31 January 2014

Pope Francis wants more "space" for women in the Church, but what does that mean?

In light of Pope Francis' recent - and repeated - call for more "space" in the Church for women a couple of priests and I here at the Casa Santa Maria were talking about what, precisely, the Holy Father has in mind.  We know he isn't talking about ordaining women or naming women Cardinals, but beyond that Pope Francis hasn't given too many specifics.

I suggested it might be helpful if he would appoint a media-savvy woman as Director of the Holy See Press Office.  The post would be a clearly visible and is one that need not be filled by a cleric.  This morning I was pleased to see that John L. Allen, Jr. agrees with me.  I know a couple of women whom I would gladly recommend for the post.

As helpful and good as such an appointment might be, this may or may not be what Pope Francis has mind.  Certainly, such an appointment wouldn't be all that he has in mind.  As Allen explains:
In truth, it's easier to say what "more space for women" doesn't mean in the mind of Pope Francis than what it does. We know he's taken women priests off the table, and we also know he's not interested in naming women cardinals. In his December interview with the Italian paper La Stampa, Francis said anyone advocating women cardinals suffers from "clericalism," meaning the idea that to be important in the Catholic church, you have to be a member of the clergy.

In fact, Francis' conception of what "more space" means seems to have little to do with office-holding of any sort.

During his trip to Brazil in July, Francis told the Brazilian bishops that he wanted them to "promote the active role of women in the ecclesial community" because "if the church loses its women ... it risks sterility." That prompted a question on the papal plane about what exactly he meant by "promoting an active role," to which he replied: "It can't be limited to the fact that girls can be altar boys, or that women can be the president of Caritas or a catechist. No! It has to be more than that, profoundly more, even mystically more, and that's why I've spoken about [the need for] a theology of women."

"Women in the church are more important than bishops and priests," the pope insisted. "That's what we have to try to explain better, because I believe we don't have a way of making that explicit theologically."

Here's the key point: When Francis talks about "more space" for women, it's less about creating new roles and more about assigning greater value to the roles women already play. It's psychological, theological and moral "space" he wants to enhance, not so much corporate and institutional.

As a veteran of the pastoral front lines, Francis grasps that if its women were to walk away tomorrow, the Catholic church would come grinding to a halt. He knows it's women who raise kids in the faith, women who make parishes run, women who keep alive popular devotions and practices, women who mobilize the church's human resources when people are in need, and on and on.

If the Catholic church is a "field hospital," as Francis has put it, he knows that women are its primary medical staff.

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