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Pope Francis: The church needs women in authority

I am encouraged by Francis's response to his interviewer's question about the role of women in the church. It's not totally clear what he means -- by "female machismo," for example, or "profound theology of the woman" -- but it is clear that he understands, and is not afraid to identify, a central problem that so many defenders of orthodoxy prefer to avoid or ignore.

"The feminine genius is needed wherever we make important decisions," said the pope. "Feminine genius" is another one of those vague terms that justifiably make feminists suspicious -- so often talk of the "unique role" of women seems a polite way of saying "stay in your place." But in short, the pope seems to be saying here that women's input into "important decisions" in the church is necessary, indispensible. This is not a bromide. It's a criticism of the status quo.

He goes on, "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.” Awkward translation aside -- does the pope really sound like such a Martian when he talks? -- I read in this a direct reference to, and call for reform of, the contradictions in the current situation of women in the church.

The official line, which Francis has faithfully repeated (in the same breath he used to call for a "truly deep theology of women"), is that the ordination of women to the priesthood is something the Catholic Church has no authority to permit. It isn't sexism that keeps women out of the priesthood, it's the binding example of Christ in his institution of the sacrament. If you accept that explanation, you then have to deal with the fact that all positions of authority and even official influence in the "institutional church" are held by men, because at present only ordained priests, and therefore only men, can hold such positions. In other words, women are essentially locked out of exercising "the authority of the church." (As we have recently been reminded, women must answer to men even in the conduct of their own religious orders.) If that is also the incontrovertible will of Christ, then we have a problem with the church's belated but official declarations about the equal dignity and vocation of men and women. If, on the other hand, the church means what it says about women and men being equal in stature, it ought to be deeply invested in making sure women have an equal voice -- or any voice -- in the "important decisions" that affect the entire church.

One of the more irritating dismissals of arguments in favor of women's ordination is the allegation that would-be female priests are only interested in "power." A recent example is this piece by Sandra Laguerta at First Things, which holds that women's-ordination advocates fail to understand that the priesthood isn't about power at all. "Proponents of women’s ordination need to see the priesthood not as a job opportunity to exert authority within and onto the body of Christ," Laguerta writes, "but as what it actually is, a vocation to be a servant to God and to His Church." It's generally been my impression that proponents of women's ordination understand the priesthood in exactly that way. But while I agree that servant-leadership is the best way to understand the calling of a priest (or bishop, or pope), it is nevertheless the case that authority has to be held by somebody in an organization like the Catholic Church. And at present it is held only by priests and therefore only by men. That may not be what the priesthood is about, but if it is not that's all the more reason not to make the two categories entirely coincident. It seems to me that the pope is acknowledging this very simple reality. And insofar as advocates for women's ordination are interested in correcting the balance of men and women in authority in the church -- well, you could say they're interested in power, but it might be more accurate to say they're interested in justice.

Still, as I said, the pope has given no sign of openness to reevaluating the all-male priesthood. Quite the contrary. This remark of his about women, then, must be something else, and I would like to interpret it as a call for structures that would permit lay input in the governance of the church. That would be in keeping with his remarks about the bishops' synods ("I do not want token consultations, but real consultations"), which he seems to recognize are not yet the vital bodies that the fathers of the Second Vatican Council envisioned. Francis said we need "to think about the specific place of women also in those places where the authority of the church is exercised." At present it doesn't take much thinking to identify that the specific place of women in authority is "absent." Pope Francis knows that. And he thinks it won't do.

I wish the interviewer had asked a clarifying question or two about the pope's use of the term "machismo" (which surely means something different to a native speaker of Spanish than it does to the English-language listener), or his idea of "feminine genius," or what he envisions might bring about this new theology of women he calls for. But let's not overlook what he did say: a simple, common-sense, and (sadly) fairly novel acknowledgment of the basic contradictions in the church when it comes to the status of women.

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Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.



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The irony is that the ordination of women is more difficult to achieve than Same Sex Marriage in the church. No prejudice is more entrenched than bias against women. The pope talked about how conservatives are loudly complaining to him and how pleas to quell the unorthodox are pouring into Rome.  As Molly points out, Francis has said some good things about women. However he defines machismo, Francis did not make the best move by applying to women what men regale in. The point is women have the right to be as dominating as men however reprehensible. Justice demands, however, that men or women would see leadership as a way to serve. We will have to see how the process continues. He has played down the censure of nuns despite those who quote him in their patriarchal endeavors. 

