Following my last post about Pope Francis’s surprising outreach to gay Catholics, a couple of friends weighed in on Facebook to argue in defense of a group whose victimization by the Church has been inestimably worse: women.
Although the blog—inspired by comments Francis had made during his press conference on the way home from Brazil—was focused exclusively on the gay issue, I might have taken a moment to mention the most controversial thing he actually said to reporters on that flight. (And it wasn’t his confirmation of the church’s traditional teaching that homosexual acts are “objectively disordered.”) No, the howler-of-the-day award goes to his comment that women should have a greater role in the church because, after all, “women in the church are more important than bishops and priests,” and “Mary is more important than the apostles.” This was followed by: “On the ordination of women, the church has spoken and said no. John Paul II, in a definitive formulation, said that door is closed.” He went on: “We cannot limit the role of women in the Church to altar girls or the president of a charity. There must be more.”
There must be more? This is the same pope who, just weeks after ascending to the Throne of St. Peter, confirmed his support for Pope Benedict’s chauvinistic slap-down of U.S. nuns for their work on a range of issues (not just advocating for the priesthood). This is the same pope who, as Jorge Bergoglio, was on record as supporting a hard-line, traditionalist stance on all the, er, motherhood issues (contraception, abortion, traditional marriage, et cetera) designed to keep women in their place—which would be servile and obedient to the whims of church men.
Few devout Catholic women who haven’t spent their entire lives cloistered away in a convent will be fooled by Francis’s ham-fisted attempt to appear liberal on women’s issues during a casual chat on Vatican Air. They know his record is abysmal and are disappointed that he didn’t dig a little deeper into church history than John Paul II to find some kind of theological precedent for women’s ordination.
The church’s enslavement of women throughout the ages is fairly obscene, given the many ways that women willingly give their lives to its project. Devout Catholic women typically sacrifice everything for service to their Lord, including their own bodies. And yet they are asked on a daily basis, by their male superiors, to sacrifice more. As I put it in Chapter Six of The Trial of Pope Benedict, there’s a good reason for popes to resist the idea of women priests:
Devout Roman Catholic women have always kept pace with their male counterparts when it comes to theological vigour, pedagogical influence, and efficiency in church administration. They tend to get things done and they command respect, which only raises the question: why not make them priests? The answer is obvious: making them priests would launch Rome on a slippery slope toward women bishops, archbishops, cardinals, and—ahem—popes.
And if they become popes—or even ascend to the level of archbishop or cardinal—women would then, finally, be in a position to rewrite canon law and get rid of church doctrine that keeps their bodies in the Dark Ages. That is the real reason Pope Francis opposes women’s ordination, not because the soon-to-be-sainted John Paul II made a “definitive” statement. (If papal edict were his standard, then why was he so quick to dispose of Benedict’s policy on gay priests?)
As U.S. Sister Sandra M. Schneiders once put it, summing up Vatican gender politics under Pope Francis’s two immediate predecessors, “Women have been seen to complete men the way a second coat of paint completes a house, whereas men are seen to complete women the way a motor completes a car.”
Francis, it appears, may require a Road-to-Damascus-style “conversion moment” before he can transcend such a blinkered, sexist point of view.