A Pope Francis Lexicon - Women


"A Pope Francis Lexicon," edited by Joshua McElwee and Cindy Wooden for Liturgical Press. Also available in the U.K. as "Key Words of Pope Francis" from Bloomsbury Continuum.

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Below excerpt on Women by Astrid Lobo Gaijwala

Women

By Astrid Lobo Gajiwala
 

The jury is still out on Pope Francis‟ position on women. “Is he pro-woman?” is a question left hanging in the air.

I like to believe that he is getting there. Not because he has made any sweeping changes to benefit women, but because his internal compass seems to be pointing in the right direction. He has sensitivity to women‟s subordination both in the church and in the world, and is emphatic in his denouncement of it. In the very first year of his pontificate when addressing the Pontifical Council for the Laity at their symposium on Mulieris Dignitatem he shared: “I suffer ...when I see in the church or in some ecclesial organizations ... that women‟s role of service slips into a role of servitude.” Three years later while speaking to the International Union of Superiors General he went a step further. “When you Superiors are asked for something that is more servitude than service,” he advised them, “have the courage to say no.‟

In Amoris Laetitia, Francis tackles head-on the “headship” of the man in the family. He rejects “every form of sexual submission” -- including interpretations that misuse Paul‟s exhortation to women to be subject to their husbands (Eph 5:22) -- and goes so far as to call out marital rape (AL, 154). I can only hope Catholics in India and their pastors are listening. We are one of the few countries in the world that has resisted criminalizing marital rape due to a culture that continues to believe that if men are deprived of their marital “rights” and women are given the power to say “no” to their “lord and master,” it could destroy the institution of marriage.

At a more proactive level, Pope Francis‟ call two years ago for “a more widespread and incisive female presence in the community” set the church abuzz. He made this statement during an address to members of the Pontifical Council for Culture in February 2015 and qualified it by saying that we would then see “many women involved in pastoral responsibilities, in the accompaniment of persons, families and groups, as well as in theological reflection.” He did not mention decision-making. In the same speech, though, he made a strong plea for the promotion of women in the public sphere, in “places where the most important decisions are taken.” This ambiguity left the door open for much speculation about what he meant and how he proposed to walk the talk. One lost opportunity was the 2015 synod on the family, which appointed 30 women as auditors but gave none of them the right to vote. Other debates have centered on what Francis meant when he told Jesuit Fr. Antonio Spadaro in a 2013 interview that the church has to “work harder to develop a profound theology of women.” Was this to be seen as opposed to a theology of men? Did it imply that the existing theology was a theology of men? Did he perhaps mean a theology by women?

Pope Francis' take on feminism too has been confusing. In his 2016 meeting with the International Union of Superiors General, he named feminism as one of two “temptations ... against which we must guard,” because falling into feminism “would reduce a woman‟s importance.” And yet, at a weekly general audience in April 2015 he had reflected on the current decline in marriages and absolved the women‟s rights movement of blame, calling attempts to fault women's emancipation a form of “chauvinism” that seeks to “control the woman.” At the same audience he further exhorted the crowds to demand the "radical equality" that Christianity emphasizes between husbands and wives -- something he strongly reinforces in Amoris Laetitia, seeing in “the women‟s movement the working of the Spirit for a clearer recognition of the dignity and rights of women” (AL, 54). Francis‟ lexicon on women now includes words like “reciprocity” (AL, 54) and concepts like “equal compensation for equal work” (Audience, April 29, 2015), and “freedom of choice” (AL, 33) -- including the need to ensure that women are not “left alone to carry the burden of deciding between the family and an effective presence” in public and ecclesial life (Address to Pontifical Council for Culture, Feb. 7, 2015). It makes one wonder: does he even realize that these theories that have now entered the mainstream of just practices have their origins in feminism? Or that they do not stand alone, but are interlinked with all that affects women‟s rights and interests?

No matter his understanding, his advocacy on behalf of women has women cheering until they come up against his wall of “complementarity of the sexes.” It is a notion that surfaces repeatedly in Francis‟ teachings, no doubt taking its cue from Pope John Paul II‟s 1988 apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem. However, as Creighton University theologians Michael Lawler and Todd Salzman pointed out in a May 2015 article for National Catholic Reporter, Francis uses the term “complementarity” in a different way than John Paul did. While John Paul used the term in a rigid and universal, classicist way, “defining it to reflect traditional and culturally determined gender roles grounded in the physiological distinction between male and female,” Francis' speech reflects a historically conscious view that is “dynamic, evolving, changing and particular.”

In his speech to a 2014 Vatican colloquium on “The Complementarity of Man and Woman in Marriage,” Francis argued that “complementarity will take many forms as each man and woman brings his or her distinctive contributions to their marriage and to the formation of their children -- his or her personal richness, personal charisma." Thus, while Francis never ceases to promote motherhood he simultaneously encourages wider roles for women and recognizes the necessity for changes in social and ecclesial systems to make this possible. In Amoris Laetitia he gives gender stereotypes short shrift, stating that “masculinity and femininity are not rigid categories” and that art and dance are expressions of being “masculine” as much as the exercise of leadership is an expression of being “feminine.” He also advocates shared household chores and childcare (AL, 286).

