After Embracing Female Bishop, Pope Spins Again on Women’s Ordination

Pope Francis and Lutheran Archbishop Antje Jackelen embrace.
Pope Francis and Lutheran Archbishop Antje Jackelen embrace.

On Monday, October 31st, Antje Jackelen, the Lutheran Archbishop of Uppsala and primate of the Church of Sweden, read the gospel at an ecumenical service to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Pope Francis embraced Jackelen at the passing of the peace.

This morning, when he boarded a plane back to Rome, Kristina Kappelin of Swedish TV asked the pope if the Catholic ban on female priests was “forever.”

“On the ordination of women in the Catholic church,” the pope replied, “the last word is clear.” Referring to John Paul II’s 1994 apostolic letter banning women from ordination, Francis told Kappelin that if the letter is “carefully read, it goes in that direction”: meaning, women will never be ordained.

One has to wonder what Archbishop Jackelen thought of this. Women have been ordained in the Church of Sweden since 1960. Furthermore, since the mid 90s, men are barred from ordination if they oppose female priests. Eva Brunne, the Archbishop of Stockholm, was the first openly lesbian bishop in a mainstream Christian church, and her partner Gunilla Landen is also ordained.

Jackelen, who became the first female archbishop in Sweden in 2013, told Radio Sweden that she wanted to downplay her gender. “I have been a woman all my life,” she said, “so I carry that with me in everything I do.” But, she added, when she spoke to other clergy in international contexts, “many are curious about female church leaders. So I am aware that it is also an asset.”

Like many other Nordic countries, Sweden is proud of its gender parity. Its official national website includes a page about this history of gender equality in Sweden, which includes birth control having been legalized in 1938 and paid maternity leave existing as far back as the 1950s.

But when the pope flew to Sweden, the visit was to commemorate the actions of a man. When Martin Luther wrote his Ninety Five Theses in 1517, women were not exactly running the show in Europe. Of women, Luther wrote, they were “either made to be wives or prostitutes,” and they should “remain at home, sit still, keep house, and bear and bring up children.”

Although it’s now debated whether Saint Paul wrote many of the epistles attributed to him, Luther was echoing Paul’s prescriptions for women, who were “not allowed to speak” in church and “must be in submission.” Paul also added in First Timothy that a woman did not have permission to teach or have authority over a man, and that “she must be quiet.”

Arguments about authorship aside, the main problem with these Paul quotes is that they went on to shape church teaching about women even after the Reformation. Women were not ordained in Lutheran churches until the 1940s in Norway, with most of the Nordic countries following within a couple of decades. (In the United States, the first woman wasn’t ordained in the Lutheran tradition until 1970.)

Pope Francis has met with many female church leaders in the three years since his election. And the outreach to Lutherans, like his recent meeting with the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, was a step toward the possibility of reunification. The Pope also has a close relationship with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of the Eastern Orthodox Church, which split from Rome in 1054.

Of course, the Orthodox church doesn’t ordain women, whereas Lutherans and Anglicans do. When Archbishop Welby traveled to Rome in October of this year, the Anglican ordination of women was listed as a “serious obstacle” to communion between Anglicans and Roman Catholics. One source noted that no female Anglican clergy were present at a Vespers service co-led by Welby and Francis, implying that women clergy were hidden away so as not to cause a disruption.

The pope certainly seemed comfortable around Archbishop Jackelen in Sweden, so perhaps the question is this: for a man who talks so much about women being able to do “many things better than men,” as he did on the papal plane today, why can’t he conceive of one of those things being the priesthood? Pope Francis repeated again today his idea of the “feminine dimension” of the Catholic church being represented by Mary, and also said once again that Mary is “more important” to the spirituality of the church than the apostles on Pentecost.

What the pope is neglecting to acknowledge, however, is that Pentecost would never have happened if Mary Magdelene hadn’t been the first witness to the resurrection; if early church leaders like Priscilla, Chloe, Lydia and Phoebe hadn’t provided finances and safety to the apostles; if women weren’t the majority of lay people still propping up the church today.

The Vatican likes to think that it is built on stone, and any pilgrim walking into Saint Peter’s can look into the depths of its catacombs. But in those same catacombs are depictions of a woman wearing a dalmatic with her hands in the “orans” position used by priests during consecration at mass. Francis and the church’s continuous denial of this history and the shifts occurring all around them means the Catholic church is not a house of stone, it’s a house of cards. And more denial of women’s vocations will only exacerbate the danger of its total collapse.