Saturday, February 8, 2014

Women And Pope Francis According To John Allen + Some More Vatican/UN Interaction On Women's Rights

This last little factoid pretty much puts things in a brutally honest light.  

I've been meaning to write on John Allen's final column for the NCR for a while, but other things came up. Today I will.  The excerpts below are from the first topic of that column and is a classic example of John's penchant to write prescriptive columns under the guise of descriptive journalism.  I want to give a shout out to Bill Lyndsey who pointed this out in one of his blog posts about four years ago.  In his final column John prescribes for us what Pope Francis really means about more space for women in the Church. When I've used red highlighting, it's because these are buzz words leading into prescriptive thoughts rather than objective reporting.  I can get away with prescriptive writing because I don't claim to be an objective even handed centrist reporter on all things Catholic.

Following the Allen piece are a couple of paragraphs from another Vatican interaction with a UN committee.  This one happened yesterday at the UN's Eighth Session of the Open Working Group on the Sustainable Development Goals on “Promoting Equality, including Social Equity, Gender Equality, and Women’s Empowerment.”  The suggestions from the Vatican about promoting gender equality and women's empowerment are far more concrete than the musings of Pope Francis on women in the church but probably indicate pretty much where Francis is really at.  Given the prioritization of women's roles in the Vatican message to the UN, we can rest assured there won't be any pregnant priests on Pope Francis' watch.

Given the through-the-looking-glass dynamic of the media today, everything Pope Francis says or does is defined as news, however hard it may be to pin down what it means and however often he may have said or done precisely the same thing before.

Thus a short talk Francis gave to an Italian women's center on Saturday made headlines, in this case because of what he said about women in the church.

Here was the line: "I'm happy to see many women sharing some pastoral responsibilities with priests in accompanying people, families and groups, and also in theological reflection. I hope that the spaces for a more capillary and incisive feminine presence in the church will be enlarged."

Never mind that Francis had issued some version of that line at least half a dozen times before or that he added no new concrete detail about what "more space for women" might look like. He uttered the words, so reporters and analysts were obliged to swing into action.

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."
 (No doubt women are more important than bishops and priests in producing future generations of bishops and priests.  I don't know how that fact is supposed to be more explicitly stated theologically since so much theology already insists women's role is first and foremost reproductive.)

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.
(I'm not sure John Allen has this right since he left out 'mystical' in his prescriptive statement about the intentions of Francis. If John is right, what he is saying is that Francis hopes to accomplish what is essentially a snow job to maintain the status quo between the sexes in the Church.)
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. (It's also women who provide the 'space and time' men have in order to do what men tell women only men can exclusively running the very Church which would grind to a halt if women stopped being women the way male Catholic theology has traditionally defined women.)

If the Catholic church is a "field hospital," as Francis has put it, he knows that women are its primary medical staff. (But not the doctors.)

That's not to say Francis won't create more "space" for women in the conventional sense of the term. He could, for instance, name a woman as his spokesperson, a job that's generally the second most visible in the Vatican after the papacy. As part of a restructuring of Vatican finances, he could create a new position of comptroller and assign it to a woman, effectively entrusting her with the Vatican's power of the purse. Or, if the much-rumored consolidation of several current Vatican departments into a new "Congregation for the Laity" actually happens, the pope could tap a laywoman to head it. 

(That last suggestion might be a bit dicey, because assuming that the new congregation will exercise delegated powers of the pope, some canonists will say that anyone wielding those powers needs to be a cleric. However, if there's one thing we've learned about Francis, it's not to be too dogmatic about what he will or won't do.) (I think Pope Francis is well aware of the fact that clericalized men will not accept female leadership, and John should know this as well since he interviewed Leslie Anne Knight after it didn't work out so well for her.)
Maria Voce, head of the international Focolare movement, has also suggested that Francis might create a council of lay advisers alongside his Council of Cardinals, a body where women would play a key role.
In the end, however, such steps would be only symbols of what Francis seems to mean by "more space for women."

The substance is a new way of explaining why women actually don't need anybody to lift them up. If people saw the church in the proper light, as Francis understands it, they'd realize that women are already where the action is.  (This last prescriptive paragraph is all OD.  If all Francis intends to do for women is try to convince them that they aren't on the bottom of the pyramid, but really at the top, he's more a great manipulator than a real reformer.)


And now here's a more concrete insight into how women are to be valued. It's from the presentation given by Archbishop Francis A. Chullikatt, Apostolic Nuncio and Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, at the UN's Eighth Session of the Open Working Group on the Sustainable Development Goals on “Promoting Equality, including Social Equity, Gender Equality, and Women’s Empowerment.”  These excerpts are taken from Zenit's coverage of the presentation.

....Yet it would be naïve to conflate equality with sameness.  The approach to women in the Sustainable Development Goals must acknowledge and enable women to overcome barriers to equality without forcing them to abandon what is essential to them. Women worldwide do not live in isolation, but exist within the context of relationships which provide meaning, richness, identity, and human love. Their relationships, especially their role within the family – as mothers, wives, caregivers – have profound effects on the choices women make and their own prioritization of the rights which they exercise across their lifespans. (Notice how AB Chullikatt completely ignores the fact that women are culturally pressured into this prioritization and in many cases have no choice about their lives as mothers, wives, and caregivers.)
In formulating the Sustainable Development Goals, the global community must sidestep a simplistic assertion that shortfalls in women’s economic and public achievements can be remedied only by the negation of their procreative capacities. A truly rights-based approach to women’s equality demands that societies and their institutions remove unjust social and economic barriers that interject a false dichotomy between the relationships that enhance their lives and their participation and gains across other human rights.  Development for women will be truly sustainable only when it respects and enables women to choose and prioritize their actions according to equal opportunities within the context of real family relationships that frame their lives, not in spite of them. (The Vatican's prescription for women's equality and rights means family first, and then solutions within that context. It is a prescription for a form of reproductive slavery not expected of men.)

