The day Pope Francis was elected is a memorable one for many Catholics, myself included. Watching our new pope walk out on to the balcony of the Vatican and bow to the crowd left me in tears. It seemed in Pope Francis we would have a leader who recognized the full humanity of every person in the community; and in asking the people for their blessing, he acknowledged the role we all play in the ministry of Jesus.
Named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year, boasting an astronomical approval rating of 90% among American Catholics, and more than 12 million Twitter followers, Francis has taken the papacy to a new level. People around the world continue to be mesmerized by his acts of kindness and mercy. His commitment to social justice for the poor, simplistic living, welcoming message to persons of all faiths, and proclamation “Who am I to judge?” is refreshing to say the least. Nonetheless, this does not mean Pope Francis does not have blind spots, nor that we do not have a responsibility to remind him of them.
While I have great affection for Pope Francis and recognize his papacy as the most progressive in my lifetime, the Vatican tradition of marginalizing women continues under his watch. It is true that Francis has called for a new theology of women saying, “it is necessary to broaden the opportunities for a stronger presence of women in the church.” However, to date little has occurred and he continues to romanticize the role of motherhood as did his predecessors.
There are clear issues with such a romanticizing. To begin with, there are many women who are unable to bear children, or who are not called to the role of motherhood. What does this mean for these women? Are their lives less important?
Also reinforcing the Catholic view that women’s roles exist in the home is Francis’ ongoing use of the doctrinal term “complementarity” and his insistence that it is an “anthropological fact.” This clearly indicates a conservative foundation of his view on marriage. Such a claim holds that women and men have different roles with men outranking women. While I want to acknowledge that Pope Francis did state “the role of women in the Church is not only maternity, the mother of the family,” his ability to articulate that role is yet to be seen.
Likewise, it is interesting that Pope Francis does not acknowledge the role motherhood plays in leading to poverty for women. Lack of education and healthcare and adhering to the idea of “complementarity” leave women in a position to suffer in poverty more than any other group. Because of their “traditional” roles and the patriarchal structure of family dictated by the Church, women learn to put themselves last in every situation including basic care and rights.
Addressing reproductive health and wellness is critical to the pope’s goal of prioritizing the needs of those living in poverty. Data demonstrate that two-thirds of low wage jobs are held by women. In addition, women are more likely to head single parent households. Family structure and poverty are deeply intertwined with nearly 40% of single mothers impoverished. Women disproportionately cover the costs of contraception spending approximately 70% more than men each year. Lack of healthcare and high costs of contraception contribute to a lack of reproductive health services for women. As a result, women living below the poverty line are five times more likely to experience an unintended pregnancy which leads to significant consequences for childbearing outcomes.
While Pope Francis has called for women to have greater decision-making powers in the Church, he has made it clear that the door to priesthood is closed for women. Likewise, he has made statements that are contradictory to such an objective:
“It is necessary to broaden the opportunities for a stronger presence of women in the church. I am wary of a solution that can be reduced to a kind of ‘female machismo’ because a woman has a different make-up than a man. But what I hear about the role of women is often inspired by an ideology of machismo.”
Furthermore, calling women “the strawberries on the cake” is demeaning and refuses to acknowledge the gifts women bring to the Church and the larger global community. Instead, it highlights the prevailing idea that male theologians are valued for their individuality whereas female theologians are thought of as adding a “feminine touch.” Such a statement tokenizes women.
Although Pope Francis did bring an end to the Doctrinal Assessment of the LCWR, as Sarah Posner explains, “the pontiff has done little to challenge the status quo on matters of sex and gender, keeping U.S. Catholic nuns firmly under the control of the Church’s male leadership.” According to Mary E. Hunt, “pushing back against unjust authority can work, but it does not change the fundamental power equation.”
In February 2015, the Vatican held the four day conference, Women’s Cultures: Equality and Difference. Interestingly, there were no women at the table; although women were asked to submit 1 minute videos stating what it is like to be a woman. According to Kate McElwee, Executive Director of the Women’s Ordination Conference, “Overall, this exercise shows us how clumsy the Vatican can be with anything to do with women…I know many of you are rolling your eyes, but this a crumb instead of the usual absence said crumb.”
I appreciate McElwee’s glass half full perspective. There is no doubt that Pope Francis is making positive changes in the Church. He has humanized the papacy, brought widespread attention to the exploitive economic system, and welcomed many back to a position of faith. However, Francis is yet to acknowledge the exploitive patriarchal system that exists within the Vatican causing the ongoing marginalization of women. Nor does he recognize the direct connection between poverty the oppression of women.
Nonetheless, I believe in a feminist ethic of risk – one that demands that we remain optimistic and continue to work towards positive social change. Here this means we must remind Pope Francis of his blind spots. In doing so, we will help pave the way to the future of a Church that honors the individuality and gifts of all rather than a select few based on gender.
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 is the author of Rape Culture and Spiritual Violence (Routledge, 2014), and co-editor of Feminism and Religion in the 21st Century (Routledge, 2014) and Faithfully Feminist (White Cloud Press, 2015). 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. Gina’s WATER Teleconference, “In Search of Healing: Confronting Rape Culture and Spiritual Violence,” can be accessed here. 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 is 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.