Just What Does Pope Francis Want to Offer Women, That They Don’t Already Have?


“Women,” says Pope Francis, “should play a greater role in society and the Church.”  But what exactly does that mean?

Pope Francis spoke on Saturday, January 25 to the national congress of the Italian Women’s Centre, a Catholic women’s association promoting greater democracy, human rights and human dignity.  “I strongly wish,” he said,

“…that (opportunities and responsibilities) may open themselves up further to the presence and participation of women, both in the church as well as in society and the professional sphere.”

Eucharistic Minister

This is nothing less than a restatement of his message in his first encyclical, Evangelii Gaudium, in which he wrote,

“I readily acknowledge that many women share pastoral responsibilities with priests, helping to guide people, families and groups and offering new contributions to theological reflection.

“…demands that the legitimate rights of women be respected, based on the firm conviction that men and women are equal in dignity, present the Church with profound and challenging questions which cannot be lightly evaded.

“I readily acknowledge that many women share pastoral responsibilities with priests, helping to guide people, families and groups and offering new contributions to theological reflection.”

Choir Director

And this is good:  Pope Francis recognizes that women have much to contribute, and he wants to take full advantage of their special gifts for the Church. 

Despite early ruminations that Pope Francis might be the guy to step up and change the Church’s stance on women’s ordination, he has reaffirmed the constant teaching of the Church that Holy Orders is open only to males.  “With regards to the ordination of women,” he said, “the Church has spoken and says no. Pope John Paul [II] said so with a formula that was definitive. That door is closed.”  (He was referring to Pope John Paul’s 1994 document, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, which explained that the Church has no authority to ordain women, and this view must be held by all as a definitive belief.)

But the problem, at least in my eyes, is that we’re already there.

Apart from sacramental ordination–which is, after all, an anointing for service, not a tribute nor a transference of power–women are already engaged in active service at all levels of the Catholic Church.

I personally know several women who serve as chancellors of dioceses.  Women are school principals and university presidents, Catholic hospital CEOs, media directors.

In the liturgy, women serve as lectors, eucharistic ministers, music directors, readers, and cantors; and little girls are already altar servers.  Women serve on parish councils and planning committees.

Women enter religious life at a rate lower than in the past, but there are thriving, vibrant religious orders which attract talented young women.

Women have been named Doctors of the Church.  Women are canonized saints, and their stories told to encourage holiness in women and men today.

In regular life, where most of us spend our days and our careers, women are teachers, daycare moms, and enthusiastic volunteers.

So try as I might, I can’t figure out just what needs to change.

Maybe the governance of the Vatican?  Since the Curia is generally served by priests and bishops, there is a preponderance of men in service at the Vatican.  But even there, I know of women who serve on Pontifical Councils and in various advisory roles.

Tim Padgett, a self-described “doctrinally dissident Roman Catholic” writing in Time magazine,  chastised the Church for “scapegoating women.”  What he meant by that, though, was that the Vatican had censured his fellow dissident (and a woman) Sister Margaret Farley for her wide-ranging disagreement with Catholic theology, as expressed in her book Just Love:  A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics.  In it, Farley embraced divorce, homosexuality, “nonprocreative” intercourse and masturbation.  Rome’s “doctrinal bulldogs” (that’s Tim Padgett’s word, not mine) reminded Farley that those acts are considered disordered, deviant and depraved.

I don’t think Pope Francis meant that the ersatz views of dissident women must be embraced, and the longstanding, gospel-based teaching of the Magisterium must be discarded.

So, what must change?  If you want to harp about women priests blah-blah, I’m not interested.  If you have other ideas, though, about how women can be drawn into the life of the Church in new ways, can help in the greater mission of evangelization to which we are all called–then I’m all ears. 


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  • Jennifer Fitz

    I wonder if he might be talking about someplace else? Outside the US?

    • I do find that in general it’s best to read Pope Francis as having South America as his primary point of reference and not the US. So that seems to me a pretty pertinent question: are women as well represented in those kinds of role in Church and society all over the world as they are here?

    • Maggie Goff

      That’s the first thing that popped into my head. We tend to think that “we and the Vatican are it” and we obviously are not.

    • Gina

      Exactly my thoughts. This is article is almost laughably myopic. What we take for granted in the States in terms of opportunities for women is still a pipe dream in many cultures and countries.

  • SilentProlix


    • I used to consider that, though I’m pretty orthodox deaconesses are mentioned in the early Church, but I guess the modern diaconate is different and is a form of ordination. So if women can’t be ordained they can’t be deaconesses. (I guess they could still be whatever “deaconesses” were)

  • Without female participation and assisstance, most parishes would fall apart. I think you’re right that women already have high jobs in catholic institutions. But I can see them getting roles in the papacy and episcipals without ordination or religious titles. Some jobs that go to Bishops and Cardinals can be done by women. We just need to alter the title.

  • Sigroli

    Kathy, the Pope is speaking to the universal Church, including to those in cultures wherein women do not participate in the manner or to the degree that you describe in your article. His Holiness seeks to remedy that.

  • Michelle

    It is a different thing for you to know some women a few places of influence, than for the church as a whole to welcome women. In my six years as a Catholic, (in the parishes I have been associated with) women are more feared, or placated, than sought out or valued for their different gifts. More than one person has openly stated frustration with girls as altar servers, another with women at the front in any capacity as readers, etc.. At least where we are, this kind of thing is normal. There are few women on our parish council, generally speaking, the parishes here prefer the women to stick with the Catholic Women’s League and make cookies. – – – Of course this is not true for everyone. Our excellent priest, while he admits he does not love female altar servers, expresses gratitude for them nonetheless. All my regionalism aside, I do believe that the biggest place needed for change is in governance. One need not be a priest, and therefore a man, to be a part of the larger hierarchy of the church. In a perfect world, one wouldn’t need to be part of the ruling body to contribute, but while we are here on earth, we are flawed humans, and as such, we will never consistently give adequate voice to people who are not part of the power structure. To say that there are one or two women in senior church positions is fine, but when the church (and the world) is composed of 50% or more of women, then it is fair to say that the current percentages of representation are suspect. I’m not calling for quotas, just exercising logic. I dare to hope that Pope Francis is calling for change, not out of disrespect for the beautiful male voices that speak within the church, but out of a desire to call other voices to join the chorus, adding tone and texture that only they possess.—Sorry this is so long. I finish by saying that I have not personally encountered the militant, damn the church, we girls could do it better, voices that I know are out there. If you have, your frustration with the words of Pope Francis make a little more sense to me. Thanks for your writing. It is because of your faithful support of the church and your love for it, that I even dare to voice my thoughts of hope for change. I wouldn’t bother if you were screaming for the men to be hogtied and sat down. We need good men and more than a few of them. It makes me feel welcomed to know that Pope Francis thinks the church needs me too.

  • Godlover

    I agree that though in many countries women are already very involved with the church, worldwide not so much. That said I would like to see a new role created just for women as a sort of counterpart to priests. Where they actually work with the priest in all matters for the spiritual upliftment of the parish. Possibly a religious sister or lay person who would be trained much like the priest for the job and/or a contemplative type that gives inspiration and support. They could be called the “church mother” or something like that. An actual position that could eventually be required at all the churches.

    • kathyschiffer

      Aren’t those people called “Pastoral Associates” or “Directors of Religious Education” or “Directors of Evangelization”?