The Francis Blindspot by Gina Messina-Dysert


Gina Messina-Dysert profileThe 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.

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Categories: Catholicism, Feminism, Feminist Theology

Tags: , , , , ,

56 replies

  1. Yes, romanticizing motherhood creates a false pedestal on which real mothers, poor or not, cannot possibly stand. Mothers and women need ground/earth and having our voices heard…

    Liked by 10 people

  2. Pope Francis has done a good job humanizing the church and making many disaffected Catholics (like me) take another look at the Catholic community. But, until the Church accepts and promotes the equality of women, it will remain an oppressive institution and not deserving membership or financial support.

    Liked by 9 people

    • Your response sums up exactly how I feel about Pope Francis and the church. Thank you.

      Liked by 6 people

    • “Humanizing “would be true only if half the human race were equal to his half.
      I look back at the one Pope leader of the institution in my lifetime- Pope John XXIII
      The light diminished when his torch was extinguished… My children and grandchildren have been raised in the human values that are inclusive and compassionate… Words plus action equal trust. It is in them that I trust. They are the light I follow … ROman Catholic Church embers are gone… Kaddish prayers as we join the living.

      Liked by 6 people

    • The “infallible” Catholic doctrine totally banning contraception, even for married couples, has massively exacerbated population explosion, climate change, extreme poverty, and suppression of women in the third world. Local Catholic priests directly terrorize uneducated women into having huge families they cannot sustain. Furthermore, the church uses it’s immense power to prevent national and international efforts to promote (or even discuss) population control. Let’s see Pope Francis change that, if he really means what he says about poverty and climate change.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Well said. I don’t like their stance on a lot of issues either. I believe in a higher being and the power of faith. Ultimately I feel I will never trust the church because I can’t read the original documents that it is founded on. It is another institution created and molded by men seeking power and control. That being said, this is the first Pope to make an attempt to try to modernize the church and make amends for the wrong doing of priests. I give him credit for at least having an open mind even though not perfect.

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  3. Excellent, thoughtful, and thought-provoking article. Thank you.

    Liked by 6 people

  4. Brava! Let’s hope the Roman Catholic Church moves forward out of the Middle Ages. But look who elected this pope. Are they likely to do anything forward-looking? I’m still voting for the nuns on the bus.

    Liked by 6 people

  5. Thanks, Gina. Great article. We all need to make the connection between patriarchy and women’s poverty more often, and it’s an argument that this pope might be able to hear.

    Liked by 7 people

  6. Pope Francis has demonstrated his compassion and logic with regards to the LGBTQ community but as you stated, remains in lock-down mode with women. Why do you think this is so? I suspect Francis has many personal friendships with gay men in the priesthood–finding it difficult to demonize those he counts as friends. The ability to see the other as equal regardless of sexual orientation usually stems from a personal relationship. I point to the passage of gay marriage in Ireland as an example. The elderly in the pews have sons and daughters who are gay–how could they see them in any other light except as fully human. And here is my point–Francis and the Magisterium refuse to evolve to a place that accepts women as also fully human. By essentializing all women into the shadows of the Blessed Virgin Mary, their starting point will always be distorted. History has given them plenty of women as role models for leadership and wisdom in the church–but still they refuse to see. I suggest Francis and the Magisterium start by developing relationships with women based on the same criteria they do with men. Perhaps then they will see women as equals and not some idolized metaphor.

    Liked by 7 people

  7. Thank you for this analysis, Gina. It reminds of the Audre Lorde quote, “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

    Liked by 6 people

  8. I hope you sent the Pope a copy of this, Gina. We are the Church, and the hierarchy need to hear from us.

    I tend to give Francis a bit of leeway. First because he is only human and like us, makes mistakes, believes things I no longer believe, has to deal with an entrenched system of stubborn, fearful old men who resist losing their position of power, and is guiding an international and very large institution while himself not in the best of health and vitality. Perhaps one of the most important things he is doing is placing in position, men who are pastoral in mindset, open to change and who will elect the next pope.
    Meanwhile, we help by speaking out, and withholding $$$. The Vatican backed down from it’s conflict with the LCWR, I believe, because people rose up in opposition to Rome and support of the Sisters. Of course, I was also optimistic after Vatican Council 2. Maybe this time around I’m more realistic, but then, I’ve also distanced myself.

