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Why Pope Francis Won’t Let Women Become Priests

Mar 06, 2015

This month marks the second anniversary of Pope Francis’ election. The following is taken from THE FRANCIS MIRACLE: Inside the Transformation of the Pope and the Church by John L. Allen Jr.

On two occasions when Pope Francis has been asked about possibly admitting women to the ranks of the clergy, he has given a firm no.

At the same time, he has said that he wants to see a “greater role” for women in Catholicism, including participation in the “important decisions . . . where the authority of the Church is exercised.” He has also said that he wants a “deeper theology” about the place of women in the faith, one that will emphasize the critically important contributions they make. During his first two years in office, however, there were relatively few steps forward in either regard. No groundbreaking new roles for women were created and no new theological study was commissioned. While Francis’s popularity tends to insulate him against the criticism that such a record might otherwise attract, over time his ability to reframe impressions of the Catholic Church as a boys’ club, at least at the top, will be an important measure of his success—not merely because it’s a question of interest to the outside world but also because Francis himself has set it as a standard.

Pope Francis was born Jorge Mario Bergoglio in 1936 and entered the Society of Jesus in 1958, meaning most of his formative experiences as a priest came before the reforming Second Vatican Council, held from 1962–65. The pre–Vatican II period was an era in which prospective clergymen typically entered the system young and lived in an environment in which interaction with the opposite sex was deliberately restricted, to the point that they were discouraged from looking too closely at women, a discipline known in the argot of the clerical world as “custody of the eyes.”

As a result, when talk turns to women, clerics of the pope’s generation often talk about their mothers or grandmothers, or perhaps a nun who taught them in grade school. They are keen to extol the domestic contributions of women—their importance in raising families, passing on the faith and imparting basic human virtues—which can make their rhetoric seem outdated and patronizing. Francis certainly feels such fondness for the women in his own family, especially, as we have seen, his paternal grandmother, Rosa.

On the other hand, Francis is atypical of many clergymen of his generation in that he did not enter a minor seminary as a teenager, where he would have been cut off from the outside world. Instead, he moved in the hurly-burly world of Argentina in the 1950s, a time when the Latin American nation was considered one of the most developed, cosmopolitan societies in the world. It was an environment in which women could serve in leadership capacities, inspired by Eva Perón’s de facto role as spiritual leader of the nation.

After earning a degree from a technical school as a chemical assistant, Bergoglio worked in the foods section of the Hickethier-Bachmann laboratory, running chemical tests on nutrients. Bergoglio’s supervisor at the lab was Esther Ballestrino de Careaga, a Paraguayan communist who had fled her country’s military dictatorship in 1949 and settled in Buenos Aires with her daughters. Although Francis didn’t realize it at the time, he would later become the first pope of the Catholic Church to have had a woman as a boss. He has often referred to Ballestrino as a major influence on his life. She was undoubtedly in his mind when he said in a 2013 interview that he wasn’t offended by Rush Limbaugh calling him a Marxist because “I have met many Marxists in my life who are good people.” Francis has said that Ballestrino drilled into him the importance of paying attention to details in his work, forcing him to repeat tests to confirm his results. “The work I did was one of the best things I’ve done in my life,” Bergoglio later said in a 2010 interview with Argentine journalists Sergio Rubin and Francesca Ambrogetti. “[Esther Ballestrino de Careaga was] an extraordinary boss. When I handed her an analysis, she’d say, ‘Wow, you did that so fast. . . . Did you do the test or not?’ I would answer, ‘What for?’ If I’d done all the previous tests, it would surely be more or less the same. ‘No, you have to do things properly,’ she would chide me. In short, she taught me the seriousness of hard work. Truly, I owe a huge amount to that great woman.” In another section of the interview, Bergoglio said that Ballestrino “taught me so much about politics.”

Bergoglio reconnected with his former boss a decade later, when she and her family were under surveillance by the Argentine military regime. At one point, Ballestrino called to ask him to come to her house to give a relative last rites, which surprised Bergoglio because he knew the family wasn’t religious. The truth was that Ballestrino needed someone to stash her extensive collection of Marxist literature; the young Jesuit provincial superior agreed to do so. Later, Bergoglio helped Ballestrino find one of her daughters who had been kidnapped by military forces. (She was detained and tortured for several months before being released.) Ballestrino became one of the founders of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, often reaching out to Bergoglio for help.

Tragically, Ballestrino herself “disappeared” at the hands of security forces in 1977. Almost three decades later, when her remains were discovered and identified, Bergoglio gave permission for her to be buried in the garden of a Buenos Aires church called Santa Cruz, the spot where she had been abducted. Her daughter requested that her mother and several other women be buried there because “it was the last place they had been as free people.” Despite knowing full well that Ballestrino was not a believing Catholic, the future pope readily consented.

Despite his talk of expanded roles for women in the Church, Francis is still firmly against ordaining women as priests or, for that matter, as clergy of any kind. He has even rejected the idea of reviving an older tradition of lay cardinals that would include women. (A lay cardinal is a nonclerical member of the College of Cardinals.) The proposal has drawn influential support from the likes of Lucetta Scaraffia, a historian and columnist for the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, but Francis has unambiguously shot it down. Francis’s clearest statement on the ordination issue came during an airborne press conference in July 2013, when he was returning from Rio de Janeiro. “The Church has spoken and says no. . . . That door is closed,” he said.