We can't give him a pass on the issue of women. But we might give him a chance to develop and grow in his thinking. 


I haven’t read the entire interview yet, but Pope Francis seems a bit tentative in his words about women in the Church.  Perhaps, like his two processors, he has limited experience with women in leadership positions, give the male hierarchy that surrounds him.


Or, perhaps Pope Francis realizes that women don’t need a Church document to outline a ‘theology of woman’, but perhaps the men need a such a document, so they can catch up to the women.

If the church would recognize women as people, it wouldn't need a separate kind of theology to explain them and they wouldn't need a sspecial role in the church distinct from men's roles ... sigh  :(

I read this posting only after reading David Cloutier's post on the interview.  I think my comment under David's posting fits here as well, so I will paste part of it:

The important decisions of the Church are made by Cardinals and Popes. Pre-1917, canon law allowed for lay Cardinals.  There is nothing stopping Francis from changing canon law back to its pre-1917 rules, and adding the really revolutionary change of admitting women to the College.  None of the weak arguments against women priests would have any relevance.  Being a Cardinal, an advisor and elector, has nothing to do with acting in persona Christi.  And really, the only reason lay women never had this role pre-1917 is the history of sexism, which the Church, this Pope in particular, rightly recognizes as sinful.

Making women Cardinals has support in some surprising circles:


Good observations, Molly. I too noticed his adding of authority into the mix, which is new for a pope, if I'm not mistaken. His predecessors always want the "genius of women" to be respected, but evidently that genius is not exercised in the realm of authority, because women are never summoned to that sort of service in the Church.

Someone elsewhere commented that when he used the word "machismo" he was referring to an abrasive quality. I like to think that "combattive" might also be rolled into this term too. Over at the Pray Tell Blog we've had discussions about why so few women comment on the blog. Only 5% of the commenters are women, although about 1/3 of the contributors are female. Some of the women wrote in and said they don't want to get into these battles that break out in the com boxes. Others report it's the same elsewhere in blog land. Women are not as likely to want to dive into a conflict situation. Thus, a question I've been musing about is what sort of discussions do women more readily engage with, and want to engage in.

In the Church, the clergy is definitely a men's club, and if women are going to take some role in authority, which I think they should, and you don't want to only engage a very tiny minority of women, the manner of carrying on business needs to be considered in such a way that it doesn't put women at a perpetual disadvantage.

We're already at a disadvantage because of being told we cannot image Christ. That has to change. We are at a disadvantage because in much of the third world we are considered non-persons, without rights, and that's where the Church is growing the fastest right now. While respecting differing cultural realities, those of us who live in societies where women do carry out leadership roles need to be respected too, and allowed to move forward with what reflects our own best sense of justice and fitness for the sake of the Reign of God.

I wonder if Francis would be amenable to opening the diaconate to women? This could be a valuable step toward integration, and create a new platform for women to exercise leadership within structures that are currently closed to them. 

I am not finding the disadvantage as being told that I and other women cannot image Christ: I regard that as utter nonsense spouted by bigots.  The disadvantage to me is the ever expanding recognition that many if not most of the ordained leaders in our church are unreconstructed bigots when it comes to women.   The emperor(s) have no clothes and yet we continue to behave (publicly) as if they did. How long?

Molly: Your comment about the clumsy language led me back to the original Italian for this paragraph about women.  Here it is:

«È necessario ampliare gli spazi di una presenza femminile più incisiva nella Chiesa. Temo la soluzione del “machismo in gonnella”, perché in realtà la donna ha una struttura differente dall’uomo. E invece i discorsi che sento sul ruolo della donna sono spesso ispirati proprio da una ideologia machista. Le donne stanno ponendo domande profonde che vanno affrontate. La Chiesa non può essere se stessa senza la donna e il suo ruolo. La donna per la Chiesa è imprescindibile. Maria, una donna, è più importante dei Vescovi. Dico questo perché non bisogna confondere la funzione con la dignità. Bisogna dunque approfondire meglio la figura della donna nella Chiesa. Bisogna lavorare di più per fare una profonda teologia della donna. Solo compiendo questo passaggio si potrà riflettere meglio sulla funzione della donna all’interno della Chiesa. Il genio femminile è necessario nei luoghi in cui si prendono le decisioni importanti. La sfida oggi è proprio questa: riflettere sul posto specifico della donna anche proprio lì dove si esercita l’autorità nei vari ambiti della Chiesa».

