California Forum

Can women ever influence Catholic doctrine?

Pope Francis waves to the crowd during a parade in Philadelphia last month. The pontiff attended a music-and-prayer festival there Saturday night to close out the World Meeting of Families, a Vatican-sponsored conference of more than 18,000 people from around the world.
Pope Francis waves to the crowd during a parade in Philadelphia last month. The pontiff attended a music-and-prayer festival there Saturday night to close out the World Meeting of Families, a Vatican-sponsored conference of more than 18,000 people from around the world. The Associated Press

Progressives, from Philly to San Francisco, were in full-tilt fandom last month. Finally, a pope willing to champion climate change and income inequality. But the pope’s less liberal leanings leaked out soon after his plane left the runway.

During a high-flying papal press conference, a reporter with Radio Nacional de España, asked: “Will we one day see women priests in the Catholic church as some groups in the U.S. ask, and some other Christian churches have?”

Pope Francis’ response: “Women priests, that cannot be done.”

In previous interviews, he’s been equally clear: “That door is closed.”

The church’s stained glass ceiling won’t shatter anytime soon.

Nevertheless, Catholic women theologians soldier on.

At a recent new conference, they released “Catholic Women Speak: Bringing Our Gifts to the Table,” a collection of 40 essays challenging church doctrine on issues like contraception, ordination of women, same-sex relationships and divorce.

Their immediate goal? To have women’s voices influence decisions on family issues at the convening of bishops, underway at the Vatican through Oct. 25.

Not likely.

While 30 women have been invited to speak, voting rights are solely vested with 279 men – and religious scholars don’t expect any major changes to church doctrine on the role of women.

Abortion? Still a sin, though you can be forgiven during the upcoming Holy Year of Mercy.

Contraception? Banned.

Divorce? Still frowned upon, but it may be easier to get an annulment.

Gay marriage? Better to focus on faith, service and friendship.

At the root of the pope’s views on women is his philosophy of complementarity.

Women shouldn’t think about pursuing equality with men, but accept their differences.

Women are the nurturers, the mothers and wives. Women are rightly the church laity, in contrast to the all-male clergy.

Here’s what Pope Francis had to say about women in February: “The qualities of delicacy, peculiar sensitivity and tenderness which are abundant in the female soul, are not only a genuine force for family life, but also a reality without which the human vocation would be unfeasible.”

That quote is not a one-off. Consider this statement from January 2014: “How is it possible for any woman to develop an incisive presence in the many areas of public and professional life where important decisions are made, and at the same time to maintain a special presence within the family?”

Pope Francis sees a future of Eves, assisting Adams.

Even in a world of two-paycheck marriages and 30-year mortgages, Pope Francis believes the nurturing nature of women should tie them to hearth and home.

I am not a Catholic. And truth be known, I’m about as secular as you can get. But the church’s battle of the sexes – and the Pope’s deep-seated philosophy of complementarity – affects us all.

That’s because the media-savvy pope has a global pulpit, and the church spends millions to influence public policy – not just church practice.

Pope Francis should be lauded for his leadership to protect our planet and empower the poor – but don’t count on him to shatter the stained glass ceiling.

Kate Karpilow is executive director of the California Center for Research on Women and Families.

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