07 March 2014, The Tablet

So what will Francis do to boost the role of women in the Church?

As the first anniversary of Pope Francis’ election approaches all sorts of commentators will be saying all sorts of things about how the surprise Argentinian outsider has fared in his first year at the helm of the Catholic Church. Expectations were sky-high from the start and clearly many people feel he has delivered: in a poll we conducted, almost three-quarters of respondents said Francis has made them feel prouder of their faith than they felt before.

An earlier Tablet poll a year ago showed that people wanted to see the new pope improving the role of women. On the eve of International Women’s Day I thought I’d review what Francis has said thus far.

“Women can and must be more present in the places of decision-making in the Church. But this I would call a promotion of the functional sort [by which] you don’t get very far. We must, rather, think that the Church has a feminine article: la. She is feminine in her origin. The great theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar worked a lot on this theme: The Marian principle guides the Church aside the Petrine. The Virgin Mary is more important than any bishop and any apostle. The theological deepening is in process. Cardinal Rylko, with the Council for the Laity, is working in this direction with many women experts in different areas.” (March, interview with Corriere della Sera)

“Women in the Church must be valued not ‘clericalised’. Whoever thinks of women as cardinals suffers a bit from clericalism.” (December, interview with La Stampa)

“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. Because ‘the feminine genius is needed in all expressions in the life of society, the presence of women must also be guaranteed in the workplace’ and in the various other settings where important decisions are made, both in the Church and in social structures.” From Evangelii Gaudium (November)

“It is necessary to broaden the opportunities for a stronger presence of women in the church. I am wary of a solution that can be reduced to a kind of ‘female machismo,’ because a woman has a different make-up than a man. But what I hear about the role of women is often inspired by an ideology of machismo. Women are asking deep questions that must be addressed. The Church cannot be herself without the woman and her role. The woman is essential for the Church. Mary, a woman, is more important than the bishops. I say this because we must not confuse the function with the dignity … We have to work harder to develop a profound theology of the woman. Only by making this step will it be possible to better reflect on their function within the Church. The feminine genius is needed wherever we make important decisions. The challenge today is this: to think about the specific place of women also in those places where the authority of the Church is exercised for various areas of the Church.” (Interview with Jesuit publications, September)

So there you have it. Yes to feminine genius, no to turning women into clerics. While we await the detail of what these sentiments might produce, would you like to suggest some ideas?

What do you think?


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User comments (5)

Comment by: Luis Gutierrez
Posted: 11/03/2014 18:15:46

I don't doubt that Pope Francis has the best possible intentions to do what he can about women in our patriarchal church. But it is hard to imagine that the feminine presence can really be enhanced as long as only males can stand around the altar.

Any attempt to enhance the role of women, while refusing to ordain them to the priesthood, is an exercise in window dressing. It is time to admit that the patriarchal priesthood is not a matter of faith.

Comment by: mokantx
Posted: 10/03/2014 22:29:55

Seems to me that one very effective "foundation stone" step he could take is to the requirements that various governance positions in the church be held by the ordained. By opening these positions to the laity (while still allowing the current clerical crowd), it would at least make it possible to move a well qualified women into some of the decisionmaking positions in the church.

For now, the big concern many of us share is that what would be opened to women would be things with high-fallutin' titles, but no real power. Why not, for example, find a way where women could have key, true decisionmaking positions in ANYTHING related to the abuse of children by clergy, INCLUDING the removal of priests, and the disciplining of bishops? Is the fear that the woman won't "get" the importance of the all male clergy? If so, how is that same all male clergy expected to "get" the nature of parenthood, and what the vulnerability of a child really means?

Comment by: Tina Beattie
Posted: 10/03/2014 10:21:28

Pope Francis has been a breath of fresh air, but women are still languishing in the musty old rooms of romantic stereotypes and masculine fantasies. It is not true to say that the Church lacks a theology of woman. Women scholars have amassed a vast body of theological reflections on women, but these have been either ignored or condemned by Rome. Pope Francis continues to use terms such as 'feminine genius' and the Marian and Petrine Church, which gloss over the realities of women's experiences, hopes and fears. Using Mary as a primary point of reference for 'woman' is also problematic. Mary is a model for all Christians, not just for women. An incarnational theology needs to make meaningful connections between the eschatological and sacramental symbols of our hope and faith in Christ, including Mary, and the reality of ordinary human lives.

This reality includes maternal mortality and reproductive health. If Francis wants 'a poor Church of the poor', he has to take seriously the fact that some 800 of the world's poorest women die every day due to complications associated with pregnancy and childbearing. If the Church cares about families and about human dignity, what about the impact of maternal death and suffering on families and on the dignity of women?

To engage with such issues in honest dialogue with women themselves - theologians but also poor women at the grassroots - would entail becoming the 'messy', risk-taking church that Pope Francis says he wants.

Comment by: sara_tms_again
Posted: 08/03/2014 19:52:33

It's hard to know where to start suggesting what Francis could do to improve the role of women in the Catholic Church, given that he seems to think the definition of clericalism is wanting women to be clerics. (A 'kleruke' is actually a 'portion', and was used to describe those who were on the payroll of the early Church- ministers, widows, orphans and the destitute- so a majority of them were probably women, in fact.)

However, let's start with a point on which he himself is actually something of a model: inclusive language. The new translation of the Mass into English was originally inclusive, and the inclusivity was taken out at the eleventh hour. I would like to ask Francis to give explicit permission for all mentions of 'brothers' in the Mass, in any context in which women are implicitly included, to be allowed to be rendered as 'brothers and sisters', in all languages.

Posted: 08/03/2014 17:06:52

Women are present in the Church. It's not like as if they are ignored. It's only the role of the Priest will remain a "man's thing", because Christ was a man and not a woman. What some other Churches do in Liturgy is blasphemy, as far as I'm concerned.


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