The language that Pope Francis used to describe women Religious during his visit to the United States last week was very welcome. They are “women of strength, fighters, with that spirit of courage that puts you in the front line”, he told them during Vespers at St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. The Pope’s comments sent out a clear message, given that American women Religious have undergone inspections by the Vatican and US bishops in recent years into their alleged lack of orthodoxy. Instead, Francis voiced his deep appreciation of their work with the most deprived in society, reflecting a solidarity that he shares so strongly.
But language depicting women as feisty, gutsy individuals is also welcome for other reasons. This Pope has previously been inclined to a sentimental view, at best, of women, and on occasions used words that many found peculiar. Women theologians were the “strawberries on the cake”, he said, when they were appointed to a top theological commission, while Europe was described as a grandmother, “no longer fertile and vibrant”. In doing so, Pope Francis has sounded exactly what he is: a 78 year old of a generation where women’s roles were essentially domestic.
This is not the entire story, however. This pope has called pay gaps between men and women a scandal; as Cardinal Bergoglio he scolded priests who would not baptise the children of single mothers; he emphasises mercy for those who have undergone abortion.
As the latest Synod on the Family gets under way, attention will turn to the complex and contested issues surrounding families that inevitably impinge upon the well-being of women, from the treatment of the divorced, to the rearing of children and the Church’s approach to contraception. But otherwise, issues affecting women are not high on the agenda of this pontificate. Rather than empowering women to carve out more influential roles in the Church, Pope Francis has focused more on reforming the administration and renewing it, including at the local level. He also scotched rumours that he would appoint a female cardinal, saying that to do so would clericalise women.
But if clericalism is something that concerns the Pope, then developing women’s roles in the Church without changing doctrine can be part of the solution. Diplomats of the Holy See, canon lawyers working at the highest level, officials running the press office or financial affairs: all of these are positions that need not be held by those in holy orders yet nearly always are. This pope has shown on many occasions that he is willing to unsettle those around him. Rethinking women’s position in the Church would be another opportunity to challenge entrenched prejudices that have caused the Church at its worst to be misogynistic and even at its best to border on the paternalistic.
During last week’s visit to the US, whether the Pope was speaking at Congress, the United Nations and the White House, or speaking in a school or a prison, the message was the same: the world’s attention must be on the Common Good. In voicing this, the Pope was a great advocate of women. They will be watching to see how he champions their cause within the Church.
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