When Pope Francis convened his now-famous news conference aboard the papal plane during his trip home from World Youth Day in Brazil, he drew international attention with his comments on homosexuality, specifically his words, “Who am I to judge?” (Only the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.)
But the eyebrows and hopes of many Catholics were also raised when the first Jesuit pope called for a deeper theology of women.
It’s true that Francis dismissed the possibility of women’s ordination to the priesthood, saying that “door is closed.” But he also noted “a lack of a theological development” when it comes to women and proclaimed that “the role of the woman in the church must not end at mother and worker.”
The pope said women are “more important than the bishops and priests” and, referring to debates over the role of women in the church, implied that there is no longer any question that women can be altar servers, lectors and heads of major Catholic organizations.
In the era of “nuns on the bus,” “the mommy wars” and “the war on women,” many female Catholic leaders see in Francis’s call to action tremendous potential for starting conversations about gender in the church and society, with possible outcomes ranging from finding feminine ways to describe the divine to church support for paid maternity leave.
For most of history, “the way religion in general has understood women in relationship to God has been through the lens of men, ” says Sister Carol Zinn, the new president of the Leadership Council of Women Religious (LCWR), an association of leaders of Catholic orders of nuns in the United States. The Leadership Council was censured by the Vatican last year for promoting what it called “radical feminist themes” not in keeping with church orthodoxy.
Although her group does not desire to replace patriarchy with matriarchy, Zinn says, “the birthing images, the laboring images, those are just as valid to represent the incredible capacity God has to love us” as male-generated images.
In order to develop a theology of women, Zinn says, the first thing the Catholic Church would have to do is, “in fact, talk to the people about whom you’re trying to create a theology.”.
Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun and a prolific writer on Catholic issues, including gender, is more pointed when discussing how to correct what she sees as the absence of genuine female experience reflected in Catholic theology.
“Church men have got to begin to read good feminist philosophy, theology and science. They’ve got to understand that their positions [on gender] are embarrassingly groundless,” Chittister said. “Then we’ve got to pull women together. We have thousands of years of churches whose whole theology is built [on] half of the insights of the human race. And that’s supposed to be an adequate theology?”
No one denies that women have played a crucial role in the spiritual life of the church, from the often-thankless work of raising children and ministering to the needy in parishes, to the theological contributions of the four female “doctors of the church” (all named since the 1970s), including Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint Thérèse of Lisieux.
The church already has a theology of women — referred to by Francis — centered on such documents as Pope John Paul II’s “On the Dignity of Women” and his work on what is called the “theology of the body,” the teaching that differences in gender point to differences in the nature of men and women. But even Pope Francis says more must be done.
Sister Mary Ann Walsh, the first female director of media relations at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, says that “women don’t feel heard. So just being heard is a major move forward.”
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One issue that Catholic women struggle with is the question of authority and leadership in the church. This is 2013, they say, and Catholic women want not only to lead but also to be encouraged to lead.
The exclusion of women from the priesthood is one practice that is often seen, even within the church, as plainly discriminatory. A 2010 New York Times/CBS poll found that 59 percent of American Catholics favor the ordination of women. But the church does not operate by popular opinion, and the all-male priesthood is one of the oldest traditions of one of the oldest religions in the world.
John Paul II said that the question of female ordination was not open for debate and that the church “has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women.” Francis, in his airborne news conference, affirmed that teaching. For some Catholics, anything short of ordination means that women will never achieve equal status or influence.
“The church simply refusing [to ordain women] means that women will never exercise authority,” says Nancy Dallavalle, an associate professor of religious studies at Fairfield University. “They will never shape the institution. They are walled off from shaping” the church.
Others see nothing unfair about men and women having different roles, and they identify huge potential for female leadership in the church, from the parish level all the way to the Vatican.
“The first step is to encourage what is already permissible,” Walsh says. For example, Catholic women have proved their ability to lead major organizations such as schools and hospitals. Can that authority extend to the Roman Curia?
Pope Francis says he wants to shed the image of the church as chauvinistic. Catholic women have some ideas on how to get there:
Bring more women into key positions in the Vatican, as consultants, theologians and heads of offices that don’t require holy orders. Create an affirmative action plan for qualified women to infiltrate Curia positions, such as in the Congregation on the Doctrine of the Faith, where few women today serve. Encourage women to work as chancellors of dioceses around the world. Help them to prepare for careers as pastoral associates, who fill many of the roles of the traditional parish priest and who are needed more than ever because of the shortage of priests in the West.
Some even say that a theological argument can be made for women to serve as deacons, with a spate of articles in the Catholic world exploring the issue.
Walsh says there are two types of tradition in the church: The kind believed to be revealed truth from God and the kind that insists that “we’ve always done it that way.” Plenty of Catholic women are eager to find ways to do it differently.
“You would have institutional change” if women were to radically repopulate the ranks of church leadership, Chittister said. “There would be no institution that would not be affected by a genuine equality.”
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Pope Francis wasted no time making poverty a key theme of his papacy. In office only five months, he has visited slums in Brazil, critiqued consumerism, and called for Catholics to find ways “to make a personal contribution to putting an end to so many social injustices.” Many of those injustices are inflicted on women.
“By putting [poverty] out front, that changes the game right away,” Dallavalle says. “The majority of the poor in this world are women and their dependent children. By saying, ‘I am more concerned about that as our public face than I am about naming sexual sin,’ Pope Francis immediately changes the game.”
Chittister echoes that sentiment. “You cannot say you’re for the poor and not be for women.”
Pat Gohn, a Catholic author of a recent book on the church and women, sees the potential for a renewed Catholic theology of women to “have a ripple effect in civil society” because of the global reach of the church.
The impact might touch not only those in desperate poverty but also women in the developed world who struggle in other ways.
For example, George Mason University law professor Helen Alvaré says, “corporate culture, law and policy would have to do a whole lot more taking account of motherhood than it does now.”
Just as relevant, says Janet Smith, who writes and teaches on Catholic sexuality and ethics, would be instilling greater respect for women who choose to stay at home and raise children. Smith says this is a purpose well suited to a theology of women, which “to some extent is meant to show that women don’t have to live life by the rules of men.”
Zinn notes that Catholic “women are already living out a theology of women,” despite any shortcomings in church teachings about women.
Pope Francis and many leading female Catholics agree: It’s time for the church to catch up.
Elizabeth Tenety, a Catholic woman, is the editor of On Faith. This article was adapted from an essay that appeared on On Faith.