When it comes to the rift in Catholicism between worried conservatives and liberalizing progressives, Pope Francis’ nuanced positions make him impossible to pigeonhole.
Doctrinally, he is conservative. He has not substantially changed church teaching. He is, however, revolutionizing its interpretation and application, emphasizing mercy and healing over dogma and discipline. He clearly recognizes the importance of discernment and patience in the process of transforming lives and challenging injustices. But his condemnation of global capitalism and environmental destruction, and his ability to bring the voices of the world’s poorest and most marginalized people to global politics, make him a radical leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics.
At the very least, Francis is having a transformative effect on the church’s mission. Yet where are the women?
Francis has repeatedly acknowledged the need for greater involvement of women at all levels of church life, barring ordination. With the door on that question closed, as Francis has said, it’s fair to ask what greater involvement means. So far, the pope could be doing much more to promote women’s participation.
Francis could have insisted that women have a real role in the Synod on the Family in October. Thirty women have been appointed as auditors to this second churchwide meeting of bishops called by Francis to discuss the challenges facing Catholics with regard to family life. It is ludicrous that these women can neither speak nor vote while nearly 300 celibate men — bishops and cardinals — will make far-reaching decisions affecting the lives of so many families on the planet.
To introduce more diversity into the dialogues surrounding the synod, the Catholic Women’s Network, an online forum of more than 900 women, has published “Catholic Women Speak: Bringing Our Gifts to the Table.” It offers reflections by leading female theologians and personal stories related to issues such as contraception, divorce, same-sex relationships and interchurch unions, as well as poverty, violence and the religious life. In most cases, the women’s stories don’t — and can’t — match strict doctrine.
Contributors to the book plan to give a copy of it to all those attending the synod. More important, they hope to open a significant dialogue between the church hierarchy and women seeking to live faithfully in difficult times and diverse contexts.
For example, because Francis is serious about creating a church of the poor, he cannot ignore what has been described as “the feminization of poverty.” An estimated 800 of the world’s poorest women die every day of causes related to pregnancy and childbirth, and it is scandalous that the question of maternal mortality remains unaddressed in Catholic social teaching. The international community’s attempts to promote women’s sexual and reproductive rights repeatedly founder on opposition spearheaded by the Holy See acting as a mouthpiece for religious conservatives.
At the grass-roots, the Catholic Church is a force for good in poor communities. Books by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, and by Robert Calderisi, describe congregations and Catholic nongovernmental organizations in the forefront of providing education and healthcare for the world’s poorest women and girls. These efforts rarely allow edicts from Rome to dictate their response to the need for contraceptive advice and post-abortion care, but they are constantly under threat from powerful conservative forces.
Francis repeatedly insists that realities should come before ideas. He says he wants a messy church that is a “field hospital” for the wounded. To that end, he could challenge the church’s culture of censorship on many women’s issues. The bishops who represent Africa at the synod, for example, tend to gloss over the harsh circumstances of poor women’s lives in their countries in order to present a united moral front against so-called Western decadence on issues such as women’s reproductive rights.
And what about that “closed door” with regard to ordination? In Philadelphia, Francis will attend the church’s carefully managed triannual World Meeting of Families, timed to coincide with the buildup to the synod. Last weekend, a very different gathering took place in that city. Nearly 500 people attended a conference organized by Women’s Ordination Worldwide, defying a ban on discussions of female priests imposed by the church authorities. One of the speakers, Father Jack McClure, has been told he will be prohibited from celebrating Mass in his San Francisco parish church because of his participation. Yet this issue will not go away.
The Catholic Church risks becoming increasingly isolated in its marginalization of women’s voices. There is an urgent need for more communication between the Catholic hierarchy and women, including lay theologians. The church needs to hear women speak out, without fear of censorship and harsh disciplinary measures.
Doctrinal truth cannot be harmed by rigorous and informed theological analysis.
Francis is a potent and prophetic voice of late modernity. His greatest potential allies are the women who make up more than half the church. We are on your side, Pope Francis. Can you hear us?
Tina Beattie is a theologian and a professor of Catholic studies at the University of Roehampton in London. She is an editor of Catholic Women Speak: Bringing Our Gifts to the Table.