Are the women in the Church really happy with Pope Francis?

Published in JIVAN: News and Views of Jesuits in India, March 2018.

Are the women in the Church really happy with Pope Francis?

By Astrid Lobo Gajiwala 16 February, 2018.

Any discussion on Pope Francis inevitably provokes mixed reactions among women. While his compass seems to be pointing in the right direction the ground reality often belies his intentions, forcing one to ask: Does he lack the will or the capacity to follow through, or is the power of the Vatican Curia supreme?

In 2014 for instance, he took the bold and much appreciated step of instituting the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors and appointing Marie Collins of Ireland, a prominent survivor of clerical sex abuse, to serve on it. Three years later however, Marie resigned in frustration at the reluctance of some members of the Vatican Curia to implement the recommendations of the Commission despite their approval by the pope.

Then again, in the preface to a book by Daniel Petit, a victim of clerical sexual abuse, the Pope strongly denounced such abuse as “an absolute monstrosity, a horrendous sin, radically contrary to all that Christ teaches us,” asked for forgiveness, and made clear the Church‟s duty to show proof of “extreme severity towards priests who betray their mission, and towards their hierarchy, Bishops or Cardinals, who protect them.” Yet in 2015 he appointed Chilean Juan Barros as bishop despite protests by locals and allegedly being hand delivered, via the Commission, an eight-page letter from a victim, Juan Carlos Cruz, accusing Barros of witnessing and covering up, the sexual abuse of minors by his mentor, the cleric Fernando Karadima. During his visit to Chile earlier this year, Francis condemned Barros‟ detractors, using strong words like “calumny” and “slander”. However soon after his return to Rome the Vatican press office issued a statement saying the pope had “recently received some information” which prompted him to send Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna who enjoys credibility among survivors, to investigate clergy sex abuse cases in Chile. It is a gesture that is characteristic of Pope Francis, signaling his openness to “new” evidence, and his willingness to change track and admit publicly that he could be wrong. It takes courage, humility and commitment to the truth. While women applaud his personal stand, they are asking for more. They want structured mechanisms that will function in a consistent manner to hold negligent bishops accountable, processes of redress that will be transparent, and most important, a demonstrated, timely and uncompromising concern for the safety of minors and vulnerable adults that supersedes administrative priorities.

Another development that has attracted international attention is yet being played out. Earlier this month Cardinal Kevin Farrell, Prefect of the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, refused permission for three women to speak at the „Voices of Faith‟ International Women‟s Day celebration which has been held at the Casina Pio IV within Vatican City for the past four years. One of the women is former Irish president Mary McAleese and the other, Ssenfuka Joanita Warry, a young Ugandan lesbian Catholic LGBT activist. How should women view this censorship of women‟s voices by a dicastery of the Vatican that is meant to support women? If women‟s voices are kept out how can they ever have “a more widespread and incisive female presence in the community”1? What hope is there for women‟s leadership in the Church when they cannot be trusted to choose speakers for an event? Can young women believe in Pope Francis‟ vision of a "welcoming Church‟ or his desire to be challenged by their candour, when their life-giving stories are not considered “catholic” enough and are filtered out on his very doorstep? The event which has the Jesuit Refugee Service as a partner will now be held at the aula of the Jesuit Curia. It remains to be seen however, if the “conditions apply” entry will also extend to Chiesa di Santa Maria Regina della Famiglia, the little chapel in the Vatican where the women have celebrated the Eucharist in the past.

Pope Francis‟ position on women‟s participation in decision-making is also ambiguous. On the plus side he has lamented that often “women‟s role of service slips into a role of servitude”2 and has advised women religious to “have the courage to say „no‟”.3 He has also advocated the promotion of women in the public sphere, in “places where the most important decisions are taken.”4 But in the same speech when he talks of women‟s role in the Church he refers only to their involvement in “pastoral responsibilities, in the accompaniment of persons, families and groups, as well as in theological reflection.”5 He does not mention decision-making. Perhaps because he knows well that governance in the church is linked to ordination, and like his predecessors he believes that women cannot be ordained 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. Francis‟ God it would seem, is incapable of making the Godself sacramentally present through the body of a woman, and in his book clericalism is a malady of priesthood that only women need to be protected against. A ray of hope is the Commission he constituted in 2016 to study the question of a permanent diaconate for woman. It included noted academic Phyllis Zagano whose advocacy for women deacons is well known. Unfortunately, the commission‟s work has been shrouded in secrecy and how it will end is anyone's guess.

