Amid the hosannas and the traffic snarls that will accompany Pope Francis to America this week, amid all the gushing over the singular Argentine who has become, overnight, a moral voice for the entire world, a note of caution must be struck. There is one group that this pope — a protector of the poor and the outcast; a harsh critic of the excesses of capitalism and greed; a lover of the Earth and all the creatures in it and a clear-eyed believer in the (evolutionary and ecological) truths given by science — has not entirely included in his wide, egalitarian embrace: women. Half of the Catholics in the world are female, and yet with his words and deeds Francis not only refuses to consider elevating women to any meaningful positions of organizational or decision-making power — he does not promote them — but insists on reinforcing the centuries-old status quo, in which the sacred role of women lies in their fertility and in their magical domesticity, which he calls the “feminine genius” and by which he means: Mommy.
Yes, Francis has changed the tone of the papacy, in a blink, from a Teutonic, parsing, authoritarian Pater obsessed with hairline distinctions between who is, and isn’t, properly Catholic (while protecting its own power and blamelessness above all) into one that embodies that most Christian of all values: radical love — a love that exceeds convenience and self-centered preoccupations. It’s not Christian love if it expresses itself only when you have the time, or the money, or when your borders are appropriately secured. This is Francis’s message, and it sounds like news because it is rooted in the gospels, and the word gospel means “good news.” And yes, a shift like this in rhetoric can change a church, even one as ancient and unwieldy as the Roman Catholic Church, because deeds do follow words, because people are emboldened to act if sufficiently inspired.
But the rap on Francis — that his genius is of the rhetorical, political variety and not of a real revolutionary — is true as well. And though initiating incremental changes in doctrine may seem like small potatoes next to the enormous strides Francis has made rearticulating the Church’s mission in fewer than three years, one has to wonder: How does Francis legitimately claim and maintain moral leadership when the institution over which he presides makes the suppression of women’s power and independence a foundational thing? Make no mistake. The sexism of the Roman Catholic Church is written into its bylaws, starting with the fact that women can’t be ordained as priests, which means they can’t participate in that holiest of Catholic rites, the consecration of the Eucharist, but also that they can never be promoted up the chain to bishop, or cardinal. (And before you say, “The Church would never,” remember that since the 1970s, all kinds of conservative Jewish and Protestant denominations who would never previously have imagined the ordination of women have, in fact, ordained them by the hundreds.)
Francis, for all his forward thinking, entirely supports this professional sidelining of females. “As far as women’s ordination is concerned, the Church has spoken and said, ‘No,’” Francis told a reporter early in his pontificate. Usually reluctant to align himself publicly with his predecessors and unusually gifted at answering reporters’ questions with open-ended, tweet-able affirmations, Francis in this case punted the ball decades behind him. “John Paul II said it, but with a definitive formulation. That door is closed.”
The Vatican bureaucracy consists of 30 or so “dicasteries” — committees or tribunals responsible for administering the departments of the Church. A cardinal usually presides over these bodies, but this is a matter of tradition, not law, and in the past, a tiny number of women (so small they could be counted on one hand, and often, one finger), held jobs at the tops of these committees. But when Francis was asked whether he would try to put more women into these high-ranking administrative positions, again he demurred. This would be a show of “functionalism,” he said earlier this summer, not an endorsement of female power or strength. And when he did increase female representation on the International Theological Commission late last year, raising the number of women in the 30-member group to seven from two, he undermined his own achievement by calling the new female members of that body “the strawberries on the cake.”
Now, it is perhaps understandable that a 78-year-old Argentine, raised in an Italian family, who has spent his entire life ascending a hierarchy comprised of celibate men might compare internationally recognized female theologians to fruity adornments on a sweet dessert. But the remark also reflects the traditional Catholic view, always trotted out in defense of its entrenched sexism, that women are simply different from men, complementary but not any less valuable or special in the eyes of God. Follow this argument to its end and find that it’s women’s fertility, and their place at the center of the home, that accounts for their specialness — and perhaps also their unsuitability as church leaders, a kind of double-talk at which the Church excels. This view, which elevates women’s fertility and domesticity — what churchmen condescendingly call their “feminine genius” — above their intelligence or independence or competence or determination or earning power or decision-making ability is the same one that allows the bishops to justify adjudicating women’s reproductive choices, and it is this view, even before the horrors of the child-sex-abuse crisis came to light, that caused Catholic women to abandon the Church in droves. And yet, Francis, who has made a generous, conciliatory step toward women by demanding for them equal pay (not a small thing) and offering them penance for abortion, has also beatified Pope Paul VI, the man who officially decreed that birth-control pills are off-limits to Catholic women, putting him one step closer to sainthood.
