Study at Pontifical Universities

Ana María Celis Brunet is an associate professor in the faculty of law and the faculty of theology at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, where she teaches canon law, law and religion, and post-graduate courses in different programs. In this interview, she talks to us about her Roman experience and studies, and how they became tools with which she continues to work to this day.


What was your area of study and which pontifical university did you choose and why? 

Shortly after graduating as a lawyer in Chile, I started serving as a lawyer in matrimonial cases at the ecclesiastical tribunal in Santiago, when I learned about a diploma in canon law in Rome through a Chilean student who had lived at The Lay Centre. It was a one-year course (1992-1993) offered at that time exclusively by the faculty of canon law at the Pontifical Gregorian University. It was an opportunity for me to specialize in annulments, which helped me understand canon law as a legal system that seemed to me quite different from civil law, more complete and more oriented toward the good of the person. 

I met one of the professors and sought permission to audit courses because I did not have a degree in canon law, which was a prerequisite. I eventually decided to do the licentiate in canon law (1994-1996). Then, I realized I wanted to teach, but I needed a doctorate to do that (1996-1999), especially since I did not have a degree in theology.

I arrived in Rome, without knowing any Italian, and lived there for a month before joining The Lay Centre. The Lay Centre presented the possibility of living in a community of lay students who, after all, are a minority at pontifical universities in Rome. 

My first year was very difficult, as I was the only lay woman among nine priests from different backgrounds, all of whom already had a degree in canon law. I studied Latin and, at the same time, I learned Italian. At The Lay Centre, we spoke English. 

Practical matters were made easier because I lived with people who were in the same boat as I was. 

As for financing my studies, for some years I was supported by Adveniat and my family also supported me financially during my studies. 

What opportunities did your studies offer and how are your studies and research at the pontifical university related to the work you do today?

Today, I cannot even imagine my professional life as it is, without my Roman education. 

I have been a canon law professor in the faculty of law at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile since I returned to Chile in 2000. I started teaching in the faculty of theology in 2021. I have been a member of the legal team of the Chilean Episcopal Conference since 2000, a member of the National Council for Prevention and Support of Victims of the Episcopal Conference of Chile since it was formed in 2011, and was appointed president of the council in 2018. 

I imagine, too, that my studies and subsequent activities led to my appointment as a consultor to the Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life.

I am also specialized in what is known as the study of law and religion, and we have a Center for Law and Religion in the faculty. I am currently president of the International Consortium for Law and Religion Studies.

What advice would you give lay women who would like to study in Rome?

Go for it!

The option to study in Rome fulfils two relevant aspects for subsequent professional practice in one’s own country. First, the training and current topics is provided by very qualified professors who often participate in the publication of the various texts studied. Second, there is the experience of the universality of the Church in one’s fellow students and professors, as well as at the university and in the ecclesial environment. All these factors contribute to having a broader vision of service in the Church.

Moreover, specifically in the case of women, being present contributes to highlighting the relevance of women’s participation, both in terms of their personal capacity and, for me the most important thing, the manifestation of complementarity in the service of the Church. I believe that women’s contribution is different and enriches the collaboration in the service of the Church.

How did your studies help you to become more able to serve the Church and society? 

Perhaps we should ask other people to answer this question, to verify that my studies really have served their purpose!

I believe that having the experience of the universality of the Church, learning about it, the problematization of the issues, the method of analysis, gave me the serenity to tackle different problems and see the relationship between them. In that sense, my studies were the tools with which I continue to work to this day.

What do you think is an area of most pressing concern in your profession? 

Today, in my country, penal canon law remains a priority to address sexual abuse committed by clergy in an ecclesial context. It has been very painful, especially for the victims who have felt abandoned by their Church. At an institutional level, I hope to contribute to creating the conditions to prevent abuse, detect it early and make reparation.

What, in your opinion, is the importance of the role of laity in the Church at a decisional level?

It seems to me that said participation tends to help see the Church more as a community of the faithful.  

Although there are instruments or modalities in canon law that contribute to how decisions are made by Church leaders  to avoid decisions made in an isolated or capricious manner, without a doubt, strengthening co-responsibility goes along the lines of expressing communion in the Church. However, for anyone who participates in the decision making, either by giving their opinion or their consent to certain decisions, it is important to act in good conscience, to be prepared and not to become someone who simply follows the opinion of others. 

I have been able to observe the significant lay contribution in the area of abuse prevention and how complex it has been for ecclesiastical authorities — both diocesan and religious — to accept the observations, suggestions and paths proposed by lay professionals.


Ana María Celis Brunet is a professor of canon law and theology at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, where she directs the canon law department and the Law and Religion Center. Among her many roles, Professor Celis is president of the National Council for Prevention and Support of Victims of the Episcopal Conference of Chile, a consultor to the Vatican’s Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, and president of the International Consortium for Law and Religious Studies. She is also a Distinguished Research Affiliate of the Kellogg Institute of the University of Notre Dame and participates in the advisory board of the Journal of Law and Religion of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion (Emory University) & Cambridge University Press.

Photos: courtesy Ana María Celis Brunet. We also asked our alumnae to share a special photo from their Lay Centre days. Ana María shared the one below.


             Ana María pictured below at her first class at the Pontifical Gregorian University                                

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