Pope Francis, Women and Church Leadership: That (Still) Unresolved Relationship Between Power and Patriarchy


"Women's roles" and stereotypes: The Italian mamma

As Pope Francis visits the United States many church watchers will be curious to learn of any current project our reforming pontiff may have in mind respecting the future role of Catholic women -- an important reflection when we consider, for instance, the esteem accorded today to such prominent mystics as St. Teresa of Avila and her young French namesake of the 19th century, late of Lísìeux. That said, we nonetheless remain here with two visionary lights whose gender may well have them "leading now from Heaven" -- albeit after neither were ever afforded any demonstrable chance in their living years to lead, pastorally-speaking at least, upon earth.

Concerning then the question of women and Church leadership and that confusing oscillation between service and servility, I am reminded that Pope Francis is an Italian Argentinian. It all has me assuming he is already well familiar with the sometimes tortured relationship between holiness and those unsustainable associations with womanhood which have persisted in Italian Catholicism since medieval times and beyond. We might wonder, for instance, to what extent that quaint, distinctively male cult of the Italian mamma remains enmeshed in the country's early literature, garnished with existing traces of Marian devotion which still survive in figurines of the Madonna peeping out from shallow recesses above the doorposts of many a country house from Sicily to Piedmont -- Christian archetype of our most celebrated heroine of maternity and housekeeping within that "economy of salvation". Again, assisting in the launch of the Italian Rinascimento, even Alighieri's donna amata was hailed by her literary creator through a dubious idiom fostering a social constructionism potentially deterministic for gender roles -- or so critics might charge.

No less up for grabs is how much progressive development of Catholic Mariology -- or the theology of Mary -- was shaped by the angel woman of Guinizzelli (c. 1230-1276) as precursor to what would become an enduring muse of female intangibility, going on to significantly influence Dante's celebrated expression of the Stil novo poetic style as well as his exalted representation of Beatrice, whom we meet for the first time in Vita nova.

Colorfully represented in the Sistine Chapel, that crowded pantheon of Italy's Cinquecento seems to meet with mixed reaction even today. Here I am reminded of a trip to the French Pyrénées in 2005, during which I purchased a plastic statuette of Our Lady of Lourdes. Upon my return I offered the kitch thing to a devout co-confessionalist in keepsake: an agreeable though decidedly contradicted Calabrian who frequently took vociferous pride in his courtship of innumerable "amiche donne", greying pate notwithstanding (and married for all that).

Months on he protested how the gift soon came to represent his long-expected femme fatale, complaining that, evidently charged with some luminous substance which glowed in the dark, "she" had kept him awake at nights by peering imperiously down at him from her perch upon a bookshelf above his bed. Apparently she even had the unsettling habit of assuming a 'ghostly, androgynous aspect'.

My friend went on to lament how the statue gave off a blend of colors during the wee hours of the morning from which his mind would unfailingly start to fashion fantastic forms. He suspected these of then regrouping into some dread encounter with the forbidding archangel Michael himself, stern and exacting, whom he believed to be hovering at his bedside, ever at the ready for that portended moment at which his philandering soul would be wrenched from life only to be dragged off screaming to the Divine presence and from thence to an afeared, deserving judgement.

I later discovered that my compatriot's personal biography was signed by the convoluted legacy of his late mother: a 'strong character of deep faith' who had taught him from his infancy how, matched with an unstimulating husband, finally it was the Virgin Mary alone who had in fact 'had the balls' to efficiently direct the day-to-day domestic affairs of the holy family. Moreover, her story was marked by having raised three children singlehandedly, so taking on the titanic role of both parents.

In sum, by pitching the image of our female protagonists as subserviently at the helm of driving so many countless motifs and dénouements from faith, art and literature, often it has been from the pen of male writers or by the brush or chisel of their co-conspirators that some unwary woman has been opportunistically recruited to enchant another's magnum opus. Thus has she been kept either sufficiently celestial (and so conveniently 'out there'), or else hard enough at her chores to render even the cumbersome burden of macho Atlas but a paltry feather's weight.

Yet to return to the Church and those few instances at key moments in the past (we may count them upon our fingers) in which our veiled and habited heroines did manage to secure for themselves some lasting competitive leverage, one rather gets the sense there was an underlying plot among their male contemporaries to "make darn sure that if we can't burn the conniving sisters as evil witches then we may as well canonize them. At least that way we can manage their spiritual legacy to perpetuity and contain their influence while we're at it."

Perhaps an uncharitable inkling, I will own, given that we remain here in the tentative realm of conjecture.

However, in the real world in which we live and work and in which some even pray -- the same of which His Holiness has so far shown a genuine understanding -- perhaps it shall be among his chosen challenges in the years which remain to him during this most commendable pontificate to convince us all that alternative models of leadership can also be possible.