And here is my translation which I think may give a different sense or feel to what the Pope says:

It’s necessary to widen the spaces for a more decisive presence of women in the Church. I am wary of a solution by way of a “machismo in skirts,” because in fact women have a different structure than men. And what I hear about the role of women is often inspired by a machismo ideology. Women are asking profound questions that need to be addressed. The Church cannot be herself without women and their role. Women are indispensable for the Church. Mary, a woman, is more important than bishops. I say this because function should not be confused with dignity. So the figure of women in the Church needs to be studied more deeply. A deep theology of women needs to be further elaborated. Only by accomplishing this passage can there be a better reflection on the role of women within the Church. Feminine genius is needed in places where important decisions are made. The challenge today is precisely that: to reflect on the specific place of women also precisely where authority is being exercised in the various areas of the Church.

You will notice that the first sentence of this paragraph is omitted from the America translation. I have turned the Pope's singular "woman,' which is used as a collective noun, into the plural "women."

There are other places where I think the English translation leaves much to be desired.

Thanks, Fr. K - very interesting. Translation is such a tricky thing, especially translating an impromptu conversation like this one. I wish the interviewer had followed up a bit, because I don't know what to make of statements like this: "what I hear about the role of women is often inspired by a machismo ideology." By "what I hear," does he mean from men and/or defenders of the status quo? Or does he mean from women and progressives?

Wikipedia says that in Spanish, machismo "has the meaning of a belief in the supremacy of men over women." If they're right, and if that's how Francis used it, I'm still not sure how to parse what he said. Is he criticizing so-called "radical" feminism, or too-facile notions of the complementarity of the sexes? I could go either way.

I think he's thinking about people who think that the goal of the women's movement is for women to be able to act like men, in a machismo fashion.  (Maybe he was thinking of Margaret Thatcher?)

"I am woman, hear me roar"?

There is a also term for idealized femininity in women that is the analog of the exaggerated masculinity of machismo in men. It's called hembrismo. I worry about this end of things too. Does the Pope see this as a distortion, I wonder.

Note, these are both Latin American terms. 

Joe: thanks for your translation. What had struck me negatively in the one I read yesterday was the repetition of the "we", "we", "we" (which I had even bolded in my comment) - we must investigate, we must develop a theology...  that's gone from your version. I was also rubbed the wrong way by the singular "the woman", which somehow felt to me to be putting a distance, to be somewhat abstract. That's also gone from your version. In fact the paragraph which you wrote doesn't have anything grating. But that amicable tone, does it really belong to him or is it yours?

Joe K is right, the English translation leaves much to be desired. In fact, it would be a great service if someone (a speaker of English?) retranslated the whole thing.

Another example:  That phrase that made headlines about "small-minded rules" isn't in the Italian: "La Chiesa a volte si è fatta rinchiudere in piccole cose, in piccoli precetti"--"The Church has sometimes locked herself up in little things, in little rules."  The same adjective is used in both phrases.  "Small-minded" is an editorial comment.

Sorry I can't read Italian! My comment agreeing with Joe K. came after reading the WHOLE interview. I also wonder if some editing wouldn't have helped. In the text I read there are whole sentences repeated. Were these take-aways in the magazine lay out? Or just repetitions?

I wonder if the people who translated St Paul's writings about women inserted their own bias in the texts like that translator did  (maybe without realizing it) with pope Francis.


Claire:   Don't we have St. Paul's original Greek?

What a difference a more careful translation makes!  Thank you Fr. Komonchak.  "Machismo in skirts" carries a much different tone.  I realize this is mostly what I want to see in his words, but is it not a fair to say Francis may simply be saying it is not enough to wrap a skirt around the machismo so prevalent in clerical culture? When he speaks of a deeper theology of women -- he is not saying that this deep theology does not exist (as some suggest), only that the macho, male-dominated Church  does not yet understand it, has not embraced it.  The Church needs to embrace the feminine (feminism more) fully -- it is not enough to wrap a skirt around patriarchy and pretend we are changing anything.  The first step is not to ordain women into the patriarchy, but welcome women into authority so a deeper transformation can take place:

Feminine genius is needed in places where important decisions are made. The challenge today is precisely that: to reflect on the specific place of women also precisely where authority is being exercised in the various areas of the Church.

While I think you could ordain women into the patriarchy too -- I can live with giving women real decision making power.  As I said above -- make them Cardinals and let feminine genius begin to infect the Church!

I'm afraid that I read St Paul in translation only.

