Pope Francis’ woman problem

Pope Francis, during a news conference on his flight back to Rome from Rio de Janeiro, closed the door to female priests.
(Luca Zennaro / EPA)
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Last week, Pope Francis loosed a media tsunami by dropping a pebble of sanity into an ocean of religious angst. “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has goodwill, who am I to judge?” he told reporters on the flight back to Rome after his trip to Brazil.

What did it mean? Was he changing church teaching? And how might it affect 1.2 billion Roman Catholics worldwide?

Hundreds of news stories and thousands of blogs, tweets and commentaries later, most observers heard in Francis’ statement a proposal to end to his predecessor’s hard line on homosexuality. Pope Benedict XVI had barred men with “deep-seated homosexual” tendencies from seminaries, calling homosexuality an “objective disorder.” But Francis said gays who sought to live faithfully — that is, celibate — were not to be judged or excluded from the church.


SLIDE SHOW: Pope Francis’ small steps to lift liberals’ hearts

By looking to the individual’s heart instead of his genitals, Francis demonstrated a commitment to those who are neglected, marginalized and disenfranchised, as he repeatedly has done during his four-month papal tenure. Yet there is one group more numerous than LGBTs in the church and significantly more neglected, disenfranchised and marginalized — for whom his ministrations fall short.

Who, you ask? Roman Catholic women.

During the same interview on the papal plane, Francis said, “Women in the church are more important than bishops and priests,” just as “Mary is more important than the apostles.” Continuing, the pope said the church needed to develop a theology that addressed the role of women. But, he clearly stated, those roles would never include the ordained ministry because Pope John Paul II expressly forbade it. (I leave it to Catholic scholars and theologians to explain why Francis can all but countermand Benedict’s directives on gays but not John Paul’s on women.)

“That door is closed,” Francis told reporters. Those are harsh words for millions of Catholic women worldwide. These include nuns whose communities have been beggared by declines in vocations and decreased institutional support, lay women whose leadership sustains parishes without full-time priests and girls seeking to discover their calling in a church where ordination in impossible.

Francis’ remarks also have ramifications for millions of women worldwide whose poverty and exploitation have roots in their second-class religious status. And sadly, even if the world were full of female Catholic priests, Orthodox rabbis, evangelical preachers and Muslim imams, the problems of sex trafficking, prostitution, indentured servitude, honor killings, rape, genital mutilation and polygamy would not immediately disappear. Still, full recognition of women’s religious calling and authority would be a start in dismantling theological justifications that enable sexism, misogyny and exploitation.

Reporters who headlined the pope’s remarks on gays, knowing the story had more juice than Francis’ condemnation of drug cartels and excoriations of poverty, treated his comments on women as an afterthought. That’s because in the current media ecology of religion and public life, sex sells and gender gets a nod. (Forget religious leaders opining on violence, materialism or climate change. Unless Jesus himself appeared in a “Remember Sandy Hook” T-shirt to buy sunscreen at Wal-Mart, there’s no story.)


But the ongoing negotiation of gender has been the American story since the 1960s. The advent of the birth control pill, severing sex and procreation, catalyzed profound changes in family life, the workplace and the marketplace. And the subsequent effect on politics and economics has been perhaps most vociferously debated in the religious sphere. Headlines on abortion, the culture war and “family values” have been a staple for decades now.

Reporters tell the daily story, inflected by the demands of the “sex sells” imperative. But the absence of sustained critical attention to social and cultural forces, including religion, keeps us reeling from headline to headline. Yes, Francis took a step forward in the church’s treatment of gays. But he kept in place its bar to women.

And the import of that bar — its global reverberations in unwanted pregnancies, female poverty and sexual slavery — remains hidden in plain sight.

Diane Winston teaches media and religion at USC’s Annenberg School. She is editor of “The Oxford Handbook on Religion and the American News Media.”