Pope Francis is Paving the Way to FutureChurch by Gina Messina-Dysert

Gina Messina-Dysert profileThe enthusiasm we have seen for Pope Francis over the last year is exceptional.  Polls show that among American Catholics he has a 90% approval rating.  He has garnered more than 12 million Twitter followers and even broke a Rolling Stones (yes, the rock band!) record by drawing more than three million people to an event in Rio de Janeiro.  Our new pope is a media icon and “The Francis Effect” is commanding the attention of not only Catholics, but the global community.  According to John Allen Jr., it is “take-it-to-the-bank fact” that politicians and celebrities would do just about anything to garner the pope’s poll numbers. There is good reason for this unprecedented attention; in Pope Francis we see the example of Jesus.

Our new pope is connecting with the greater community on the deepest level because he has a sincere commitment to serving the needs of the people rather than the politics of the Vatican. With his first papal act, Francis bowed to a cheering crowd and asked for the people to bless him.   In doing so, he acknowledged the full humanity of every person as well as the necessity of community.  His immediate rejection of the glamour of the papacy and ongoing efforts to walk with the disenfranchised has commanded the world’s attention. Pope Francis’ humility and commitment to social justice is Jesus-like. His willingness to engage the community, not to mention pose for a selfie here and there, demonstrates a ministry focused on the people.

Through his service, Pope Francis is responding to the call for a Church that is relevant and recognizes that the social justice mission of Catholicism must be applied within a 21st century context.  His ongoing commitment to include persons of all traditions at the table acknowledges the value of each belief system and the need for interreligious dialogue.  He has also attempted to acknowledge that women’s roles need to be expanded in the Church by calling for a “new theology of women.”  Furthermore, with his statement, “who am I to judge?” Pope Francis has recognized that there should be acceptance for all forms of love.

Nonetheless, we must note that although Pope Francis’ commitment to the mission of Christ is obvious, this does not mean that he should not be encouraged to recognize his blind spots.  As pope, he is responsible for the leadership of a patriarchal and hierarchical institution that oppresses women and the LGBTQ community.  The existing culture within the Vatican is inconsistent with Pope Francis’ mission and perpetuates intolerance.  Clearly, the Vatican’s power impacts the global community.  A commitment to dismantling an abusive culture within the Catholic Church will lead the way for change in a world that continues to oppress those at the margins.

Pope Francis is paving the way to FutureChurch. His commitment to social justice and its application in our world today demonstrates that he seeks a Church that responds to the needs of the people.  With that said, Pope Francis has acknowledged the role of the community in the Church; and thus, we must embrace that role and continue to encourage dialogue around those issues that perpetuate the oppression of those standing at the margins.  Change takes time; Pope Francis has begun a foundation for change and we must lend a hand to build upon it.


Gina Messina-Dysert, Ph.D., is Dean of the School of Graduate and Professional Studies at Ursuline College and Co-founder of Feminism and Religion.  She has authored multiple articles, the book Rape Culture and Spiritual Violence (Routledge, 2014), and is co-editor (with Rosemary Radford Ruether) of the anthology, Feminism and Religion in the 21st Century (Routledge, 2014).  Her WATER Teleconference,In Search of Healing: Confronting Rape Culture and Spiritual Violence,” can be accessed here.  Gina’s research interests are theologically and ethically driven, involve a feminist and interdisciplinary approach, and are influenced by her activist roots and experience working with survivors of rape and domestic violence. She is a widely sought after speaker and has presented across the US at universities, organizations, conferences, and in the national news circuit including appearances on Tavis Smiley and MSNBC.  She has also spoken at the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations to discuss matters impacting the lives women around the globe.  She continues to be active in movements to end violence against women and explores opportunities for spiritual healing for those who have encountered gender-based violence.  Gina can be followed on Twitter @FemTheologian and her website can be accessed at http://ginamessinadysert.com.