    Maybe I should start following him on Facebook! But there is probably no place for comments!

    Liked by 6 people

    • I think that Pope Franics’ blind spots are deeply rooted in his culture and upbringing. You cannot begin to understand the “other side” if you are not even aware of it. I don’t know his personal history, but if he was brought up without many women in his life and then went into the priesthood at an early age, then his experiences with women will have been very limited and filtered through a patriarchal paradigm with no other paradigms or ideas to contradict it or open the closed circle to different ideas. It can be very difficult or impossible (depending on how willing you are to change or look at something that throws you into new territory) to see that you are in a closed box that does not allow you to see beyond it.

      Franics was exposed to poverty in South America (I think it was there) so he had the experience of economic inequality to educate him; he did not have the same sort of intimate experience of women’s lives.

      just my thoughts on why he isn’t more enlightened about women.

      Liked by 5 people

  9. I just can’t stand anything popes say about women.

    Liked by 5 people

  10. I love this article and God bless you for including, “and who are not called to the role of motherhood.” As a married woman who has now opted to not actively pursue the role of motherhood I feel quite disconnected.

    Liked by 3 people

  11. I’m a lapsed Catholic. I’m a sinful divorcee. I done other naughty stuff that makes that little milk bottle look like there’s dark chocolate in it. Despite the medieval ways the Church looks at women, Francis is still a ray of light in the Roman Catholic Church. And while I do realize the Church has to change with their view on women, there are other religious ideologies that treat women worse. FAR worse. I won’t even elaborate because I’m trying to be a good person.

    Liked by 3 people

  12. Thank you for this excellent and extremely well written post. As a non-Catholic, I have cheered Pope Frances on for his progressive views. But your post has widened my eyes on the continued struggle for women in the Catholic church. Please write more on this topic.

    Liked by 4 people

  13. A relationship with Christ through Catholicism can’t be squelched by gender role, socioeconomic status, or other worldly environments. The entire message of Christ’s life was to die to self so that others might live. Being a mother requires this; you allow your own wants to be put second for the sake of your children. A husband should do the same but do so for the benefit of his wife and children.

    For those who aren’t called to be parents or cannot bear children, you are still called to look for Christ in all who you meet and to serve Him/them.

    The Church is a hospital for sinners. Not a hierarchy of machismo that seeks to keep women in secondary roles.

    I struggle to see to how allowing women to be priests, nuns to hold hierarchical positions in the Church, etc. would disallow any group or individual to carry out the mission of Christ in the world.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Well done and a wonderfully intelligent read. As a female Catholic, I understand the struggle. I value the core beliefs of my church and that’s what keeps me in the community otherwise I would have left a long time ago due to the absolutely ridiculous male dominated traditions.

    Liked by 2 people

  15. Your reply is exactly how I feel about Pope Francis and the church. Thanks

    Liked by 1 person

  16. I am not Catholic. But Pope Francis is the fist ever Pope that I have connected with.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. What a great post!! Why not romanticize fatherhood and his role in nurturing and being present in the lives of children? As for surrendering and renunciation of a wordly life, nuns have still been kept at bay which is a disservice not just to women but for the world. Change takes time, I realize that but this amazing man may need to do as much as he can during his term like John XXXIII did.

    Like

  18. I see a glimmer of hope with this pope in bringing the Catholic church out of the dark ages. But as far a women’s place in the church’s view, there is still miles to go to even consider women as priests, bishops, cardinals and yes even popes. The fear being that the good old boy system would then fall apart if women were in a position of power in the Church.

    Like

  19. Hey cool post, if you are interested in new religions check out:
    https://kingdomofvenetia.wordpress.com/

    Like

  20. Francis cannot advocate for women’s equality, as it goes against tge supposed “best interests” of the church. Without the sacrificial feminine lamb, who will keep things running at little to no cost to the Church?

