Women in the Catholic Church: Will their role change with Pope Francis?

According to media reports Pope Francis stressed the “fundamental” importance of women in the Roman Catholic Church.


1. Is it in your opinion really a shift from the position of his predecessor Benedict or not and why?

2. If we look at this through the optic of the Catholic Church what are pros and cons of allowing women to become priests and bishops?


Mary Ann Hinsdale, Associate Professor, Theology Department, Boston College

I read the English translation which came from Zenit about what Pope Francis said about women. He made these remarks in the context of a “Catechesis in the Year of Faith.” Since it is also the first week of Easter, in the Roman Catholic church (and many other Christian churches) the designated readings for the daily liturgy this week tell of Christ’s resurrection appearances to women. So, what he said was very appropriate in this liturgical context. However, if one reads his words carefully, he definitely accords women an immensely important role (they are the ones who believe that Jesus is risen and announce this to the other disciples, even though in some of the Gospel accounts they are not believed –without them, we would not have Christianity) and explains why the Gospel narratives that tell of their experiences are important. For women were not considered “reliable” as witnesses in legal proceedings during the time of Jesus, yet their testimony was included in the Gospel stories. Pope Francis contrasts these narratives with Paul’s “credal” (“professions of faith”) presentation of 1 Corinthians 15, which only mentions the male recipients of resurrection appearances:

“Another element. In the professions of faith of the New Testament, only the men, the Apostles, are remembered as witnesses of the resurrection, but not the women. This is because, according to the Jewish law of that time, women and children could not give a reliable, credible testimony. In the Gospels, however, women have a primary, fundamental role. Here we can grasp an element in favour of the historicity of the resurrection: if it were a made-up event, in the context of that time it would not have been tied to the women’s testimony. Instead the evangelists simply narrate what happened: women are the first witnesses. This says that God does not choose according to human criteria: the first witnesses of the birth of Jesus are the shepherds, simple and humble people; the first witnesses of the resurrection were women. And this is beautiful. And this is to some degree the mission of women: of the mothers, of women! To give witness to their children, their grandchildren, that Jesus is alive, he is the Living One, he is risen. Mothers and women, go forward with this testimony! For God the heart counts, how open we are to Him, if we are like children who trust. But this makes us reflect also on how women in the Church and in the journey of faith, have had and now have a particular role in opening the doors to the Lord, in following him and communicating his face, because the gaze of faith always needs the simple and profound gaze of love. The Apostles and disciples find it harder to believe in the risen Christ. The women don’t. Peter runs to the tomb, but stops at the empty tomb; Thomas must touch with his hands the wounds of the body of Jesus. Also in our faith journey, it is important to know and feel that God loves us, don’t be afraid to love Him: faith is professed with the mouth and the heart, with words and with love.”

(the whole text here) I have highlighted the passage which explains my answer to your question:

1. Both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II would agree that the women disciples were the ones to first believe in the Resurrection of Jesus and to announce it to the rest of the disciples. So, what Pope Francis is saying is nothing new.

In fact, he even seems to corroborate his predecessors view that the way women “go forward with the testimony” is as mothers who give this witness to their children and grandchildren. Pope Francis is not calling women “preachers” or “apostles” (although in Greek, one who is “sent out to tell others” is literally an “apostle” [Grk. apostelein = to be sent out]; thus, Mary Magdalene is called “an apostle” in the Eastern churches, even “the apostle to the apostles). Rather, the pope refers to them as mothers, who have always “had and now have a particular role in opening the doors to the Lord…communicating his face, particularly because the gaze of faith always needs the simple and profound gaze of love.” So women are characterized as “loving mothers” who will pass on the faith to their children. This is not antithetical to what it might mean to be a priest, but it doesn’t connote to me the way one would usually characterize women’s “leadership.” So, in short, while I think he is speaking lovely words about women, it is about women as mothers (and I am not criticizing such a characterization), but I certainly do not see it as a shift. In fact, it’s pretty traditional.

2. Looking through “the optic of the Catholic church” (I assume you mean the “official, hierarchical church”), there are no “pros” of allowing women to become priests and bishops. This is a male-only caste-based hierarchy, with a traditional, complementarity understanding of gender roles. Moreover, the official position says “the church does not regard itself as authorized” to ordain women, because Christ didn’t do it. Of course, Jesus did not “ordain” anyone. This is an anachronistic reading of a development which came later as the early church adapted to Greco-Roman patriarchal society.

One thing the official Catholic church has ignored with regard to the whole constellation of issues concerning women’s leadership roles (whether liturgical or governmental) is that in the history of the church the Holy Spirit often “surprises” us (and it is well to recall that this idea of God being a God of surprises was in fact the subject of Pope Francis’ Easter Vigil homily!). Has the Holy Spirit not been working in other churches (i.e., the Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist) who also have an “episcopal” structure like the Catholic church and have ordained women –and in some instances, also women as bishops?

