What Pope Francis Thinks About Women in the Church

Will he give them real leadership roles or just continue to placate them by idealizing their gender?

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Christian Hartmann / Reuters

A nun prays in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on March 14, 2013, one day after the election of Pope Francis

Pope Francis is stirring up a lot of enthusiasm with his recent remarks about how the Catholic church shouldn’t focus excessively on issues such as abortion and gay marriage. Yesterday, I was asked if I thought he could be believed. My answer was, “Yes!” Anyone who talks of his own conversion is authentic in trying to communicate a spiritual journey. But one question remains. What about the role of women in the church? On that, my answer is less clear.

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So far Pope Francis has said that women are different from men but should be included in all aspects of the church. He 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.” He has called for the creation of “deep theology of women.” I am not sure what he means when he says this, but I do know that there are already many women theologians all over the world writing about their experience and reflecting on the deep truths of our faith. It is possible that he is not aware of their work, in which case he and other leaders in Rome should be given the opportunity to read and reflect on it.

But I must confess that I am a little nervous about what will happen. Currently there are no women in significant decisionmaking positions in the Vatican. There are few in dioceses around the world. Our church has lagged in the acknowledgment of the role of women in shaping faith traditions and as leaders of prayer. In that institutional lag, many of us in religious life and our nonvowed sisters have found ways of supporting each other. The fact is that women are leading by example and witness to the Gospel in their lives and not within the formalized power structure, and that power structure has lost out from not having significant contributions of women. It is difficult for me to believe that women in significant leadership roles would have tolerated the sexual-abuse cover-up.

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The question becomes, Will Pope Francis follow through by actually including women in the decisionmaking as he moves ahead with reforms? Or will the temptation to placate women by idealizing our gender remove us from consideration in wrestling with change in church politics?

If we are indeed brought into the currently male process, I worry that our own freedom of Spirit and witness to the Gospel could be undermined by our desire to “belong.” When I first started practicing law in 1977, there were not very many women in the profession. Some women thought that they had to outdo the men in being competitive and combative. Some did not bring their best selves to the practice because they were trying to imitate an old model. As we move forward, I believe that this might be a risk that women will willingly take. But I pray we can be a community of support for this new leadership and help our sisters assume their responsibilities in their own way.

I do know that one comment from the Pope that rankles and worries many women. On the plane back from World Youth Day in July, Pope Francis said that the “door is closed” on the issue of women’s ordination to the priesthood. I don’t know if he intended this image or not, but the day before the Sunday gospel was about the parable of someone who petitions for his neighbor’s help but just has to keep knocking on the door until the neighbor is annoyed enough to get up. It makes me think Jesus’ parable is correct. Women need to keep knocking on this closed door and eventually the change will come.

Sister Simone Campbell, S.S.S., is the executive director of Network, a national Catholic social-justice lobby, and the leader of Nuns on the Bus. The views expressed are solely her own.