Pope Francis and women: Reality is more important than ideas (?)


Gudrun Sailer is a Vatican journalists with a deep interest in the topic of women at the Vatican. She is also a co-founder of a new association of women employees at the Vatican. Her most recent book titled „Keine Kirche ohne Frauen“ (No church without women), a compilation of everything Pope Francis said on the topic of women in Church and society, was published in 2016. So what is her interpretation of Pope Francis’ central ideas on the subject of women in the church?

Gudrun Sailer sees six central points that are important to consider when we want to learn about Pope Francis´ thinking on women. The following text is adapted from remarks that she delivered at a Symposium dedicated to women in the Church organized by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith.


1. The role of women in the church still falls short of what Jesus intended for them.

Francis is a “reality-based” pope. He brought with him to Rome his forty-four years of experience as a priest and twenty-one as a bishop in an emerging nation in which the church is alive, but not without its contradictions. He drew on that experience when, a few months after his election as Pope, he said to a group of Roman Catholic women who were by no means inclined to revolution: “I suffer—to tell you the truth—when I see in the Church or in Church organizations that the role of service, which we all have and should have—when a woman’s role of service slides into servidumbre [servitude].”1
In Pope Francis’s view the church today needs women in advisory capacities and often also as decision-makers. He calls for “studying criteria and new methods in order that women may not feel like guests, but full participants in the various spheres of society and Church life … . This challenge can no longer be deferred.”2

2. Clericalization does not lead to the desired result (and what about the diaconate?).

Francis warns against a “machismo in skirts” in which women adopt traditional models of masculinity, and against a clericalization of the laity. Clerical thinking is the implicit supposition that only someone who has received priestly ordination can steer the course of the church and work within it; according to that logic a layperson must “rise” out of her or his lay identity in order to take on any service at all. Francis warns against such a devaluation of the laity: “The priest cannot carry out the role of the [layperson], and the Holy Spirit is free: sometimes he inspires the priest to do something, at other times he inspires the [layperson].”3 Against that background there has been particular interest in the Pope’s decision to establish a study commission on the diaconate for women (in the early church), as the heads of religious orders had urged him to do. Francis leaves open the question to what extent the figure of a Roman Catholic woman deacon would introduce a clericalization of the laity.This side of clerical categories, in any case, Francis is able to imagine that the rarely-questioned tie between ordination and responsibility might be loosened. In that case those who are not priests, including women, would find new fields of work within the church open to them. If priests image Christ, the head of the church, that is not “exaltation” that places the ordained “above others,” Francis emphasizes.4 What is special about the priest is not power, but function: namely, the authority to consecrate the Eucharist. Everything else about priests is service. The Pope does not say what that means for the “possible role of women” in the church; rather, he asks that it be examined by theologians of both genders.

3. Theology of women

“The church is woman; she is mother” is Pope Francis’s most frequent statement on the subject of “theology of women.” It is thus a further development of Christian anthropology inspired by Francis himself. Here, too, it is a fact that the scope of the equation of church with woman remains, in the Pope’s view, a subject for further examination. He himself offers no answers, but only directions for thought that he believes are worth pursuing, such as the classification of the church in a Petrine (episcopal-priestly) and a Marian dimension.
One notable suggestion by the Pope comes from the liturgical sphere: by raising her memorial to a feastday, Francis elevated St. Mary Magdalene to the same level as the apostles. Beginning in 2016, for the first time a liturgical text of the Roman Catholic Church describes a woman as “apostle.” It was she who brought the good news of Jesus’ resurrection to the disciples. Whereas the successors of the (male) apostles became bishops, the “apostle to the apostles” was in a sense passed over in church tradition.
Francis is creating, on the basis of the liturgy, a foundation for a new theological interpretation of the status of women in the church.

4. Theology, founded on reality

“Reality is more important than ideas”: for Francis, the subject of women in the church calls for a theological deepening as much as does the reality, the lived church reality of women as a matter of course. Only out of that praying and believing reality can come theologies that shed new light on women’s ways in the church, and so open up a new reality. This is in Francis’s mind when he says that it is not a matter of possessing “spaces of power” but rather of initiating processes. Such a church dynamics will then certainly involve every level, including the crystallized state of structures. Throughout the parishes and communities of the world church today, women are performing many duties. They distribute the Eucharist where no priest is present, they interpret the Gospel, they lead parishes and liturgies of the Word in the absence of a priest. They do it all without title and without being part of the hierarchy. These are examples drawn from reality that could inspire theological reflection. Francis is open to such exploratory movements; he even encourages them. The only condition is that reality must come first. Rootless theological experiments, in his view, only hinder the project itself.

5. Basic attitude: encouragement, not defense

Pope Francis sees himself as the guarantor of the church’s unity. But within this space of internal church security he protects, he shows a remarkable courage for dynamic action. In the “woman question” his method is pointing a way, offering encouragement, not adopting a defensive attitude (with the exception of the “no” to priestly ordination for women, stated by Pope John Paul II and repeated by Francis). Francis is aware that even in exploring options for the place of women in the church he can only play the midwife’s role: on the one hand, he is aware that his strength does not lie in the theological realm; on the other hand the pope knows he is not the one responsible for enlightening the church; that role belongs to the Holy Spirit, in the common progress of all.

6. Conclusion: it will take openness, example, and time

Francis has a scenario in mind that presses for speed: “If the Church, in her complete and real dimension, loses women, she risks becoming sterile.”5 Addressing the question of the status of women in a new way requires the right pope—that is, openness “from above”—it requires theology, it requires example, and in the case of the church as an important factor, it requires time. Francis has no precise ideas about where women in the church should go and where the church should go with women, but he trusts the working of the Spirit. Francis is the first pope to invite Roman Catholic women openly to bring their ideas forward.


[1]Pope Francis, “Addresss to Participants in a Seminar Organized by the Pontifical Council for the Laity on the Occasion of the 25th Anniversary of ‘Mulieris Dignitatem,’” 12 October 2013.
[2]Pope Francis, “Address to Participants in the Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for Culture,” 7 February 2015.
[3]Pope Francis, “Address to Members of the ‘Corallo’ Association,” 22 March 2014.
[4]Evangelii Gaudium, 104.
[5]Pope Francis, “Meeting with the Bishops of Brazil,” 28 July 2013.