But if you are talking about the Catholic church in terms of its ordinary members, this question of women as priests and bishops will not gone away despite the pronouncements of the two previous pops. In the United States at least, for the first time, more young WOMEN are not attending church, than young men. And one reason seems to be that they cannot understand a church who excludes them from leadership roles on principle. This is very worrisome to me.

I think it’s too soon to say anything really certain about what Pope Francis will do regarding the lack of women’s involvement in decision-making in the church. At most, I think it’s unlikely that he will make any major changes. However, I do think that many Catholics have found his pastoral “style” very welcome, as well as his obvious conviction that the church must identify with the poor and become less turned in on itself. It’s a sad commentary that so many are jumping for joy at what simply should be expected as witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But, it is welcome nevertheless.

Sandra Yocum, Associate Professor, Religious Studies Department, University of Dayton

On the one hand, Pope Francis’s words and actions do indicate a shift in so far as he is making efforts to reach out to women and to acknowledge that women have contributed and do contribute to bringing the Gospel message to others.  Given past controversies in which women have been excluded from foot washing, Pope Francis’s symbolic gesture of washing the feet of women during the Holy Thursday celebration does communicate a certain recognition of women as sharing in Jesus’s command  to do as he (Jesus) has done to lead others to God through service.  On the other hand, I can not conclude from these words and actions that Pope Francis’s fundamental understanding of women’s role is significantly different from his immediate predecessor or from John Paul II.  He seems to continue to rely upon the interpretive lens of complementarity to explain  male and female roles.  There is nothing in what he has done so far that would necessarily lead me to conclude that he holds a different understanding concerning who receives a legitimate call to the priesthood.

2. If we look at this issue through the optic of the Catholic Church’s papal office, then we really are not to discuss pros and cons concerning women becoming priests.  The official position is that Jesus did not ordain women, and thus the bishops have no authority to ordain women.  So from the optic of the Catholic Church’s hierarchy, a debate outlining pros and cons is irrelevant. Certainly from the perspective of a number of Catholic men and women not allowing such debate is at the very least puzzling and for some a reason to distance themselves from their Catholic community. Observers sympathetic to women’s ordination, from both within and outside the Church’s optic, would identify a “pro” aspect of ordaining women to be women’s fuller inclusion in the life of the Catholic church and an affirmation of their discernment of a vocational call to serve as ordained ministers. They would see this change as bringing the Church more into line with contemporary understanding of women’s capacities  given that women are assuming roles of authority in almost every social, political, and cultural context.    Those who agree with the current teaching on women’s ordination identify a profound “con” to be the undermining of an already eroding episcopal teaching authority given that a change would overturn the Catholic Church’s long tradition of ordaining men. They raise concerns about the impact on Catholics’ acceptance of other church teachings that are difficult to reconcile with a modern perspective  Those who seek to maintain a male priesthood also warn of the great potential for schisms among those who would reject the hierarchy’s  authority to overturn the tradition of ordaining only men.

Perhaps we are too quick to move to the ordination debate and need to consider more fully what it means for us today to affirm the fullness of what Catholics profess to be revealed in Scripture that  every human being is  created in the image and likeness of God.   In other words, perhaps there are much deeper theological issues that complementarity does not adequately explain when we begin to explore the depth and breadth of what it means to be created in God’s image — male and female.

Steven Avella, Professor of History, Marquette University, Former President of the American Catholic Historical Association

1. Here I am not sure. Both popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI affirmed the importance of women–so what Pope Francis is saying seems to be in continuity. I think there is a great hope/expectation that he will tend to the issue of women in the church in a different way than his predecessors. But it is really too early to say and I think at this point we must not read too much into these words.

2. Pros and cons don’t come easily to mind. Some would say that this is a natural step in the evolution of the church’s ministry. Others insist (and this includes the magisterial teaching at this point) that this is an impossibility—that the church has no power or authority to ordain women. The real likelihood–based on precedents of ancient times–might be the ordination of women to the diaconate. Those who favor the ordination of women in the Roman Catholic church would see it as a great leap forward–as the fulfillment of hopes to serve the church in this capacity. Those who deny that this is possible would see it as a stunning rejection of scriptural evidence and authoritative papal teaching from Paul VI through Pope John Paul II. This is not to say it could not happen…but given all that has been said, proclaimed and insisted upon in the past thirty years, it would be a major reversal and might create a real rupture within the church–such as exists in the worldwide Anglican communion.

James Brian BenestadProfessor, Theology/Religious Studies, University of Scranton

1. Pope Francis washed the feet of young women during the Holy Thursday mass in the juvenile detention center.  Pope Benedict XVI never washed women’s feet.  That seems to be the only difference so far.

2. Like the previous popes, Pope Francis doesn’t think that the Church has the authority to ordain women as priests or bishops.


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