Sustainable Development Goals should provide the opportunity to confront inequality through the promotion of women’s engagement on an equal basis in society without disregarding entirely the family relationships in which women exist. Labor policies should go beyond facilitating equal job access and ensure reconciliation of paid work with family responsibilities: through family and maternity policies, and ensuring that equal salaries, unemployment benefits, and pensions are sufficient for a sustainable family life. Access to equal education and vocational training must accompany measures to accommodate family work and care needs. Serious efforts are needed to support women in their family choices. Civic participation should be designed to accommodate the participation of all women, including those with family responsibilities.  (This list of policies should most certainly pertain to men and their family responsibilities, but ABChullikatt does not mention men at all. I find this interesting because shared parental responsibilities is not just crucial to the enhancement of women's opportunities and rights, but to the sustainability of the modern family unit.)


I don't have any hope that the place of women in the Church is going to substantially change if Catholics look to the Vatican for that change.  For all John Allen's semi optimistic prescriptive speculation, the truth is in Chullikatt's presentation to the UN.  Catholicism places women's reproductive ability and family relationships ahead of any other aspect of their humanity.  The men of the Vatican assure women that is what they are and what they want and how they must organize and prioritize their lives, and all this without even acknowledging in too many places on this planet women and girls don't even have a choice to make those choices----but of course even when a woman chooses to have a child, but does it wrong in the eyes of the Church, the Church will kick her out.  Great.


  1. Wow! Great stuff!
    Just a few thoughts:

    Who authentically owns the right to define and qualify the biological, religious and cultural roles of women? This prerogative most definitely does NOT belong to males! Most certainly not to male clerics, notwithstanding ecclesial culture to the contrary!

    Biologically, who is it who lays down body "capillarity"? Seems to me that that happens in the mothers womb in the formation of the child.

    Evolution is still processing. The psychological sense of successful 'trial and error' supposes the body system to correct for self-destructive miss-steps. When males get way out of line in the politics of dominion, in whatever sphere of life, it is incumbent on women, for the sake of the common good, to take action necessary to straighten out the misdirection — yes — even if it means straightening out popes! Theology supposes biology!

    On this, I think that non-clerical males can and will agree with women. Self-righteous male clericalism cannot succeed against this tide. We can only pray that Pope Francis has enough human savvy to understand this. If he doesn't, it's going to be a rocky road ahead.

    Go women! Go!

  2. thanks for reading the reports as a woman does...I cannot imagine that Francis is unaware of the domestic violence common in his own region or the severe poverty many women deal with in their family situations...given these realities and the impossibility of dealing adequately with poverty without education and physical safety, what has he concretely done to advance girls and women so that their family lives have support? practical support and equal opportunity characterize programs run by women in every country--such women have the know how to tackle poverty, educational options for girls, etc. and ultimately make the ontological arguments about women's exclusion in the Church very, very empty--the social teaching of the Church supposedly lines up with the radical visions/parables of its founder--I like the way Francis is practical about service--I want him to get excited about practical service to poor women and girls and the worker rights which are theirs in their real lives

  3. Yes Sylvester, it is going to be a long "rocky road ahead".---- one of laity thinking for themselves that the clerics will not be able to tolerate even though they must if they want to repair the implosion of their own non-creative and arrogant leadership. We see once again a clerical leadership shattered like an old broken piece of crystal hitting a hard stone floor. Humpty dumpty and all that. ........

  4. What did you mean in the last line about women getting kicked out of the Church if they had a child in the "wrong way"?

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. Colleen, thank you for helping me see that clear connection between the notion of "incorrect" sex and illegitimacy. It had not been so clear to me until you formulated it so well in this comment.

  7. Yes Bill, I think Colleen did clarify some definitions a bit. The idea that any type of "incorrect sex" leads to sinfulness in the laity but if it occurs in the clergy, it leads to cover up. I am convinced that this whole generation + of Ratzinger -JP2 condoned definitions are in of themselves very ignorant and fearful, as these men were terrified of their own theologians and scientists. They are really terrified of loosing control and position.

    Is that what a great God wants of us to fear him and vindictively punish those who do not act "correctly" or hide true soul murder that occurs when a priest or a parent sexually harms those whom they do have authoritarian control ? Does a great God care a hoot about sexual orientation? Does he condone shaming any one about sex that is deemed "incorrect" out of shame and fear?

    Too many of fearful people are Bishop who mistakingly believe themselves authoritarian and who go along with the greedy and envious who support them with cash. It is really funny that when the leaders of the church use the word authority they really mean that they believe themselves authoritarians who do not need to grow and develop and learn from their own or societies mistakes. Not hard to see why this leadership even with a different voice such as Francis' continues to implode.

    It is to the point of humpty dumpty.............

  8. Church is boring. And the "Progressives" are as self-righteous and delusional as the Fundiegelicals.

  9. Then go somewhere that is not boring to you.

  10. Wouldn't increasing the number of children who are poor just lead not only to millions more people (and we're already at 7+ billion-not like we're running out of people)but millions more poor people who will only further burden society and the planet?
    Why should people breed what they can't feed?

  11. Poetman, thank god for your prophetic catholic ministry!
    No wonder people in the developed world are flocking to church more and more!