I wonder what Pope Francis means when he says women have "a different structure" from men ("una struttura differente").  Does "struttura" have a somewhat different connotation in Italian from its meaning in English?  What sort of structure -- emotional?  cognitive? behavioral?  all three?  Also, what sort of struttura do males have?  

Contemporary psychologists have been looking for intrinsic differences between male and female humans for  a long time now.  I thought they had settled on women being better at language and men being better at math, and, also males are generally more aggressive than females.  But it seems that the psychologists are starting to disagree about the intellectual differences -- girls are catching up to boys in math. 

Maybe it's premature to talk about "the" place of women in the Church until we find out just what the relevant differences are beteen men and women, if there are any.  I also think it's unwise to talk about "the" place of any group in the Chuch or any other institution.  Further, people must be taken as individuals, not as members of a group.  

The latest science seems to show that there are few inherent differences between men and women ....

What's disturbing about what the pope said is that he wants to concentrate on the differences between men and women instead of the much greater  similarities.  And he seems to believe that men and women are actually ontologically different - different in the eyes of God.

As I see it, there is definitely one thing that women generally do well that men don't:  mothers are much quicker to see signs of illness in children than fathers are.  Mama will immediately see that Baby has a slight fever, or notice a little cough, or whatever.  Maybe it's an evolutionary thing -- since mothers are necessarily so close so often to newborns they have evolved a capacity to find very slight changes in children's health so as to preserve the their lives and the species.  True, it seem these days that men can be trained to be fine nurses too, but they need  some training.  I suspect it's just more natural for females.

But this has nothing to do with being a priest.


Pope Francis has a mix of criticism ("machismo in skirts") and praise that allocates many more words to praise. I have read that psychologists advocate a 5-to-1 mix in a functional relationship: five compliments for each criticism. What that achieves, among other things, is to prevent the other person from becoming defensive.

He also keeps us wondering what he means and who he targets with his criticisms. Does it hold that he is vague when negative, precise when positive? If so, then is his vagueness on purpose? Could it be so that people are free to easily dismiss his criticism by deciding that it doesn't apply to them? This way, he won't make ennemies. He is not threatening. People won't be turned off, won't become angry. Only the ones who are at the stage where they can benefit from what he is saying will understand that his criticism applies to them and take it to heart.


Margaret, I read that six Jesuits were involved in the English translation. They were surely English speakers. No translation can satisfy the ears of every reader. After all, consider some of the artless translations of the daily and Sunday lectionary readings.....also done by English speakers.

I'm just lifted up by this overall content and tone of the interview. Viva Vatican II. It's back!

I have read that psychologists advocate a 5-to-1 mix in a functional relationship: five compliments for each criticism.

If that's true, then husbands around the world can look forward to an untold number of banked compliments...though I don't think this comment is what will get the party started.

Mark: I'm not sure where I read about it, but I think that it came from Dr Gottman. See for example

Jack Foley: There may have been six Jesuits involved...but they were not the only ones. I met an Italian the other night who seems to have had a large hand in it.


My response, as a translator of the pope's interview, to Phyllis Zagano's piece:

It is always a pleasure to debate with Phyllis Zagano. The problem is that Professor Zagano, in her piece published today in NCR, thinks that in the age of the Internet you can really "suppress" on purpose a line of a papal interview without everybody noticing.

She knows very well already that the omitted line in the America translation was an honest production mistake, but she wants to make a point about a ongoing conspiracy in editorializing and manipulating Francis' interview.

Last thing: from a strong advocate of women in the Church like Phyllis I would expect a bit more respect for the only woman in the team of translators (full disclosure: my wife Sarah), who was something other than what Phyllis decribes, condescendingly, as "a minimal exception" in the interview project.

Dr. Massimo Faggioli

Just the step of eliminating the requirement that only priests may hold decision-making positions would open them to women and add the benefit of releasing priests for pastoral work. Simple but obviously not easy. This would be an excellent first step.

I don't understand all this noise about Phyllis Zagano having discovered the missing sentence from America's translation and written in NCR about it on September 25. Didn't Fr Joe Komonchak point it out already in the above comment on September 20?


