Pope Francis has stated that women can not be ordained. / Corbis
That giant Achilles heel on the Catholic Church? Yeah, she's shaped like a woman.
There is no denying that the humble Pope Francis has changed some people's opinions of the Catholic Church for the better, but for many in the Western world, there's still the question of female equality in the Vatican. Namely, why can't women be priests, too?
Pope Francis has made a big point of repeatedly stating how important it is that women become leaders and decision makers in the Catholic Church and how Catholics need a deeper theology of women. He even pointed out that "Mary is more important than the apostles." But some see that as lip service when combined with how he has made it abundantly clear that women cannot be ordained. The Sistine Chapel's got nothing on that glass ceiling up there.
"With regards to the ordination of women, the church has spoken and says no," said Francis while returning from Brazil. "Pope John Paul [II] said so with a formula that was definitive. That door is closed."
Robert McClory, a contributing writer to the National Catholic Reporter, says it is interesting how guarded Francis is being with his language, cautiously pinning it on John Paul II. "The door is closed and it's locked," says McClory. "But the pope can open the door, if he wanted to. He's got the keys."
So what gives? How is the pope going to enact change? S-l-o-w-l-y. (We are talking the Catholic Church here, remember?)
"People say, 'Well, he's not ordaining women, so therefore this is all irrelevant.' I don't think it is irrelevant," says Lisa Cahill, a theology and ethics professor at Boston College and author of Sex, Gender & Christian Ethics. Cahill explains that what the pope is doing reflects a more "holistic cultural shift within the Catholic Church." He's not changing official Catholic laws, but he's changing customs, expectations and what's seen as acceptable. Similar to how he's transforming his bishops.
Women priests may not top his list, but perhaps Francis is serving women through his focus on global poverty and hunger. Is that enough?
What this entails is talking about women's role in the Church and gathering people's thoughts, or possibly appointing women to roles where traditionally there haven't been women before. "I think he's testing the waters to see how are people reacting to some of these things," says McClory.
And he may be weighing global concerns, suggests Cahill: While women's ordination is of high importance to Catholics in America and the Western world, where women are seen as equals, that isn't the case in a majority of other countries where Catholicism exists.
Theology professor Alice L. Laffey makes a similar point in her op-ed, saying: "Throughout the world, women and their children make up the greatest percentage of human beings living in destitution. Their main concern is not women priests but food, health, education and physical safety. Francis' genuine concern for the real lives of the poor and suffering warmly embraces women." In other words, Francis is serving women through his focus on global poverty and hunger.
Is that enough? Wouldn't it be better if more substantive, concrete official change could happen, like making a woman a cardinal (not going to happen) or perhaps following in the footsteps of the early Catholic age and allowing female deacons? Of course it would be. In fact, Francis so often talks about the "service" of women that more than a few Church observers have noted it might be a hint at a possible (distant) future for women to become deacons, the title of which is derived from the Greek diakonos, meaning "servant."
For now, though, Catholics have to settle for slow, subtle shifts, which, to give Francis credit, are already occurring. U.S. Cardinal Sean O'Malley recently said he and his colleagues are "anxious to have more laypeople involved, particularly more women in positions of responsibility at the Vatican."
Continued rhetoric from Francis and his cardinals about the importance of women will help make it less startling to see women in leadership roles, a shift which was under way even before Francis' papacy. And while his call for a deeper theology of women indicates that he understands that the Church's doctrine on women's roles is out of step, his experience as a pastor has shown him that women are already running day-to-day operations of churches, religious schools, parishes and social-service organizations.
"If you walk into any parish office on a given day, if you were to snap your fingers and remove the female presence from there, nothing would [get done]," says Jesuit Post editor Timothy O'Brien. "Most of the places that I've worked as a Jesuit that are ministries of the Church, it's run by women." He says that female leadership is certainly missing at the highest levels, so that is where the conversation tends to focus. Along with many other Church observers, O'Brien argues that a priest shortage is exposing an even greater need for service in the Church - and many laywomen are already stepping up to minister in place of a nonexistent resident priest.
Such a shift in women's leadership in the Catholic Church matters, especially to the future health of the Church. As Cahill says, having more women leaders would change the atmosphere. "There is a culture in this country around equality and an expectation of it," says Cahill. "Because that isn't as much reflected in the Church it turns women off, especially younger women."
Changing the conversation and the mindset of the Catholic Church's view on women will attract more women, keep them in the church, and create an environment where women's leadership is acceptable and expected.
It's about time we started asking: What would Mary do?
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