    If Francis were to acknowkedge the worth of women as more than maids and mothers, the “helpers” of the world, where would his volunteer women’s army go for cleaning and maintaining the rectory, the church, the priests garments, running their calendars?

    While the Catholic church says it has no role for wives for the priests, it has a huge underpinning of “volunteer” labor that fills many of the housekeeping roles a wife fills.

    As a departed Catholic and full time agnostic I’m pleased to see the progress Francis is making on many fronts, but certainly don’t anticipate him advocating for the equality of women any time soon as he and his staff throughout the world are too dependent on that free labor from its impoverished members to help save millions for the church each year.

    Liked by 3 people

  21. if there is an urgency there are other Christian sects like Lutheran, etc. that welcome women into the priesthood. He is a great Pope but one can’t expect him to change or want to change things drastically but great to bring it into focus, education is best!

    Liked by 1 person

  22. I like what he has to say, but there are opportunities for women else where. They can become preachers in other churches. They don’t need any approval to spread the word through other means.

    Liked by 2 people

  23. As thought provoking and insightful this post is, I find myself also still on a conservative view of women. I still believe that preaching and spreading the word of religion doesn’t require men and women to be ordained. Families are also grounded on a mother and father figure, even in same sex marriages. Women can choose how they live their life as long as they live it in faith, and I don’t think a conservative family structure is a boundary to their personal fulfillments.

    Despite this, it would be nice for some acknowledgement about the value of women in society other than motherhood. That, would absolutely be wonderful.

    Liked by 2 people

  24. Well said, this is very true.

    Liked by 1 person

  25. Sisterhood will always be there for women who feel called to the ministry of the Catholic Church – what I think the Pope should look at is giving priests the liberty to marry, so as to unveil our church this veil of hypocrisy it wears

    Liked by 2 people

  26. Really lovely read.
    It is true, whether we like it or not, the lack of representation of women in almost all religious institutions (including my own – Hinduism where goddesses are worshiped) has played a big role in second citizen status we hold in society. Our every moral, value and the very essence of our perception of humanity is influenced by the religion we are brought up with. When religion plays such a vital role in moulding an individual, not having women religious decision-making, results in the “romanticizing of motherhood” and the inability of our male counterparts to see us anything beyond that.
    This perspective is also brought out in the TED talk: Alaa Murabit: what my religion really says about women

    Liked by 2 people

  27. this pope is great, end of story

    Liked by 3 people

  28. Absolute rubbish. The author shows no knowledge of the Catholic faith and indeed believes and holds things that are contrary to it. “Women disproportionately cover the cost of contraception…” I laughed out loud. Um, here is a newsflash, no faithful Catholic practises contraception dear. Go have a read of Humane Vitae and you may understand. Whilst you are at it have a read of The Universal Catholic Catechsim. It holds the official teaching of the Catholic Church. I submit you will encounter a real experience of learning a lot of the faith of which you write about.

    Liked by 4 people

  29. Pope Francis cannot, overnight, change the mindset of deeply entrenched Vatican honchos. But he has started a process, he is thinking differently. Give him time and space. Things happen, the world is changing. Be optimistic and welcome the baby steps he is taking.

    Liked by 3 people

  30. Pope Francis is great at marketing a religion that he can not and want not to change. Sure the pope shows compassion, as any good Catholic has to, but Catholicism can’t change at its core. It is a religion were your God is also your king, you take it (obey) or leave it. As another person here smartly commented Catholicism is about self sacrifice and roles. You have to take your cross and follow Jesus on your own Calvary. It isn’t a fancy party with custom made fashion crosses. You are a good Catholic as much as you embrace the role God himself assigned to you and make the most of it. That said, I am not a Catholic anymore.

    Liked by 1 person

  31. Your article was very insightful. Perhaps he is wrong for his view on the role of women, however, let’s give him a bit more time before we try him in the court of public opinion and convict him. I agree with Benedict18, baby steps, it’s all about baby steps.