I just heard about Fr Komonchak's discovery of the missing sentence--too bad it did not get the broad coverage it deserved--I think we saw it the same day--but then I spent several days researching and reading and calling two of the translators and two America editors--unfortunately got lots of talk about "confidentiality"--there is a lot missing in the America Magazine translation--no doubt the translators translated the entire piece--one sentence of Francis's (now replaced online) and several sentences of A. Spandaro (still missing) were cut.--or just dropped off a table somewhere. Point being: pre-printing (and running on line) no one noticed the most critical comment about women was not in the final. The anger and defensiveness bleeding all over the web from two editors and one translator against things I did not say are disheartening, but prove several other points I did not make. My column as it ran in NCR caused all their hysterical comments: see

Prof. Faggioli--one of the translators--misunderstands my piece. I point out that even though probably some sort of honest error (either distracted translator or a mistaken cut) the fact is that no one noticed pre-production that the most important sentences about women were just not there.


I am told that the French translation talked about a "marxist ideology" instead of a "machismo ideology"! (Apparently it's been corrected since it first appeared. I can't find it anywhere.)



Pope Francis: The church needs women in authority

This piece represents the axial age religion Roman Catholicism superbly; let me count the ways. Thank you to Mollie Wilson O’Reilly for this insightful piece. But when the church evolves further to a post-axial age faith and moral agency phenomenon, such ways will be dead in the water. No chance of success! Recently The New York Times had a relevant piece that I commented on but alas too late. Comments were closed. Here it is.


“But the test of his approach will ultimately be a practical one. Will the church grow or stagnate under his leadership?” The Promise and Peril of Pope Francis By Ross Douthat 10-5-13

“But the significance of this positioning goes beyond Catholicism. In words and gestures, Francis seems to be determined to recreate, or regain, the kind of center that has failed to hold in every major Western faith.” The Promise and Peril of Pope Francis By Ross Douthat 10-5-13

According to my references and the implications thereof, the church will neither grow nor stagnate significantly. The kind of center that has failed to hold in every major Western faith will have the same reasons analogously. And yet I cannot speak for other Christian faiths, Judaism or Islam. I cannot speak for any other religion Western or not, indigenous, ancient or modern. I speak of Roman Catholicism as a laywoman, educated, a practiced practitioner, and a significant donor in goods and services for most of my long life.

I think that Ross Douthat is correct. “The kind of center that has failed” is a strategy that is obsolete. We are evolutionary creatures. The Catholic Church will evolve into something brand new as a post-axial age faith and moral agency phenomenon. The evolutionary forces are with us in our twenty-first century scientific worldview struggling to mitigate our multifaceted global crisis. Let us read, discuss and act regarding the relevant literature that reveals the expertise that helps us to connect the dots to see the big picture and understand that we have arrived at a brand new age for people and planet including religious belief, practice, and moral agency. We will be compelled to accept the fact that we humans must work as a species i.e. as Homo sapiens, to bring the needful inhabitants and planetary infrastructure back into balance as best we can.


One thought that fits here.  When the US Navy was expanding sea duty to include women, they didn't just ensure that 10% of the crew was female (the percentage of women in the Navy at the time), but they took a few ships, and put enough women aboard so that the women had a significant presence among the crew.  That way, they weren't just "tokens".  There were so many women in those ships that the ship could not complete its mission without fully integrating women into the structure of the crew.  Then, as more ships were modified to accept women crew, the process would be repeated in other ships.  Now, men and women are fully integrated into surface combatants, and as submarines are beginning to accept female crew, the numbers are, again, to integrate them into submarine crews in sufficient numbers so they cannot be isolated.  (What helped the whole process is that the first ships with a mixed crew did very well.  Their crews met the mission requirements as well as male-only ships.  Winning a few "Battle "E" " s, for best of their class, helped, too.)

What that means for integrating women priests when the time comes, I'm not sure.  Perhaps in some dioceses first, where the bishop is supportive, and then beyond.  I know that when women Lutheran pastors were coming into the ministry, the point was "would they do, on average, as well as their male counterparts did, on average.  Now, nearly 1/2 of the seminarians are female, and it is no big deal for most parishes.


Pr Chris  


Pray for him, or pray for women?

perhaps they are one and the same, for it is pure folly not to recognize that women can, equally with men, lead and guide the church in the paths and principles espoused to Congress. The very act of excluding women from that leadership relegates them to the tools of man, not the tools of God in the endeavors of Christianity, but perhaps this Pope, any Pope, cannot challenge the many centuries of Church doctrine alone.

Any church who places women at the center of the family, to whom prayers are owed, but discount the authority of women, but also the authority of God, by not acknowledging that women have a natural authority to bring to the vision of Catholic unity, of Christian charity, and a peaceful world through tout all religions.

So, perhaps praying for this pope, and praying for women have the same objective to create Oneness with God as the greatest good for humankind.

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