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Reality Check on Pope Francis

| March 19, 2014

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Pope Francis March 2013

The one-year anniversary of Pope Francis’s election and installment is being celebrated for a change in tone and direction of the Catholic church. The media-savvy Pope has changed the messaging, increasing the popularity of the Papacy in his first year in office to much fanfare. Pope Francis’s rhetoric of creating a “deeper theology of Women in the church” is a headline-grabbing sound bite, but the basic substance of church policies regarding women has not changed. Pope Francis’s words may give women in the church hope, but reality suggests that this hope may be misplaced. Many of the strictures of his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI remain in place, and substantive change is still years away. A look at Francis’s “year in women” shows much about his deft dodging of deeper systemic change in the Catholic church regarding women.  Actions and official statements, rather than pithy sound bites, provide the real insight into how Pope Francis is negotiating the church’s policies.

Pope Francis’s speeches and comments on women in the past year indicate subtle hints of change to come regarding women’s roles in both the Vatican and the broader Catholic church. In a March 2014 interview with Corriere della Serra, Francis stated, “It is true that women can and ought to be more present in the places where the Church’s decisions are made.” In July 2013 interviews on a plane back to Italy from World Youth Day in Brazil, the Pope made wide-ranging comments about women, including, “Women in the church are more important than bishops and priests: how, this is something we have to try and explain better, because I believe we lack a theological explanation of this.”

While these words sound progressive to outsiders, consider that the first place that Pope Francis could have made changes is with the Leadership Council of Women Religious (LCWR). His predecessor Benedict ordered an investigation that resulted in extraordinary sanctions of the organization in April of 2012, including the appointment of an external administrator, Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartrian, to curtail their activities. The LCWR activities leading to the censure were described as a rejection of faith, protesting the church’s teachings on homosexuality, and “a prevalence of certain radical feminist themes” at LCWR conferences. One of the first things that Pope Francis did was to reaffirm the findings of the LCWR investigation a month after taking office. While some Vatican observers suggested this was out of respect for Pope Benedict, I believe it is more of an indication that change will not come quickly regarding women in the Catholic church.

Pope Francis has relied on very traditional ways of speaking about gender. Key to understanding his words is the principle of complementarity: men and women have different roles and responsibilities in religious leadership, family life, and marriage. In the Catholic tradition, that means that women, like Mary, can be highly revered, but they cannot be priests or in ordained leadership in the church. So rather then rely on the off-the-cuff comments that the Pope is making regarding women, it is more important to look at his first pastoral exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, to ascertain what the Pope really believes.

In section 103 of Evangelli Gaudium, an extensive section on women in the church reads in part:

The Church acknowledges the indispensable contribution which women make to society through the sensitivity, intuition and other distinctive skill sets which they, more than men, tend to possess. I think, for example, of the special concern which women show to others, which finds a particular, even if not exclusive, expression in motherhood. I readily acknowledge that many women share pastoral responsibilities with priests, helping to guide people, families and groups and offering new contributions to theological reflection. But we need to create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the Church.

This statement may seem hopeful, but within it is the principle of complementarity. Francis lauds women for sensitivity, intuition, and “distinctive skill sets” he associates these qualities with women, rather than men. By exalting motherhood, the emphasis can remain on Mary and the church, keeping women in the “complementary, but subordinate role to men in the church.  Recognizing that women share “pastoral,” i.e. helping, responsibilities in the church, Francis wants to create more opportunities for “female presence.” The document goes on, however, to state where female presence is not required: the priesthood. 

I doubt seriously that the Catholic church position on women priests will change in my lifetime. Pope Francis may say all sorts of encouraging statements about the importance of women in the church, but it means NOTHING without structural change. Media watchers would do well to realize this. While the Vatican gets a public relations boost, progress for women remains on the back burner of the Catholic church, forever signaled as important, but unchanging and stagnating. While many faithful women stay, others who believe they are called to ministry or service leave the church to pursue their vocations elsewhere.

Pope Francis has blown a different wind into the Catholic church, but women should not expect abortion, sexual abuse, women in ministry, or the role of women in the church to change anytime soon. Without women in the conversation, these important issues will remain the purview of men making decisions based on traditions and dogma. If Pope Francis is serious about women in the church, one way to evince that is to begin to appoint women theologians to the Vatican task forces on sexual abuse, or to the new economic council of the Vatican, to which the Pope just appointed eight Cardinals and eight laymen. Surely there are Catholic laywomen who can understand banking and economic systems as well as or better than men.

No matter how much Pope Francis has changed the face of the church, his words without concrete actions are insufficient. Women cannot hope that the issues that are important to us regarding sexuality, equality, and economics will be addressed in the Catholic church until we get a seat at the table. As in da Vinci’s Last Supper, women’s place at that table in the church today remains invisible, and our important contributions to the church remain ignored.

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This Saturday on WMC Live with Robin Morgan on CBS Radio WFJK 1580 at 11:00 a.m. in the Mid Atlantic Region

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