Unfortunately, the theological anthropology that underpins Francis‟ complementarity does not stop with social questions. It extends to the ordination of women. On more than one occasion Pope Francis has made definitive statements supporting his predecessors‟ ban on the ordination of women. Citing John Paul‟s 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, Francis reasons that ordaining women is not possible because Jesus chose only men as his apostles, and since a priest “acts in the person of Christ,” a priest must be male. He buttresses this traditional argument with the contention that ordaining women would end up clericalizing them. He has been vociferous in his protests against the “disease” of clericalism, but something does not ring quite true when one reads his March 2017 interview with the German weekly Die Zeit. Francis admits that due to the lack of vocations “in many communities at the moment, committed women are preserving Sunday as a day of worship by holding services of the Word. But a church without the Eucharist has no strength." However, his solution is not to consider the ordination of the women who are already ministering in parishes, but to discuss the ordination of “proven married men,” known in Latin as viri probati. For all his profession of equality of the sexes, Francis seems convinced that God cannot be as sacramentally present through the body of a woman priest as God can be in the body of a male priest. It would appear too that the fears he harbors of women being sucked into clericalism do not apply to married men.

So, where does that leave the women, given that governance in the church is linked with ordination? Dependent on Francis. When the superiors of women religious asked Pope Francis in 2016 to constitute an official commission to study the question of a permanent diaconate for women, he immediately agreed and followed through later with the creation of a 12-member commission that includes noted academic Phyllis Zagano, whose advocacy for women deacons is well known. Francis has cautioned, though, that this is not opening a door, but is merely to throw light on the subject. So how it will end is anyone‟s guess.

On the other hand, Pope Francis‟ strong push for the inclusion of women in different Vatican offices is already beginning to bear fruit. When the women religious requested to be included in the plenary assembly of the Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, he agreed with alacrity. In 2014 he approved the appointment of Sr. Mary Melone as the first woman rector of Rome‟s Pontifical University Antonianum. The International Theological Commission currently has an all-time high of five women theologians out of 30 members, and Francis has expressed the desire to see their numbers increase. The formerly all-male Pontifical Council for Culture now has a 37-member “Women‟s Consultation Group” that brings the voices of women to “stimulate the reflection” of the council‟s members on universal issues.

Despite these positive signs, however, Pope Francis continues to keep leadership positions in the dicasteries out of bounds for women. He believes that appointing women as heads of Vatican offices would promote a “functionalism” of women‟s roles in the Catholic church. It is no surprise therefore, that he appointed a priest as secretary of the new Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, which became effective in 2016, even though the office‟s statutes make provision for the appointment of a lay person. However, five months later in what seems to be a balancing move, he appointed married women as undersecretaries - Linda Ghisoni, a seasoned canon lawyer and judge, for the section on laity, and Gabriella Gambino, Professor of Bioethics, for the section on life.

With all his contradictions, his occasionally misplaced, if well intentioned humor, and his sometimes off-color remarks about women that expose the benevolent patriarchy from which he operates, Pope Francis has done more to empower women in the church than any pontiff before him. It cannot be easy walking the tight rope between the official teachings of the church with their patriarchal underpinnings and the truth he perceives in the lives of the women around him, but one thing Francis is not short of is the courage to act on his convictions. Already his interpretation and application of doctrine have attracted public censure, even from his fellow bishops, but this has not deterred him.

At the other end, many criticize him for his refusal to change church teaching. His reasoning however, is clear. In a March 2014 interview with Italy‟s Corriere della Sera, he explained: “The question is not that of changing the doctrine, but to go deep and to ensure that pastoral care takes into account situations and what is possible for people.” It is a position that is reminiscent of Jesus‟ radical understanding of the law (Matt 5:1-11, 17) and displays a rootedness in the experience of people, not in abstract academics. But it is also a strategy to not attract attention and quietly lay the groundwork for future change.

It would seem that much of Pope Francis‟ understanding of women‟s situation is intuitive, not drawn from any principles or ideology, and that perhaps is why he is unable to see the threads of patriarchy and sexism that run through so much of church teaching. It would also account for the contradictions and inconsistencies in his stand. At the same time, it appears that sometimes he simply likes to stir the pot, to generate a conversation in the church around an issue he considers important in the hope of giving it necessary attention. Women find the flavors of his meals sometimes sweet, sometimes bitter, but tasty enough to whet their appetite and ask for more.

[Astrid Lobo Gajiwala has a PhD in medicine and post-graduate diplomas in tissue banking, bioethics, and theology. Her report on interfaith families was used as resource material by the Indian delegates to the 2014 Synod of Bishops. She is a resource person for the Federation of Asian Bishops‟ Conference and the Catholic Bishops‟ Conference of India, and a consultor for the Indian bishops‟ Commission for Women. She was a member of the drafting committee for the Indian bishops' Gender Policy of the Catholic Church of India.]