Pope Francis has released his first major written work on theology and issues facing the church.1 Much has been said about his critique of capitalism, with headlines such as Pope Attacks ‘Tyranny’ of Markets in Manifesto for Papacy and Pope calls unfettered capitalism ‘tyranny’ and urges rich to share wealth. This is all very interesting, and I’ll probably have more to say on it later. But there’s another part of his statement that deserves attention, perhaps even more so than any other.
In a section titled Other ecclesial challenges, Francis sets out his position on the role of women in the church. He begins with an acknowledgement of the “indispensable contribution” that women make to society:
103. 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.
There are some questionable portrayals of the “feminine genius” and the woman’s role there, but overall the feeling is one of inclusion rather than hierarchical exclusion. This, along with the pope’s defense of equality, compassion and justice in other areas, makes the paragraph that follows especially disappointing. He continues:
104. Demands that the legitimate rights of women be respected, based on the firm conviction that men and women are equal in dignity, present the Church with profound and challenging questions which cannot be lightly evaded. The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion…
The fact that opportunities for women in the priesthood is not open for discussion isn’t particularly surprising, given the broader view of Catholic church history. However, coming from this pope, who has so eagerly wanted to challenge some of the accepted structures of power in both the church and society, this statement on women is certainly disappointing. He may want to lessen the blow by reminding us that the role of priest is not one of power and dominance but of service, and by offering a “possible role of women in decision-making in different areas of the Church’s life.” The fact remains that an opportunity is closed off for women for no rational reason at all except for a tradition that can’t seem to envision its founder outside the role of father, son, and husband.
Are gendered roles the last stronghold of inequality within the church? Perhaps. And perhaps what they say about every revolution is relevant here: you can’t expect every injustice to be made right all at once at the beginning. True, but this is never an excuse to withhold a critique. Rather, it’s even more urgent to translate the concept of the tyranny of economic markets to that of the tyranny of other social relations. The analogy is obvious, and it would be hard to imagine that the pope doesn’t see it if it weren’t for the fog of a 2,000-year-old patriarchal structure.
- The whole document can be read in English here: http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/francesco/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20131124_evangelii-gaudium_en.html [↩]