The pontiff’s rejection of female clergy is so unwavering that critics have accused him of having a blind spot on women’s issues. Jon O’Brien of the liberal dissent group Catholics for Choice, an organization that defies orthodoxy by supporting abortion rights, said in 2013 that the pope’s message seems to be “Women can wait while he takes care of more important issues.” In October 2013 a progressive priests’ group in Ireland leveled a similar charge when Francis signed off on the excommunication of Australian Fr. Greg Reynolds, in part for his advocacy of women’s ordination.

In May 2014 an advocacy group called Women’s Ordination Worldwide held a rally and press conference in Rome to complain that Francis’s reforming stance on other matters isn’t matched by his position on women’s issues. “It’s true that Pope Francis is portraying a new image of the Church being open to all and that he is trying to shake off the judgments and restrictions of the past,” said activist Miriam Duignan in Rome. “But despite this openness . . . Francis holds fast to the old party line that says, ‘Women in priesthood is not open to discussion. It is reserved for men alone. Women are not welcome.’ How long do women have to wait to be considered equal and worthy of receiving the same welcome by the official Church as men?”

For many people, including rank-and-file Catholics who believe in gender equality, it is difficult to square Francis’s overall reputation as a maverick and a progressive reformer—plus his specific pledges to enhance the role of women in Catholicism—with his steadfast defense of the status quo when it comes to female priests.

The fundamental reason for the Church’s refusal to admit women to the priesthood is that it’s bound by the example of Christ. Jesus did not include women among his original 12 apostles, so the argument runs, and the Church is compelled to follow that example, restricting the priesthood today to men. Although Francis presumably accepts that teaching, it’s not the basis of his own stance on the issue. For him, the push for women priests is where two forces repellent to him intersect: machismo, which is an especially resonant concept for a Latin American, and clericalism, an exaggerated emphasis on the power and privilege of the clergy, which is virtually this pope’s personal bête noire.

Prior to his election as pope, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger likewise argued that some models of feminism were based on a utilitarian logic that understands human relationships in terms of a contest for power, saying that on the man’s side of the ledger that sort of thinking “heads in the direction of machismo,” and thus feminism becomes an equal and opposite “reaction against the exploitation of woman.” In effect, the argument was that real feminism is not about an arms race with men, but rather about ending the arms race once and for all by rejecting power as the only way to evaluate one’s worth or dignity. As applied to the priesthood, the conclusion is that it’s a fallacy to believe that women will never be equal to men in the Church until they wield the same ecclesiastical power. Instead, the argument runs, real feminism means embracing “complementarity”: the idea that men and women play different but complementary roles in the wider world and inside the Church.

Naturally, it’s an argument that’s met with an uneven reception, as many women have responded that it’s rather disingenuous to play down the importance of power when you’re the one wielding it. Moreover, many theologians in Catholicism, both men and women, point out that in all its official teaching on the subject, the Church describes the priesthood in terms of service rather than power. If that’s true, they ask, couldn’t the desire of women to become priests be understood in terms of a call to serve rather than a lust for power? In other words, they wonder, has official papal rhetoric set up a straw man?

If anything, Francis recoils from clericalism even more viscerally than machismo. As Francis has defined it, clericalism means two things: first, an over-emphasis on what he called “small-minded rules” at the expense of mercy and compassion; and second, an exalted notion of clerical power and privilege, as opposed to the spirit of service. Francis sees clericalism almost as the original sin of the Catholic priesthood. In informal remarks to leaders of religious orders in late 2013, he referred to the hypocrisy of clericalism as “one of the worst evils” in the Church and memorably said that unless future priests are inoculated against it when they’re young, they risk turning out to be “little monsters.”

Francis believes the demand for women’s admission to the clerical ranks betrays an unconscious clericalism. In a December 2013 interview with the Italian newspaper La Stampa, he was asked about the notion that he might name female cardinals. “I don’t know where this idea sprang from,” Francis replied. “Women in the Church must be valued, not ‘clericalized.’ Whoever thinks of women as cardinals suffers a bit from clericalism.” In his mind, conceding that the only way to elevate the role of women is to make them clergy feeds the mistaken notion that clerics are what’s most important about Catholicism, when he sees his mission instead as exalting the role of the laity. When he talks about a “deeper theology” of women, this is likely part of what he has in mind—a sort of Copernican revolution in Catholic consciousness, with laity and women the real protagonists of the Church’s mission in the world and the clergy a supporting cast. When he traveled to South Korea in August 2014, he repeatedly invoked the unique history of the Korean Church as one founded not by priests or foreign missionaries but by laypeople, and his delight in that fact was palpable.

To be sure, the argument is unlikely to satisfy many Catholics or women outside the Church, who will always see the ban on female priests as an anachronistic means of defending male privilege. But when Francis said, “That door is closed,” he seemed to mean it.

Excerpted from THE FRANCIS MIRACLE: Inside the Transformation of the Pope and the Church by John L. Allen Jr., published by TIME Books, an imprint of Time Home Entertainment Inc.

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