3 Ways Pope Francis Has Let Women Down

Pope Francis greets faithful as he arrives at the Don Gnocchi Foundation for assistance to disabled and elderly to celebrate
Pope Francis greets faithful as he arrives at the Don Gnocchi Foundation for assistance to disabled and elderly to celebrate the rite of the washing of the feet, in Rome, Thursday, April 17, 2014. Pope Francis has washed the feet of 12 elderly and disabled people — women and non-Catholics among them — in a pre-Easter ritual designed to show his willingness to serve like a "slave." Francis' decision in 2013 to perform the Holy Thursday ritual on women and Muslim inmates at a juvenile detention center just two weeks after his election helped define his rule-breaking papacy. It riled traditionalist Catholics, who pointed to the Vatican's own regulations that the ritual be performed only on men since Jesus' 12 apostles were men. The 2014 edition brought Francis to a center for the elderly and disabled Thursday. Francis kneeled down, washed, dried and kissed the feet of a dozen people, some in wheelchairs. He said the ritual is a gesture of "a slave's service." (AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca)

The election of Pope Francis and early indications that he wasn't a business-as-usual pontiff -- from washing the feet of women on Holy Thursday to saying that atheists could go to heaven -- was greeted with great hope that he signaled if not a revolution, at least a major leap forward for the church.

And Francis has made major changes, especially with the entrenched Vatican bureaucracy, and has signaled that others may be in the offing, such as married priests or more leeway for divorced and remarried Catholics. But one group of Catholics seems conspicuously absent from the pope's reform agenda: women. In fact, on three issue of special importance to women -- women priests, birth control, and the crackdown on nuns -- the pope has proven nearly as conservative and reactionary as his predecessors.

Francis said early on that he wouldn't challenge the teaching of Pope John Paul II that women can never be priests. "The church has spoken and says no... That door is closed," he said. But many Catholic scholars disagree with John Paul II's assessment that the church can't ordain women. It's more a matter of church tradition, which is itself shaky because there were women priests in the early years of the church, than doctrine. They also disagree with the move by Pope Benedict, when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger and head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to declare Pope John Paul's pronouncement essentially infallible.

The majority of U.S. Catholics support women priests. While few may feel called to the priesthood themselves, they recognize that it speaks to a fundamental truth about women's equality. Pope Francis has showed some of the same disturbing tendencies as Pope John Paul II in declaring that women are essentially "separate but equal" from men. His view of women is one-dimensional and overly focused on their caregiving and nurturing roles. He has lauded women for their "sensitivity and intuition" and their "gifts of delicateness, special sensitivity and tenderness." His views belong in the Victorian era, when women were considered "angels of the home," but unfit for the public sphere, not in the 21st century.

Ultimately, it's about who gets to make the rules of the church. If women can't be priests, they can't become bishops and cardinals and have a say in formulating church doctrine. As I note in my book Good Catholics, it's not surprising that when feminist theologians interpret Catholic doctrine they tend to take a very different view on issues like contraception and abortion. Instead of seeing prohibitions on various means of reproductive control as unchangeable and essential elements of Catholic doctrine, they see them as products of the times in which they were formed, when women were valued solely for their ability to have babies and seen as intellectually and emotionally little more than children.

Pope Francis also said there is no chance the Vatican will revisit Humanae Vitae, the encyclical that bans birth control. Few of the church's teaching are as damaging to women. Around the world there is an unmet need for contraception and in countries like the Philippines the church fought for years to keep women from getting it. As a result, women suffer from needlessly high maternal morality rates because they can't space or otherwise control pregnancies and die from illegal abortions that they turn to in desperation.

And last but certainly not least, Pope Francis has let an unduly harsh review of American nuns proceed despite all the evidence that its largely a witch hunt pressed by influential conservatives here in the United States who think that progressive nuns are to blame for the decline of the church since Vatican II. Despite his own words that the Vatican congregations shouldn't be used as tools of oppression, Pope Francis decided in the early days of his papacy to let the CDF's review of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious go forward.

In May, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, head of the CDF, lectured the leaders of the LCWR like a bunch of naughty schoolgirls for having the temerity to present a leadership award to noted progressive theologian Sr. Elizabeth Johnson and for engaging with new age ideas like "conscious evolution." As a group of U.S. priests recently wrote to Francis, the move undermined his calls for a more pastoral approach and "projects what many perceive as clerical/hierarchical bullying of religious women, publically shaming them." It's hard not to view the nuns as a proxy for how the Vatican would like to treat all women, as subjects who should obey them, not partners in creation. The pope could change this but all indications are that women will be left out of the Francis revolution.


Clarification: In my June 10 posting, I wrote that the National Catholic Reporter, the leading progressive Catholic newsweekly, had refused an ad for my book Good Catholics because it was about pro-choice Catholics. After the column ran, I was contacted by NCR Editor Dennis Coday, who said the rejection was a mistake. According to Coday, the person who refused the ad had misunderstood NCR's advertising policy. He said NCR would accept the ad. While I remain concerned overall about the Catholic hierarchy's efforts to suppress abortion dissent, I am happy to report that NCR isn't part of that effort. I appreciate NCR's willingness to engage with the issue of Catholics and abortion.