Will the Pope’s Woman Problem Alienate Young Catholics?

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.

askbadgeThe 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.”


  • zinealine@gmail.com' cranefly says:

    Women have traditionally been the keepers of faith because appeals to the authority of faith have been among their limited means to defend themselves against the direct secular/societal power of men over them. Though a faith may require female subordination, it also imposes requirements on men that women have been able to use to their advantage when they have no other institutional protection. If society no longer supports female subordination, women no longer need the protection of the church. The church actually becomes a holdout advocate of their disempowerment. Thus the church is losing women, and we see divergent responses among liberal and conservative Catholics: liberal Catholics renouncing the holdout forms of female subjugation, conservative Catholics renouncing women’s every past and present form of protection from subjugation.

  • tojby_2000@yahoo.com' apotropoxy says:

    There may not have been any Christianity had Paul not been supported early on by wealthy “pagan” widows who liked what they heard.

  • lsomers3@tampabay.rr.com' lsomers says:

    The Roman Church is a patriarchal system. As was Judaism before it. Add to that the generations of a “boys club” hierarchy and you have a recipe that will not change soon. The Pope, after all is NOT as some seem to think, a totally autonomous dictator with no one to answer to. Popes in the past have been murdered for not towing political or religious lines, invisible as they may be to most people. In theory he could make a proclamation, ex cathedra, that it is a matter of faith that women and men have equal standing before God and the Church. I suspect that this would cause a giant schism. No one needs this now any more than in the 16th century. He could chisel away at it by encouraging advancement into Holy Orders at levels just short of priest and bishop to start with, (Remember the only two orders of the earliest church are Deacon and Bishop, not priest.)

    Anyway – I hope that he gets with the program.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    Maybe some day women will take their growing political, economic, and social powers, and form a new girls club with different rules and goals from the established boys clubs.

  • baber@sandiego.edu' LogicGuru says:

    ‘Catholic Social Teaching’, which, rightly, rejects some of the more obnoxious features of modernity—e.g. cut-throat capitalism, the wanton exploitation of the natural world, and total war—is not, and never has been in the least ‘progressive’. It is a wholesale rejection of modernity in favor of a retrogressive, romantic communitarianism.

    Modernity is liberation from Nature and from the natural ties and obligations imposed by family, ethnicity, race and gender that constrain us, burden us, and prevent us from living the lives we want—the lives that suit us. This vision of Catholic Social Teaching is a world in which clerics lead and teach, men and women play traditional roles and there’s always more room for another little one at the table—a world of wealthy peasants.

    Wake up, fellow liberals! Oh, yeah, this Pope and his fellow clerics who promote ‘Catholic Social Teaching’ are so terribly nice about ecology, opposition to the death penalty, etc. But they are the Enemy, promoting a state of affairs in we are bound by Nature, constrained, forced to play roles we detest. Don’t be taken in by this church and its detestable pope. End of story.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    In America we need to fear the conservative Republican party of the rich, and the conservative evangelical religions. The Catholic church might be hurting itself, but it is not hurting the rest of us the way those other 2 are. When the pope talks about Republican greed and Republican insanity such as denial of global warming, he is on our side, and we should welcome that. Anything he does to help the conservative Christian voting block free itself from favoring the rich is great.

  • jimbentn@verizon.net' Jim 'Prup' Benton says:

    Ever since Pope Francis became Pope, I’ve wanted to ask his critics if they remember Pope John XXIII. I do. It was he who, even though I knew I could only be an atheist, made me regret the necessity of leaving the Church. And the changes he wanted to bring about, in many ways, do not differ from those Ms. Miller and others would like to see — as would I. I don’t have to return to Catholicism to realize its importance and the position it CAN take in changing things for the better.

    I also have no doubt that this is the direction Francis wants to go in, but he does remember John XXIII — who was in the highest sense a ‘simple man’ and assumed that, as Pope he had the power to make the changes and that, since he was Pope — in Catholic eyes chosen by God — that the Curial forces would HAVE to get in line behind him.