Categories: Catholicism, Social Justice

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25 replies

  1. “would sacrifice their children to pagan gods for”

    sorry you repeated this gratuitous slur on so-called pagan gods allegedly demanding child sacrifice

    this is another one of the code ideas used in the “othering” of religions (discussed by Natalie Kertes Weaver a few days ago)


    otherwise an interesting post.

    warmly, carol


  2. I wish I could be so optimistic! While I admire many of the aspects of Francis that you mention, I don’t think he really “gets” women’s concerns. The idea of a separate theology of women is highly problematic, and I cannot overlook the continued bullying of the LCWR on his watch.


  3. Hi Peg, You are right about the LCWR – no doubt that Pope Francis threw US nuns under the bus! A very disappointing fact. Nonetheless, I have hope because I think that the change we are seeing is the most significant change I have seen in my lifetime. Of course, I wasn’t here for Vatican II! I’m trying to maintain a feminist ethic of risk and recognize that change will not happen overnight. That said, I think we are on our way there – I certainly hope so. Thanks for your comment!


  4. I hope this pope will remain more or less independent of the Curia, but I have very little hope. I think the RCC is mostly irrelevant to the modern world and still mostly hostile to women and children. But I hope he proves me wrong! Thanks for writing this blog.


  5. I have had the privilege of being in Pope Francis’ s presence last summer and the amount of sincerity, compassion, and hope that came out of that man brought hope back into my lapsed Catholic heart. I appreciate your post Gina as his role and actions are definitely the foundation to which all people can start to redefine what it means to be truly Christ like. He has definitely started to open up the doors to which many layperson having been craving for. We still have many miles to go for all to recognize the all identities stand before the Ultimate.


    • Thanks so much for your comment, Anj! I grew up in a family that gave constant attention to the Pope and for me, this is the first time that I have felt hope. Like you, Pope Francis has reignited a part of my Catholic self. I’m certainly not saying this is a perfect situation or that all that I want from the Church is happening. But, for the first time in my life, there is someone who mirrors most of what I think the mission of Jesus is about. Many miles to go – yes, but perhaps the a path has begun.


      • I definitely see the path opening up, especially amongst staunch fundamental Catholic friends and family who have started to truly follow love and compassion because of the charismatic and positive nature of Pope Francis. What will be the true litmus test is if this forward movement is continued long after our generations


  6. I remain altogether less convinced. The LCWR meeting this week will certainly be an indicator. But nothing I have seen in the year+ of his papacy gives me reason to expect doctrinal change, institutional shifts, and/or new openings to full equality for feminist women and LGBTIQ persons. To the contrary, the “nice” pope makes it much harder to demonstrate the serious fault lines in a kyriarchal institution. I fear that there well may be cosmetic changes but not substantive structural ones, without which we may be worse off than under the previous two papacies. I hope to be proven wrong. Warm wishes, MEH


  7. It seems more like a distraction tossed out there to divert and delay, and what does that mean anyway, “A Theology of Women?” The Church does not seem to be paving a new road, but rather working out a detour. A fascinating and highly controversial study called “A Theology of Women’s Priesthood” by Ali Green, was published in 2009, and I am wondering whether the Vatican edited out the “Priesthood” part on purpose? A blurb on the book states the following:

    “Ali Green offers a theology of women’s priesthood from a Christian feminist perspective. She suggests a feminist reconfiguration of the Eucharistic Prayer and demonstrates how the symbolism of the liturgy allows for new interpretation informed by women’s experience. She gives new insights into liturgical symbolism and the sacramental significance of the woman priest.” And here’s a quote from Amazon.com, where the author herself introduces her work:

    “In this book I develop a theology which treats sexual difference as a basic philosophical category. To treat sexual difference seriously requires a fundamental shift in our religious thinking, which itself influences our cultural environment. […] The traditional all-male priesthood is embedded in its own masculine ways of knowing, of language and behaviour. It carries with it an array of symbolic meanings and associations that influences the way the Church regards women and the way women in the Church see themselves.”


  8. Thanks so much for your comment, Mary. I know that we disagree on this particular topic. I do want to say that I was so greatly disappointed and heart broken that Francis did not support the US Sisters. I was and am appalled. But I don’t want to discount the things that he has done that I do believe are important contributions to the Catholic and global community. I think there is more going on here than just a “nice” pope and I am hoping that structural change is to come.


