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.

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

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