It may be that women were an essential part of Jesus’s ministry, and it may be that women were the primary evangelists in the early Christian movement, opening their homes for small congregations to worship and financing some of the earliest missions. But from the beginning, they were also subjugated. In his excellent essay in the most recent issue of the progressive Catholic magazine Conscience, the Fordham University historian W. David Myers points out that in his letters, St. Paul admonished women in church, in essence, to sit down and shut up; that when women began, in an organized way, to sacrifice their lives to God, as nuns, they were cloistered — imprisoned, essentially, behind high walls; that even if they could have learned as much as men within those walls to teach in the great universities, they were barred from that, too, since the professors in the medieval world were also priests, a Catch-22. According to legend, medieval popes were enthroned upon election on a chair with a hole in the seat, like a toilet; an underling had to examine the pontiff’s genitals to make sure that his equipment was indeed appropriately male. In modern times, women have been the ones who fill the pews at Mass, who run the schools and hospitals, who have made it their business to combat infectious diseases in parts of the world where most people don’t travel, who make faith a priority for new generations — and yet women are not even allowed to become deacons, the ordained laypeople who can perform weddings and funerals in the absence of an onsite priest.
In Francis, a plain, old-fashioned cultural and generational sexism exists alongside his church’s history and tradition, which allows him to make remarks that would blow up Twitter had they been uttered by Donald Trump. When a reporter asked Francis about the likelihood of promoting women to powerful jobs in the Vatican, he gave his version of an old ball-and-chain joke: “Well, so many times priests end up under the authority of the housekeeper.” See, the woman who cleans under the bed has more power than the priest himself. Ha ha. Similarly, when reporters asked Jorge Bergoglio, in 2010, whether he could envision an end to priestly celibacy, he made a crack worthy of Dom DeLuise: “I once heard a priest say that eliminating celibacy would allow him to not be alone and to have a wife, but with that he would also be getting a mother-in-law.” Again, as Bergoglio, Francis has referred to a certain diocesan secretary as a “tarantula”; he has dismissed certain leftist protesters as “aggressive transvestites and feminists.” As pope, he has compared the secular, mainstream culture of Europe to “a grandmother, no longer fertile and vibrant.” These are the kinds of things one’s embarrassing grandfather says, and no matter how generous and good-hearted one’s grandfather is, these jocular comparisons of ordinary women to spiders and desserts do not meet the pope’s own standard of radical acceptance and love.
In 2009, Rachel Pokora received a handwritten letter from her parish priest, advising her that the diocesan bishop was excommunicating her for her work with a leftist Catholic reform group called Call to Action, many of whose members support the ordination of women. A cradle Catholic, Pokora loved her church, but in adulthood, she began to find its hypocrisies too much to bear. “The only time I ever walked out of Mass was when the priest said gay people could be healed of their homosexuality. There were gay kids there that day, and kids who might be gay, and I didn’t want them to think I thought this message was okay.” Pokora cried in her priests’s office when he told her that she could no longer receive communion, and now she goes to Mass only when she visits her father about four times a year. (And when she does, she takes communion in violation of her censure — “which, by the way, is hugely scandalous, but I’m fine with it,” she told me. Jesus gave the Last Supper to Judas: “If communion is supposed to heal us, why would you deny it to people?”)
She doesn’t want to take anything away from Francis. “There’s been a huge change in tone,” she said. “That is real. That’s for sure.” But she advises the worshipful throngs not to be too willfully blind about this pope’s shortcomings and those of his church. Catholics in the West, she says, are a little like the victims of domestic abuse; they’re just relieved that the beatings have stopped. “In some ways we’re just so happy to hear kindness and welcoming that we’re not noticing that there are still some serious problems that need to be addressed.” And where Francis really falls down is in his regard for women. He compliments them, but in so doing he pushes them aside. The “gender binary” he upholds, Pokora muses, “is shockingly out of date.”