A lot of Catholics — not all of them women — seem to be surprised and disappointed by Pope Francis’ suggestion the other day that the Roman Catholic Church’s ban on female priests is permanent. The disappointment is understandable, the surprise less so.
The pope’s comments came in a news conference on the plane returning him to Rome from Sweden, where he had joined with Lutheran leaders in commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.
Noting that among the Lutheran leaders who welcomed him was Archbishop Antje Jackelen of Uppsala, a woman, a Swedish journalist asked the pope whether there might be female priests in the Catholic Church in the next few decades.
“On the ordination of women in the Catholic Church, the last word is clear,” Francis replied, citing Pope John Paul II’s 1994 apostolic letter banning the practice. His questioner pressed him further, asking, “But really forever? Never?” Francis replied: “If we read carefully the declaration made by St. John Paul II, it goes in that direction.”
In a comment on the New York Times story about the pope’s news conference, Eileen Tess Johnston wrote: “It is heartbreaking. Born and raised Roman Catholic, I left the church in 1988 because of its laws on annulment, its refusal to ordain women to the priesthood and its frequent intellectual intolerance. I have long prayed to be able to return and was excited when Pope Francis came into power, but this development will keep me from returning. I am a practicing but homesick Episcopalian.”
Yet this wasn’t the first time Francis had suggested that the ban on female priests was permanent. Johnston’s dismay reflects fairly widespread wishful thinking that this “liberal” pope might repudiate traditional Catholic teachings.
There was a time — before John Paul II’s apostolic letter “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis” — when you could argue that a reappraisal of the all-male priesthood might be possible. The first article I ever wrote for the New York Times was a piece about how Anglican and Roman Catholic theologians had published an agreement on the definition of the ordained ministry that seemed to undermine some traditional Catholic arguments for an all-male priesthood.
But John Paul II’s declaration was categorical. Though he didn’t explicitly invoke the doctrine of papal infallibility, the pope (now a saint) wrote: “I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.”
And there was a passage in “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis” that points to another obstacle to admitting women into the Catholic priesthood. John Paul began his letter by observing that the tradition of an all-male priesthood “has also been faithfully maintained by the Oriental Churches” — a reference to Eastern Orthodox and other ancient churches that don’t recognize the authority of the pope in Rome.
All recent popes, including Francis, aspire to reunite the Roman Catholic church with these “sister churches.” But, as I wrote last year, that likely would be impossible if Rome ordained women as priests.
So does Francis offer any comfort for Catholic women who aspire to play a larger role in the church? The pope has empaneled a commission of theologians to study the question of whether women could serve as deacons, the lowest rung on the clerical ladder below bishops and priests. Deacons may preach, baptize and preside at marriages, but they may not consecrate the bread and wine of the Eucharist. (The Vatican’s chief doctrinal official, Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, is skeptical about whether women can be ordained even as deacons.)
In the same news conference in which he said no to female priests, he engaged in a form of “difference feminism” by suggesting that men and women serve different but equally important roles in the church.
Male clergy, he said, constitute the “Petrine dimension, which is from the Apostle Peter, and the Apostolic College, which is the pastoral activity of the bishops.” But he added that the church also has a “Marian dimension” — as in Mary the mother of Jesus — “which is the feminine dimension of the Church.”
In other words, the pope’s answer to the question of women priests is “No, but … ” I suspect that “but” won’t satisfy many Catholic women.