When Pope Francis spoke about women in the Church in his now-famous press conference on his flight back from Brazil, he set off reverberations still being felt. The Church is feminine, he declared. She is bride, she is mother. He continued:
The role of women in the Church must not be limited to being mothers, workers, a limited role . . . . This needs to be better explained . . . . All we say is: they can do this, they can do that, now they are altar servers, now they do the readings, now they are in charge of Caritas (Catholic charities). But there is more! We need to develop a profound theology of womanhood.
Only by advancing such a theology, he later explained , will Catholics understand how essential women have been: The feminine genius is needed wherever we make important decisions.
What made Francis words so meaningful is that they werent introducing anything new to Christianityonly reminding us of one of its greatest strengths.
In a recent interview Lucetta Scaraffia, one of Italys leading Catholic commentators and a contributor to LOsservatore Romano , noted the irony of the Church losing focus on promoting women after having led the way for centuries:
Christianity is the only religion that has, from its origins, put forward an equal spirituality between men and women. This is the heritage of Christianityand in particular the Catholic Church . . . . But today, in society, we have a situation where women have become more advanced than the Church.
She concluded: Many things that the Church says on the moral level would be much more credible if they were said by women in important positions.
Historically, the Catholic Church has always been deeply feminine, not just because she is a Mother, but because of whom she has elevated: The Blessed Virgin. Typifying the Churchs motherhood and standing as an exemplary model of womanhood, Christ himself paid her the highest regard, as he spoke to the Beloved Disciple, Behold, your Mother.
The early Church honored women of incredible courage and witness, such as the martyr saints Agnes of Rome, Cecilia, and Blandina. Saints like Helena and Monica, mothers to Constantine and Augustine, respectively, changed the course of history, and those who followedHildegard of Bingen, Clare of Assisi, Joan of Arc, Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Aviladid the same. In modern times, Thérèse of Lisieux, Edith Stein, and Mother Teresa have all forged unique paths, and the list of such luminous Catholic women continues to grow.
The celebration of their extraordinary lives testify against the idea that the Church devalued the status of women in the developing world. Pre-Christian societies were notoriously abusive in their treatment of women, often reducing them to slaves or prostitutes, and forcing their hand in marriage.
Christianity reversed this process, providing women with an unprecedented degree of liberty and dignity through religious orders and stable families. As historians David Herlihy and Régine Pernoud have shown, by the Middle Ages, the status of women was far superior than anything that existed in the ancient world.
And yet the words of the Mexican nun and poet Sor Juana Ines de la CruzYou foolish and unreasoning men/who cast all blame on womenremained all too true. Catholic women could flourish, but usually only after exerting a super-human effort in a male-dominated world.
As indispensable as the Church has been for women, certain prelates and popes have still misjudged and mistreated them. Apart from the case of Holy Orders, which Blessed John Paul II clearly explained , the Church has not kept pace with womens advancing role in society. The lack of women in significant positions in the Vatican, in bishops conferences, and in other key areas of the Church is distressing.
One area of failure that has come back to haunt the Church is in the terrible abuse scandals. If there had been women in positions of power, Scaraffia said provocatively last year , they would not have allowed those things to happen. Catholic author and theologian Dawn Eden , whose book My Peace I Give You has won wide acclaim for its treatment of abuse, agrees that women could have made a difference, but issues a word of caution:
Here in the United States, there are women in positions of power in city, state, and federal government, and they have not done enough to prevent the widespread abuse going on in schools, nor have they done enough to prevent human trafficking and other forms of sexual exploitation.
Having more women in positions of influence in the Church could have prevented some crimes and cover-ups, or at least allowed the faithful, and especially abuse victims, to speak with attentive women, in contrast to certain males who wouldnt listen.
One thing I know for certain, says Eden, is that many victims would rather speak to a woman than to a manand especially to a woman they believe has real authority, and is not just a social worker. Going forward, the Church should acknowledge that, and make the necessary reforms.
America magazine proposed additional suggestions:
Expand the number of women in professional roles in each dicastery. Increase the number of women who serve on advisory councils to each pontifical congregation and council, and expand the pool of candidates who are called to serve in such advisory roles. Restore women to diaconal ministry. Appoint women to the diplomatic corps and to the communications apostolate. Ensure in the selection of bishops that criteria include a candidates ability to relate well to women. Review the current Lectionary and reclaim the many Scriptural passages with women as protagonists that have been left out of the readings heard at Mass.
Apart from the call for female deacons, an issue that has been clarified by Archbishop Gerhard Muller , head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, one hopes these recommendations win wide approval throughout the Church.
While the role of Catholic women in defending the unborn, promoting peace and social justice, education, and business is crucial to emphasize, so too is a robust defense of the Churchs teaching on Holy Orders and Humanae Vitae . While many may find these teachings against the desires and needs of contemporary women, significantly, women in the Church defend the teachings themselves.
Sr. Sara Butler, one of the first Catholic women to be appointed by the pope to the International Theological Commission, once favored female ordination, but, after extensive study, changed her mind , and wrote one of the best books defending Catholic teaching on the priesthood.
And in Breaking Through: Catholic Women Speak for Themselves , Professor Helen Alvaré, a consultant to the Pontifical Council for the Laity, edited an outstanding collection of essays by Catholic womenlawyers, doctors, teachers, and religiousrevealing the prophetic beauty of Catholic orthodoxy, and showing how it actually fortifies the advancement of women in modern society.
Pope Francis, continuing his statements on the vocation of women, counseled against both their diminishment and a misguided feminism that deprives them of their true femininity and gifts. Women, he said, have a particular sensitivity to the things of God, especially in helping us understand the mercy, tenderness and love that God has for us.
Francis has encouraged us to view women in a renewed light and we too should welcome the voices of the Churchs dedicated daughters who work ceaselessly to build up the Body of Christ.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history, and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII . His previous On the Square articles can be found here .