Calling Pope Francis their “holy conundrum,” Catholic scholars, theologians, activists and religious convened in Chicago on Saturday at a forum titled “Women in the Catholic Church: What Francis Needs to Know.” [Full disclosure: I moderated a panel on the church and sex.]
The participants, many of them long-time social justice activists, were generally grateful for Francis’ strong language on economic inequality and environmental degradation. However, they decried the pope’s blind spots when it comes to women, fearing that they will perpetuate a number of injustices and lead to an exodus from the church—particularly among millennials.
The forum, convened by Call To Action, Catholics for Choice, CORPUS and nine co-sponsors, was especially appropriate coming in the midst of a robust discussion of Pope Francis’ relationship to women in the Catholic Church. Writing in the American Prospect, Adele Stan argued that if Francis wants to maintain the church’s relevancy in the developing world he would promote positions that empower women, like lifting the ban on contraception. Yet, she says, “the Church remains intransigent on virtually any vestige of equality for women”:
An institution that bars women from leadership conveys the message that women are not fully human. … Were the pope truly committed to rolling back the damage wrought by global capitalism in its present, unregulated state, he would not preside over an institution that models for the world the subjugation of women, and deems that subjugation a holy thing.
Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig fired back in the New Republic that “liberal malcontents” are so busy attacking Francis for failing to be “a good center-left feminist” that they’re missing his “subtle” feminism, such as his insistence in the climate change encyclical Laudato si that “population control” policies ought to conform to women’s reproductive timelines, not to the needs of the market:
Pope Francis’s interest is in making the distribution of resources equal enough that women (especially women in poor countries) are able to raise families at will, rather than at the convenience of others. While not advancing the totality of any given secular, liberal feminism, it is an approach that should appeal broadly to those interested in the intersection of poverty and womanhood.
It was exactly at this intersection, however, that the committed Catholic women at the conference found Francis most lacking, and his failure to make the connection between women, poverty and fertility most confounding. At the heart of Francis’ problematic views on women, according to several speakers, is his insistence on complementarity—the idea that women and men were designed for different (and, of course, complementary) roles. Apart from that, he has called women theologians “the strawberries on the cake,” along with a number of other comments insulting to women more broadly, which hasn’t helped minimize doubts on the part of many women about Francis’ ability to see them as full persons.
Gina Messina-Dysert, author of the forthcoming Faithfully Feminist, noted that:
Francis has made some important, positive comments about women and said it is time to reexamine the role of women in the church. But he continues to reveal a highly patriarchal view of the value and traditional role of women. He said ‘the consecrated woman is a mother, she must be a mother, and not an old maid.’
These ideas continue to reinforce the idea that men and women have different roles, with men outranking women. These ideas also leave women to suffer in poverty more than any other group. Women learn to put themselves last in every situation. If the pope is to address the needs of those living in poverty, he must address reproductive health and rights. Family structure and poverty are deeply intertwined; 40 percent of single mothers are impoverished.
David Myers, a professor of history at Fordham University, noted that throughout the history of the church:
Women’s authority resided in their willingness to sacrifice themselves. Mary’s power came from resigning herself to God’s will. Thus the order was set that men would rule in front and women would obey in back.
This idea became central to the church’s views of women in the twentieth century thanks to John Paul II, according to Susan Ross, a professor of theology at Loyola University. Ross pointed out that John Paul’s “theology of the body” was infused with nuptial symbolism:
Everything is understood according to relationship of husband to wife. … It is a gendered relationship that is cosmic, ecclesiastical and personal. The essential dimension is that the husband is always the one who leads and takes action; the wife is always the one who receives and nurtures. This ‘feminine genius’ that John Paul talked about is located in women’s wombs; women are essentially maternal and that dimension defines them.
Sister Chris Schenk, founder of FutureChurch, said that this subordination of women continues to be reflected internally, where “women exercise significant leadership, albeit with a stained-glass ceiling” that leaves them in poorly paid administrative and ministerial roles that are nonetheless essential to the functioning of the church. She noted that many of the 19 percent of Vatican employees who are women are in service jobs, and that there are only two women undersecretaries. In addition, Francis recently said he had no plans to appoint women to head dicasteries, which are the governing bodies of the Vatican (although four women were appointed to the commission on sex abuse that Francis created).
“What governs all of this are the canons that say only the ordained can be appointed,” she noted, “plus the fact that no ordained person is going to take orders from someone who isn’t ordained.” Speaker after speaker noted how a dysfunctional, patriarchal system within the Vatican sanctified discrimination against women in the wider world, belying Bruenig’s assertion that ordaining women wouldn’t “do anything to reverse the tide of misogyny or counter the kind of sexism that impoverishes and imperils women worldwide.”
It was clearly frustrating to attendees that, despite Francis’ progressive positions on many issues, he’s been unable to transcend the church’s historical, theological views of women to consider changes that would give them more authority. And to Bruenig’s assertion that “were Francis to suddenly and unilaterally controvert tradition (on the subject of women’s ordination or any other topic), he would do damage to the very credibility that makes his work on behalf of the world’s poor and vulnerable effective,” speakers noted that this very unwillingness to evolve was most damaging to his credibility, particularly with younger Catholics. As Myers noted, 78 percent of Catholics worldwide, including those in developing countries, accept the use of contraception.
Furthermore, as Sister Schenk noted, for the very first time, millennial Catholic women are less likely to attend mass than millennial Catholic men, a potentially game-changing development in a religion where women have traditionally been keepers of the faith. “In 1987, 52 percent of women and 35 of men attended mass weekly,” she noted. “Now it is less than 30 percent.”
Despite the attendance of some young church reform activists, the conference was haunted by the specter of a declining membership consisting of fewer and fewer millennials. “Mass and the sacraments are of less and less importance to my students,” said Myers, who noted that millennials are instead looking for “sacramental moments in their own communities.”
During recent Camino de Santiago pilgrimages with students, he noted, “sacramental devotions [were] less important than more informal prayer opportunities.”
“In this most Catholic of countries, the masses are few, the churches locked, the clergy often nowhere to be found. For my students, the most meaningful Catholic liturgical experience along their 300 km route took place in Leon, at Compline, and it was led by a nun.”