    Liked by 1 person

  32. tengo un poco o mucha sabiduria ustedes jusgen teorias nada concreto es verdad todo lo de la biblia esta ocurriendo pero no es mas logico no segirla al pie de la letra asta donde yo entiendo vamos directos al poso creo k el andar criticando o analizando no ay tiempo para eso es tiempo de actuar muchos saben k estos cambios climaticos son muy serios segir igual es el fin tratar de solusioar difisil pero no imposible se como nesesito mucha ayuda ay les va unas sabias palabras pensar k x una manzana se perdio todo x k entro en burro a gerusalen x que nos gian como titeres x etapas quien tiene el control de la tegnologia a quien se paresen x que no les itereza salir al espasio le dan el credito o poder a otros paises x k nadien les puede acer nada estan arrojando bastantes quimicos al mar nos distraen con todo teles selulares internet todo sale de alla y estan controlando todo pero nadien sabe como sola mente el sabio me interesa mucho su opinion ya k estoy dispuesto adar mi vida x ustedes pero me estoy cansando de k me imnoren grasias x su tiempo

    Liked by 1 person

  33. You know as a bible believing Christian, I choose never to be tied to any denomination. I always felt it led people away from Jesus and put the religious coat on people even dividing groups within the same faith . The pope is viewed as an idol.
    The disgusting truth is that he just sits highest on the perverted pedophiles that makes up an enormous amount of priests. The Catholic Church has Billions set aside just to settle the 5000 active cases involving molestation of alter boys . Poor kids getting chased around the alter by his ” mentor:.I don’t know if the pedophiles become priests, or do the priests just eventually gets that urge…to rape a ten year old.
    Hey I’m all about woman’s rights and all that…but…but am I still not hearing the real issue in that church?
    If I were the pope, I would think number one priority is find and imprison every last freak in the house.
    But, the Godly way the church is dealing with their perverts when caught?;They are suddenly promoted and moved to an undisclosed location. New fresh meat for the freak. But it’s all good in the priesthood…
    If any leader in the Catholic Church thinks I’m going to wait in line to kiss his ring? Lol.
    If had the disturbing experience of brushing up against a pedi- priest. ..or the pope the only thing I would do is run for sanitizer. God only knows where those hands have been.
    Complaining about the role of a women may be a legit issue. But focusing 100% on locking and defrocking the freaks should be always the first thing to monitor. Not the popes new holy bracelet . Religious symbols and performing jumping Jacks and hail Mary’s are rituals. What that church needs is a Christian, Spirit filled man to right the ship. Right now having riffs over minor issues is weak at best. It almost makes me wonder if the church leaders have the members convinced that it’s not an issue??? You don’t need to be Columbo to Crack this deal. I would not use the toilet in a church like that.

    Liked by 2 people

  34. Good information. TKS

    Liked by 1 person

  35. women should always be respected

    Liked by 1 person

  36. I think that Pope Francis is a great pope but he can’t escape all those bias that come with being brought up as someone who belongs to the “dominant” categories such as “white”, “catholic”, “man”. Those labels may empower you but at the same time they keep you from seeing what the minorities are going through every day. But that’s a spread problem and he’s already giving so much freshness in the Catholic Church! Thank you for writing such an honest piece!

    Liked by 1 person

  37. Interesting read for a non Catholic. Helpful to my understanding of this Pope. Relevant to women everywhere.

    Liked by 1 person

  38. Pope Francis is a great humanitarian Vicar of Christ, and your piece was an excellent read…all non-catholics must understand that the Pope cannot change the dogma of the church. E.G., a priest represents Jesus Christ, and will never be a woman. Just like 2+2=4, and it will never be anything but 4. Nor, will marriage ever be anything but a man and a woman. It can never be anything else except but be between one man and one woman! the sacraments of the Catholic Church will never change…Thank you Gina for this piece…

    Like

  39. This is an excellent article. As a catholic I share your optimism but ac knowledge the church has a long way to go. If one can not fully participate then you are a second class citizen. Why would I want to be part of any community with only limited participation. Phil Ward

    Like

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