The first thing to notice is that Francis is insisting on something. He is pushing against something he thinks is wrong. He is calling attention to the fact that women are not given their due, not given their rightful priority in the life of the church, whereas clergy are over-valued. Furthermore, Francis is saying it is not enough to “concede” minor positions to women that previously belonged exclusively to men; women must be valued in their own right. And, finally, when they are valued in their own right, and at their true worth, their value in the life of the church surpasses that of the male hierarchy.
I think Francis is expressing an intuition here, rather than a well-articulated position. His respect for women, like his reverence for Mary and the honor he accords to the church, is something which outruns his power to express it in words but it is nonetheless real and important. It is not something he has deduced from principles. Rather, for him it seems to be a truth apprehended in life and only later reflected upon. He is saying he honors women for their courage and worth. He is also asserting unapologetically—though surprisingly—that he holds them in higher esteem than he does bishops and priests.
In Evangelii Gaudium, Francis works out this idea further, although he still does not really crystalize the thought he struggled to express in the plane on the way home from Rio. He first acknowledges women as indispensable and says that men and women are equal in dignity, and women’s legitimate rights must be respected. He then distinguishes between dignity—which is something more fundamental and more important than things we do—and roles. “Our great dignity arises from baptism,” he says (EG 104). That dignity belongs to men and women alike.
On the other hand, he says, “When we speak of sacramental power, ‘we are in the realm of function, not that of dignity or holiness.’” (EG 104) The key to the ministerial priesthood, he asserts, is not the power of domination, but the power to administer the Eucharist. He ends by challenging pastors and theologians to recognize the implications of this statement, and to see “what this entails with regard to the possible role of women in decision-making in different areas of the Church’s life.” The presumption he makes here is very clear: women can exercise decision-making authority despite the fact that they cannot administer Eucharist.
When ordination is rightly understood, according to Pope Francis, women’s gifts for leadership can be shared within the church. Women can engage in decision-making for the church. He seems to be saying that ordination is simply less important than baptism in the grand scheme of things. And in any clerically-dominated church, that is saying a mouthful—for women and for men.