There have been other small inroads in the exclusively male domain. In response to a request of the women religious Pope Francis has agreed to include them in the plenary assembly of the Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. In 2014 he appointed Sr. Mary Melone as the first woman rector of Rome‟s Pontifical University Antonianum, and increased the number of women theologians in The International Theological Commission to 5 out of 30, an all-time high. 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, and the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, which became effective in 2016 although headed by clerics has 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.

Where Francis scores is in the deconstruction of the „head of the household‟ myth. 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 (Amoris Laetitia, 154). At a weekly general audience in April 2015 he exhorted the crowds to demand the "radical equality" that Christianity emphasizes between husbands and wives -- something he strongly reinforces in Amoris Laetitia. He promotes “reciprocity” (AL, 54), “equal compensation for equal work”6, 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.7 He challenges gender stereotypes and criticise domestic violence, female genital mutilation and the „commercialisation and exploitation‟ of women‟s bodies in the media. He goes so far as to acknowledge “the women‟s movement (as) the working of the Spirit for a clearer recognition of the dignity and rights of women” (AL, 54), even faulting attempts to condemn it as “false, untrue, a form of male chauvinism” that seeks to “control the women”.

But here too, sadly, there is ambivalence. In AL for instance, he praises the strength of “a love that never gives up,” a loaded ideal for women struggling in abusive marriages. In contradiction of his statements on equality he includes a section entitled “You and Your Wife,” and uses the biblical description of “a helper fit for him” to define a wife. He encourages women to follow their personal dreams but bemoans „the weakening of (the) maternal presence with its feminine qualities (which) poses a grave risk to our world‟ (No. 173). One could go on. It is obvious that the pope‟s well meaning, tentative overtures to balance the gender scales are founded on faulty anthropology and he must realise that one cannot put new wine in old wineskins.

What Pope Francis urgently needs to do is sit with women at the table and let them set the agenda. Women will then expose him to the foundational principles of feminism, gender sensitivity and gender mainstreaming. They will let him know why talk of a „feminine genius‟ frustrates and limits them, and why a “theology of women” perplexes them. They will share how “complementarity of the sexes” is like an insurmountable wall for them. They will ask for an ecclesiology that includes women so that the Church can truly be a People of God, and explore with him avenues for women‟s leadership in the Church.

It has been recently revealed that the pope has been meeting with abuse survivors on a nearly weekly basis, and this is truly commendable. Yet in the three years that she was part of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, Marie Collins says that she never once had the opportunity to sit and talk to the pope and make recommendations. In the four years that Voices of Faith has created „her-story‟ in the Vatican neither the pope nor his cardinals have deigned to grace their event. In 2017 however, the Jesuit Superior General, Arturo Sosa Abascal, accepted to be one of the keynote speakers and to “listen carefully to the experience of women in the public sphere, hear how they work together, and be inspired by their courage” because he believes that theirs are “stories of doing the impossible”.

Perhaps it‟s time for the Jesuit in the Pope to take a leaf out of the General‟s book. 


1 Pope’s address to members of the Pontifical Council for Culture, February 2015.

2 Pope’s address to the Pontifical Council for the Laity at their symposium on Mulieris Dignitatem, 2013.

3 Pope’s Speech to the International Union of Superiors General, 2016.
4 Pope’s Address to members of the Pontifical Council for Culture, February 2015.
5 Address to members of the Pontifical Council for Culture, February 2015.

6 Audience, April 29, 2015.
7 Pope’s Address to Pontifical Council for Culture, Feb. 7, 2015.

8 General Audience, April 2015.