Last month, when Pope Francis declared to the Jesuit press that the Roman Catholic Church had become "obsessed" with abortion, contraception and gay marriage, his remarks went viral. Not surprisingly, those on the left welcomed the breath of fresh air sweeping through the Vatican while conservative Catholics registered alarm. Feminists raised eyebrows, pondered the pontiff's words, and wondered how far the progressive pope was willing to go when it comes to women.
As welcome as his remarks were, it seemed clear that there would be no quantum leap from pantry to pulpit.
Writing for The Daily Beast, Janine di Giovanni noted that "unfortunately, His Holiness's statements about women were rigid and clear. There would not be female priests," although the pontiff wants to increase women's roles in administrative and pastoral activities. "Does this mean wiping the chalice or arranging flowers on the altar?" she asked.
Alice Laffey, an associate professor of religious studies and a member of the Women's Ordination Conference after Vatican II, told CNN that Pope Francis had "affirmed that the church lacked "a deep theology of women,'" but that he had "conveyed a deep respect for women." Laffey sees the ordination of women as less pressing an issue than the fact that it is women and children who constitute the poorest of the poor globally. She claims the pope's focus on poverty and personal suffering is a sign that he "warmly embraces women."
Here's Sister Simone Campbell's take, posted on ideas.time.com: "Pope Francis has idealized women by comparing them to the Blessed Virgin Mary. That is better than saying that women are "Eve in the Garden of Eden tempting men.'" But she admits she is "a little nervous about what will happen. "Our church has lagged in the acknowledgement of the role of women in shaping faith traditions"the fact is, women are leading by example outside the formalized power structure and that structure has lost out from not having significant contributions of women."
My own non-Christian, feminist perspective is this: I believe Pope Francis is a good man who truly respects women, but from an idealized and antiquated vision of women as the "Angel in the House" who must keep her place in order not to become the "Madwoman in the Attic." He has said that "women have a special role in opening doors to the Lord" and a special mission to pass belief on to their children and grandchildren. What he has not said is that women have a right to liberty, privacy and control over their own bodies. Nor does he preach that women, as autonomous adults, should be free to make their own life choices and to participate fully in all aspects of religious and secular life.
I respect this pope's genuine humility, his desire to find "new balance" in the Catholic Church, his moves toward reform, his commitments to the poor. He understands that without solid reform the "moral edifice of the church is likely to fall." He wants to be "creative, experimental, willing to live on the margins, push boundaries back a little bit," says the priest who interviewed the pope for the Jesuit magazine America. The question then becomes, is Pope Francis able to forge a more progressive church whose doctrine and policies do not reside in Victorian values relating to women?
It is worrying to note in a recent report posted on breitbart.com that shortly after the interview with Pope Francis went viral, he is alleged to have excommunicated an Australian priest because of his support for female priests as well as gay marriage. And that the day after the interview was published the pope condemned abortion "in the strongest terms to date since he assumed the papacy."
In his interview Pope Francis claimed that the first reform must be one of "attitude." He admonished Catholics to show "audacity and courage." But will he have the courage to change his own attitude, so that he no longer feels compelled to speak of "female machismo" and say that "women have a different make-up than men"? Will he have the audacity to decry a 2010 decree that equated the ordination of women with pedophilia?
Religious institutions are among the last bastions of sexism (as Matilda Jocelyn Gage pointed out more than a hundred years ago). And the Catholic Church finds it exceptionally hard to accept change. But as Janine di Giovanni says, "the decision to exclude women from the higher echelons sends a fundamental message of injustice." Injustice also prevails when women are denied their fundamental human rights in the name of religion.
Injustice is something I suspect this pope is loathe to endorse. Will he then be brave enough to truly modernize his view of women, and to reveal the courage he showed when he washed the feet of women alongside men, so that women might also bask in the full potential of a church whose leader wishes to "consider the person first?"
We can only hope. And perhaps pray.