Women's role in Catholic Church: Is Pope Francis really a reformer?

Pope Francis has altered some Catholic Church practices to embrace women. But his appetite and ability to make bigger changes might be limited.

Alex Brandon/AP
Sophie Cruz, 5, of suburban Los Angeles reaches to give Pope Francis a letter and T-shirt during a parade in Washington, Wednesday.

At first glance, Pope Francis appears to be a staunch women’s advocate.

He has stood up for equal pay, calling the gender wage gap “pure scandal.” He has emphasized reconciliation and forgiveness for women who have had abortions and wish to follow church teachings in good faith. And most recently, he streamlined the cumbersome and costly process of annulment, a move many lauded as an act of mercy for women.

But the pontiff has also taken positions on women’s issues that some say undermine his outward support – such as refusing to welcome women into the clergy, or stressing church teaching about women’s role as mothers above all else.

The disparity raises the question of how far the pope can, or will, go when it comes to changing the Catholic church’s attitude toward women.

The answer, say scholars and theologians, is that the pope doesn't appear to see reforming the role of women in the church as one of his top priorities. And even if he did, resistance within the Vatican would be tremendous.

“No, I don’t think he’s done enough” to address women’s issues, says Susan Ross, a professor of theology and a faculty scholar at the Loyola University of Chicago. “But I think the reasons for that are complicated.”

She points out that the pope has “a very big agenda” that involves reforming the administration of the Roman Catholic Church and reinvigorating the masses toward the Catholic faith. As a result, “I don’t think the issue of empowering women is on his top 10 list,” Professor Ross says.

The pope is also a product of his generation, others say. Born in an era when clergy entered the church system young, and interaction with the opposite sex was restricted, Francis belongs to a generation “keen to extol the domestic contributions of women – their importance in raising families, passing on the faith and imparting basic human virtues – which can make their rhetoric seem outdated and patronizing,” writes Vatican reporter and analyst John L. Allen for Time magazine.

That may include calling prominent female theologians “strawberries on the cake” when highlighting their appointment to a top theological commission, or comparing Europe’s demographic decline to a grandmother who is “no longer fertile and vibrant.”

“When he speaks about women, Francis can sound a lot like the ... 78-year-old Argentine churchman that he is, using analogies that sound alternately condescending and impolitic, even if well-intentioned,” the Religion News Network put it.

One way the pope can address those issues is to spend more time with groups of women and open himself to their range of experiences, says Bruce Morrill, a Catholic priest and professor of Catholic studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville, Tenn.

“People, whether women or men, are very positive about this man,” he says. “The problem I hear from some women is, they say, ‘Look, he’s got a lot of great intentions but he doesn’t understand women enough.’ ”

Still, to expect the pope to move the needle on major church issues – such as the ordaining of women or the right to contraception – is unrealistic, partly because it may be outside his the realm of his office to do so, says Chad Pecknold, a professor of historical and systematic theology in the School of Theology and Religious Studies at Catholic University in Washington.

“Popes don’t change doctrine,” he says. 

Francis is also, in some ways, limited in his actions by the people around him. “Although he has introduced some new people into the Vatican government to carry out his vision for the Church, for the most part he must work with the singular community that he inherited,” the New Yorker reports.

What the pope’s pastoral tone may succeed in doing is to unsettle those who are entrenched in their opinions to consider moral questions more carefully, Professor Pecknold says. When the pope authorized Roman Catholic priests to offer forgiveness for abortions, Pecknold notes, he met with resistance from both liberals who protested that mercy suggested there was a sin to begin with, and conservatives who bristled at the change.

“He is repurposing the teachings of the church in a way that surprises us … and he is upsetting the left and right in different ways,” Pecknold adds.

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