    He also assumed — again, based on Catholic teaching — that he could make the changes permanent through “Vatican II” and that again the Church would have no choice but to follow.

    The Curial forces simply waited him out, and Paul Vi and then John Paul II simply reversed the direction he’d tried to head the Church in.

    Francis is anything but a simple man — and he does not see himself as a ‘cult leader’ free to dictate what changes he wanted in the Church. He knows that the Church has been buttressing its position with arguments for centuries, and he has to work around them. And his other changes in direct — equally important — are also things he has to protect from a full-scale revolt like John faced.

    Since he was elected, I have seen Francis as someone thrust behind the wheel of an ’18-wheeler’ heading downhill, trying desperately to turn it in different directions and to make these changes permanent, all the while knowing how hard it is to make a U-turn against the momentum of centuries, and knowing that death or his enemies could snatch the wheel from his hands at any time.

    No, he can’t make all the changes we would like to see all at once. Maybe we can argue about whether it would be better for him to make them in a different order. But give him patience, hope he has time, and know he’s doing his best to make sure he isn’t followed by a “Paul VII” whose task is to reverse the changes we already celebrate.

  • baber@sandiego.edu' LogicGuru says:

    Sorry Jim: you can say this because you’re a guy. But this is a story I’m heard too often. In the developing world: oh, yeah, women have lousy lives, and their men beat the crap out of them on a regular basis, and they have no options. But first let us fix the economy and take care of the important stuff. They we can get to the luxuries—making decent lives for women. And then there was the Moynahan program for the urban underclass in the US. Get those young men jobs so that they can be breadwinners in families. And, oh yes, cut welfare so that women are forced into dependence on men.

    This pope is on YOUR side, Jim, because you are a guy. I’m a woman: he is not on my side.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    You have shown me how wrong I can be in my assumptions. All this time I thought for sure you were a man. Now there must be about a half dozen others with ambiguous internet names I can’t be sure about, men and women.

  • dbarto667@verizon.net' dbarto667 says:

    God’s greatest gift to the world is a child.He gave woman the great priviledge of bringing children into the world. He gave men the great priviledge of participating n this great responsibility as well. Every child is a unique reflection of our Creator-DNA interchange at the moment of conception creates this uniqueness. Even a child born of rape is unique in its creation as it contains the DNA of the mother and father.Only a sick society and a mentally sick doctor could destroy this magnificent creation in the early stages of development. The money we are spending on abortions could help the children on earth who are suffering from poverty and war. God is love-abortion is not love

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    Everything you said above like the Creator-DNA interchange at conception creating uniqueness also applies to chickens and other animals, but we gather and eat their eggs by the dozen.

  • truktyre@hotmail.com' Craptacular says:

    I am curious. After posting all of the above, would you kill your own child if you believed your god asked you to? Yes or no, no other qualifiers. You believe your god wants you to sacrifice your child for their and your salvation…do you kill your child?

    While you think about that, kindly let other people decide what to do with their own lives and their own bodies.

  • judithmax@comcast.net' Judith Maxfield says:

    I’m guessing you’re a guy, it sounds like it here. Try weighing this romantic view against real life.

  • dbarto667@verizon.net' dbarto667 says:

    God’s commandment to all of mankind is -thou shalt not kill.He does allow death because He does not want us to suffer on earth with an eternal disease-that would be hell on earth.To rip apart a child in a mother’s womb is an abomination which God would never approve.God is love.Abortion is not love.Roe vs Wade is a sacrilege.

  • dbarto667@verizon.net' dbarto667 says:

    Only a sick society and a very confused woman and a very sick doctor and a very sick group of Supreme Court Judges with the mentality of Hitler could kill this manificent creation of the Creator of the universe in its early stages of development A child is God’s greatest gift to mankind and the greatest of all His gifts that He gave to us because He loves us.Love is beyond space and time.Abortion is an eternal damnation.

