I appreciate and welcome the pastoral style of Francis, our still-revealing-himself Bishop of Rome; and I applaud his rejection of the Renaissance-princely garb and grandeur that so characterized his gold-embroidered and red-slippered predecessor, and more than a few men with red hats.

When it comes to women, however, Francis really needs some theological updating.

The Bishop of Rome is calling for a “theology of women.” I fear however that he is simply resuscitating and trying to re-package the short-sighted viewpoint of his papal predecessor John Paul, called The Great.

In a three-day event sponsored by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Laity, launched on 14 October, approximately 100 women from across the globe gathered in Rome to discuss Pope John Paul II’s apostolic letter Mulieres Dignitatem, issued twenty-five years ago. The theme of the conference: “God entrusts the human being to the woman.” To the woman……

The speakers emphasized Pope John Paul’s biologically-bound understanding of male/female complementarity. Women and men have complementary natures, he taught, and their “diversity of roles” in the church and in the family are a reflection of that reality. He stressed that women’s biology orients them toward acceptance and receptivity (i.e. men insert and women receive): the creation and nurturing of new human life.

The “feminine genius,” the pope taught, includes qualities such as receptivity, empathy, protection of life, sanctity, and modesty. John Paul saw the feminine genius as the answer to the “culture of death” inherent in contemporary society’s penchant for abortion, contraception, and euthanasia; and he exalted Mary, Mother of God, as the prime example of the feminine genius: a humble, generous, faithful, and a long-suffering mother.

In 1994, to officially stamp-out rapidly spreading deviant behavior and unorthodox thought and teaching, Pope John Paul II declared women’s ordination a closed matter. Pope Francis of course has reiterated that same papal teaching, so clearly expressed in John Paul’s letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis: “Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance…I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.”

The Roman Catholic prohibition of women’s ordination argues from a perception of divinely-constituted gender roles: the belief that masculinity was integral to the ministry of both Jesus and the apostles. Being a woman is fine; but if a human is going to act “in persona Christi,” one needs male genitalia. The Incarnation is more male than female?

Pope John Paul, Pope Benedict, and apparently Pope Francis have all believed there is an essential difference between male humanity and female humanity and therefore, while some human functions are interchangeable between men and women, others are not. So…..males are necessary for priesthood just as water is necessary for baptism, and bread and wine for Eucharist, because that’s the way Jesus set it up.

All of this is summed up in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (issued by Pope John Paul in 1992): “Only a baptized man (vir) validly receives sacred ordination.” The Lord Jesus chose men (viri) to form the college of the twelve apostles, and the apostles did the same when they chose collaborators to succeed them in their ministry. The college of bishops, with whom the priests are united in the priesthood, makes the college of the twelve an ever-present and ever-active reality until Christ’s return. The Church recognizes herself to be bound by this choice made by the Lord himself. For this reason the ordination of women is not possible.”

But what about Pope Francis’ call for a “theology of women”? Do we need a “theology of women” distinct from a “theology of men”? I think not. What we need, I suggest, is an officially updated understanding of the Christian Scriptures and early church history.

Francis appears to be a courageous and humble fellow. I don’t want to hear him reiterate the old theology of women, however. I want to hear a humble and official acknowledgement that the old Roman Catholic arguments against male/female ministerial equality are based on an archaic, incorrect, and unacceptable understanding of early Christian history.

Jesus did not establish nor ordain a clerical old boys club. There were male disciples and female disciples, male apostles and female apostles. In Romans 16:7, for instance, we read: “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who have been in prison with me. They are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.”

Junia’s female name was considered such an appalling anomaly by later medieval readers of Romans that when manuscripts were copied and recopied by pious males over the centuries the name Junia was frequently changed to a masculine form!

Paul of course calls himself an apostle. And he had no reluctance listing and acknowledging the male and female leaders in the early church. Nor do we see any hierarchical distinctions based on biology or gender. Among the people whom Paul lists in his Epistle to the Romans are Phoebe, the deacon in the Church of Cenchreae; Prisca, a “fellow-worker;” and the women Tryphaena and Tryphosa, who are “workers in the Lord” – the ministerial term Paul also applies to men in the same passage.

Today of course, we know that ordination as we know it did not exist in the early church; and scholars stress that the women and men, who were leaders of early Christian communities, were the same leaders who presided at Eucharist as well.

In the third chapter of Galatians, remember, we also read: “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Returning for a minute to the teaching in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, one could ask: what about “the Twelve”? Very often those who oppose women’s ordination argue that Jesus’ twelve apostles were men therefore all priests and bishops should be men. Well, there is a problem here.

Strictly speaking, the twelve apostles were not the twelve apostles: they were “the Twelve” who happened to be apostles. Their chief purpose was not to be the listing of Jesus’ apostles but, in Jewish-Christian imagery, a sign that Jesus was instituting a New Israel with its twelve tribes. (Even the various lists in the Christian Scriptures giving the names of the Twelve are problematic, but we can’t get into that today.)

Yes indeed, let us honor and celebrate women in the church, as we should honor and celebrate men as co-workers in the life and ministry of the church. Creating a specific “theology of women” may in fact be detrimental to guaranteeing the equal status of all in the Body of Christ.

And a final note: Any serious reflection on women in ordained ministry must seriously take into consideration the pastoral experience and witness of all those women currently exercising ordained ministry. Here I think of the ordained women in the Women
Priests Movement, ordained women in Anglican and Episcopalian churches, and of course in a great many Protestant churches. Their ordained ministry is authentic and genuine. The Church of Rome could in fact learn from them….

Now we need to get the message to Pope Francis. Maybe someone should call him on his mobile phone.


6 thoughts on “Pope Francis: His Theology of Women

  1. There are not “male” & “female” natures, but only “human nature”!
    Otherwise, the 2 sexes would not be of the same species & unable to breed together…
    These teachers may be high ranking clerics, but they seem to be lacking basic biological knowledge, that even high schoolers are taught today… So they have little credibility about almost anything they say…

  2. Well said Jack. Your point, calling for an official updated understanding of scripture and Church history is indeed key. Also a wide-spread understanding among the laity of WHY the Canon was set up as it was and the motives of Constantine in this regard.
    How long are we to ignore the scriptures NOT included and why? I would recommend 2 books
    “Mary Magdalene: The First Apostle- The Struggle for Authority” Ann Graham Brock.
    “The Hidden Messages of Jesus” Larry A. Angus.
    That invite to call him on his mobile is tempting. What’s his number? Ha!

  3. A fine summary of the historical arguments against an all-male priesthood. In the face of those arguments, John Paul II attempted to tie the hands of any of his successors who might think differently from him theologically. But there is no theological argument against women cardinals. Or against filling Vatican offices with more than a few token women. Pope Francis could use a few women from the LCWR to serve as his advisors.

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