  9. I might have hope for that this pope could affirm the full humanity of women in church and society if:

    1.He can name 10 feminist theologians and give a short summary of the main points of each.
    2.He only knows two, Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza and Rosemary Radford Ruether, but he can explain their main points.
    3.He admits he didn’t know anything about feminist theology and asks for a reading list and tutoring on the subject.

    4.He understands that the church’s opposition to birth control is creating poor women and poor families.
    5.He understands that overpopulation is a problem that requires the responsible use of birth control in order to avert the sixth great extinction and the probable extinction of human beings.

    Barring that…

    I have to agree with Mary Hunt.


  10. Carol, you just inspired me to want to write the pope a letter. Maybe we could all write him, exhorting him to take up your challenge. I would also tell him that I would like to be able to hope that he is committed to the “radical transformation of the negative, life-destroying elements of the Church as it exist today,” (something Mary Daly still hoped for in her first book), but that I would first need to see more action toward the needed structural and doctrinal changes.

    I like this idea…


  11. Found this on Vatican.com: Pope Francis does not have a direct mailing address but you can contact the Vatican’s press office at av@pccs.va . Alternately you can mail the pope via usual mail at this address:

    His Holiness, Pope Francis PP.

    00120 Via del Pellegrino

    Citta del Vaticano


  12. Let’s do it, Gina, why not? I think it’s a good way to show some invested interest. And it is in all of our interest that the church reform.


  13. It goes well beyond this pope not supporting the sisters, he is allowing men in the hierarchy under him to crack the whip on them, to force them into line with doctrine. He is continuing to insist on the all-male priesthood. There’s no excuse for this, for the harms to women’s spirits that such institutions continue to inflict; or for the suffering the church’s hardline position on contraception and abortion — not to mention obstruction of HIV/AIDs prevention — is causing for many millions of poor women around the world. I think this is window dressing, putting a compassionate face on a institution that has manifestly been exposed as lacking in that quality of its founder. Francis could learn a lot from the feminist theologians; he could reinstate brave and principled men like the defrocked Roy Bourgeois; but i am not holding my breath.


  14. Ha, Synchronicitas threw this commentary by Zillah Eisenstein in my path today, speaking of Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century: “it reminds me of what has not changed when it comes to understanding how women’s many forms of labor are not recognized as integral to the patriarchal structuring of the economy. And, sadly, Piketty is not alone in this. I begrudgingly have more to say about what Piketty, and Pope Francis and even Barack Obama do not say, than what they do say. Their silences and omissions weigh heavily on me. …

    “Each of these men denounces excessive inequality, but without recognizing the way that structural racism and patriarchy intimately define economic injustice. They act as though capitalism is a singular system—rather than an overlapping and multiple structural nexus of power.

    “Pope Francis has gained enormous popularity by focusing on the excesses of capitalism, the horrors of poverty etc. while fully endorsing patriarchal choices for girls and women in terms of their reproductive lives and health. The very person promising to limit inequality cocoons them into misogyny. It is a well-known and documented fact that the world the pope condones, one without contraception or abortion is a world with more poverty.

    “”Piketty, as well as Pope Francis, perpetuates the notion that the political economy is not sexual, that personal life is not intimately connected to the public “market” and its many forms of labor. They bifurcate the locations of capital that privatize and depoliticize women’s bodies in their non-laboring forms—unpaid labor, domestic labor, consumer labor, affective/caring labor. This viewing of capital as both contained and singular leaves us with an inadequate rendering of the present crisis of racialized capitalist patriarchy.

    “Injustice is defined by more than economic suffering. People—men, women and trans—of all colors suffer from the particular structural identities that intersect with and in the economy. The male-centric heterosexist racialized viewings from Piketty and the pope are disguised in anti-capitalist rhetoric, but they remain intact.”

    To me this is a spiritual critique.

    respectfully, Max


  15. good pope bad pope same old patriarchy same old same old. Liberal feminism save me from this plague upon the earth


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