  • truktyre@hotmail.com' Craptacular says:

    So you believe in god just enough to tell others what to do? Or do you think that repeating your hypocrisy makes it sound more convincing? You have my pity, I do hope you find peace.

  • truktyre@hotmail.com' Craptacular says:

    Are you an auto-response bot? You already posted the same message on this page twice…stop spamming the comments.

  • dbarto667@verizon.net' dbarto667 says:

    I”m not just a guy -I am like you a reflection of God’s great love for us that He gave us life and the priviledge of being with Him for all eternity in heaven.Would you deny this great gift to a young child in a womb for all eternity?

  • dbarto667@verizon.net' dbarto667 says:


  • carolsobeck@charter.net' marirae says:

    In reading a biography of the life of Francis I was a bit surprised that he did not have a particularly good relationship with his mother. She was against his becoming a priest and did not visit him until his ordination. I wondered then if this relationship with her had caused him to not view women with trust. He was raised lovingly by his grandmother for the first five years of his life . He loved her greatly. Living nearby his mother was caring for several younger siblings.Grandma Rosa gave him a more open view of the world…of other people and religions.

  • judithmax@comcast.net' Judith Maxfield says:

    Sir: I do not share your theological views on a far off heaven and eternity. They once were the historical norm in a world of oppressive power, violence and death. Those beliefs were developed in an European setting, creating a literal teaching that did not disrupt the powers that be. It is still true. “Behave and listen to your masters and you too can go to Heaven”. For the slave master, “do your vile things and God will forgive you, even at the last minute”. This is not the God of love I know. To me, the god you mention here is one psychopathic god.

    “He gave us life and the priviledge of being with Him for all eternity in heaven”. No. Priviedge smacks of “be good and I will grant you Heaven”. You sidestepped Grace. Can you understand how one jumps off a cliff into an extreme divergence of the Gospel of Jesus with this notion? The truth is in the the living scripture that you must allow it to breathe the good news of living in THIS world and bringing the kingdom of God. Life is messy. the Gospel is for the living, not the dead / past. It is for the here and now. (Jesus does say these; I’m not makng it up)

    Romantic views of a child n the womb is beautiful, but my friend, that unformed child is life and attached to a mother-to-be who is also beloved of God. I do not have the right to pass jugement upon her and her circumstances. She too is a child of God, and Grace is available for her also. I will not make mirrors into the minds of others as one famous woman said in history who did have to power to judge here on Earth. I will tell you I was present for the birth of my first grandchild and felt the presence of God in the room. I blessed her and prayed for her life in the here and now. The rest is up to a loving God.

    Your male world has kept women as objects of sexual use and breeding. Religious beliefs and praxis uphold that. In the Third World women have a life of continual pregnancy, bad health, and an early death. Here in the U.S. elements of this condition may still be a reality. As a male, and my sons also, you must face up to that and be agents of God’s Kingdom for this life here in present time. Then maybe your dream can happen for the child.

  • eingiv4z@gmail.com' ShirleyRManley says:


  • cagean@berkshire.rr.com' cagean says:

    To the extent there is truth to Francis’ notion of ‘complementarity’, it would provide a better reason for including women in leadership than for excluding them. That’s because ‘complementarity’ says that women have, not only different roles, but also different experiences, feelings, and insights than men. I think this was a great article, and several of the comments were terrific.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    Maybe. The men in charge will have to decide if that is true or not.

  • cagean@berkshire.rr.com' cagean says:

    I’m sure they will. And it will probably be the same way for another 100 years at least, because the women tolerate it. I thought there was hope when a movement started for people to stop contributing and to instead drop pictures of their daughters into the collection baskets. But apparently that never went anywhere. I think the person who said Francis was placed at the control of an 18-wheeler with considerable momentum, and that he couldn’t instantly change its course even though he would like to, missed the point – that Francis has made comments actually contributing to the problem and making it harder to change. Francis, like most of the other men, likes it this way.

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