Voices Online Edition
Vol. XXIX, No. 2
30th Anniversary Issue
Pope Francis and Women
by Joanna Bogle
Pope Francis has much in common with his immediate predecessors, and one particular aspect of this is worth highlighting. Along with Popes John Paul II and Benedict, he grew up assuming it was normal and natural for both men and women to have access to full education, to vote in elections, to train for professions, and to hold public office. And, like Pope Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict, he understands and teaches the importance of marriage and of motherhood, the complementarity of the sexes, and the deep significance for the Church in all of this.
As pope, Benedict spoke about the importance of women’s influence and responsibilities in the Church, devoting a whole series of talks to great women saints. He highlighted the specific intellectual gifts of Catherine of Sienna and Hildegard of Bingen, among others, noting that they combined these gifts with practical skills, strong leadership, and a sense of service to the Church. John Paul II spoke of the specific “genius of women,” by which he meant not that women were brainier than men, but that they bring a certain and very specific quality to their work.
So it is in this tradition that Pope Francis speaks about women in the Church, and with the naturalness and good humor that have become his trademark. At a major gathering of Catholic women in Italy, he emphasized “the indispensable contribution of women in society, in particular with their sensitivity and intuition toward the other, the weak and the unprotected.” He said he has been heartened that “many women share some pastoral responsibilities with priests in looking after persons, families and groups” and added a hope that “the spaces for a more diffuse and incisive presence in the Church be expanded.” And he spoke with wisdom and common sense about the central role of the family: where we learn to live with others, to give and receive love, and to build something civilized.
Catholic women can certainly hold positions of responsibility and spiritual leadership in the Church and in the world, and have done so down the centuries — from women in statecraft and political influence (Jadwiga of Poland, Hedwig of Bavaria, Elizabeth of Hungary) through abbesses and teachers, visionaries and mystics (Hilda of Whitby, Teresa of Ávila, Catherine Labouré, Marguerite-Marie Alacoque, Faustina Kowalska) through martyrs and witnesses (Margaret Clitherow, Josephine Bakhita) to missionaries and pioneers (Mary MacKillop, Madeleine Sophie Barat, Teresa of Calcutta). And all have drawn inspiration from Mary, the woman at the core of all human history.
Pope Francis has inherited a Church that has become familiar with scenes of young men and women cheerfully gathering in vast numbers at World Youth Day and similar events, identifying themselves with the Church via a range of new movements, pro-life organizations, and localized groups. They tend not to see Catholicism as hidebound or stuffy and indeed seem to accept the notion of the complementarity of the sexes as taught by the Church: pressure for female ordination belongs to an older generation.
The Church does not consist only of priests, but of families, religious communities, youth organizations, parishes, and lay-led movements such as Focolare, the Neocatechumenate, the Emmanuel Community, Youth 2000, and innumerable prayer groups and rosary circles, youth groups, pilgrimage groups, social action groups, and more.
Pope Francis spoke to this reality when in response to a question about female cardinals he said “I don’t know where this idea sprang from. Women in the Church must be valued not ‘clericalized.’ Whoever thinks of women as cardinals suffers a bit from clericalism.”
He gets it.
Joanna Bogle, a contributing editor of Voices, writes from London. She is a well-known author and journalist, who writes and lectures on issues of the Catholic faith, and appears frequently on the radio.
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