Ecclesial disquiet on the role of women

How will Pope Francis address a most thorny issue?

The winds of change—and for potential change—are blowing off the Tiber with both unnerving regularity and with welcome freshness.  Many Catholics, and the clergy and the hierarchy in particular, never know quite what is happening, why, and with what level of papal priority. These are times of renewed hope, reinvigorated dreams, and profound flux.

Although still basking in the glow of an extended papal honeymoon, Pope Francis has generated so many expectations for reform and renewal in the Church that frustration in several quarters is both inevitable and deeply human.

No sooner, however, does he find himself criticised for inaction than we discover that he has leapt into action.

A United Nations committee subjects the Vatican’s sorry level of compliance with international child protection protocols to rigorous scrutiny and finds the Vatican wanting and then, as if in a calculated response to the controversy created by the UN report, Francis firms up his specially designated commission on child abuse and ensures that its composition is not cleric-heavy, exclusively male, and drawn only from the professional class under review.


As brilliant in its timing and unveiling as his adroit joint canonisations of two Supreme Pontiffs of markedly different style and legacy, in spite of the strained and ahistorical efforts of apologists like George Weigel to fit John XXIII and John Paul II into the same procrustean bed of papal continuity.  Francis remains the master of the irenic gesture.

A gesture, however, that should never be read as a simple diplomatic ploy. All his gestures, spontaneous remarks, off-the-script riffs, scrums and ferverini are never facile dribbles and diversions. They speak to the substance of the man:  priest, Jesuit and Bishop of Rome.

Structures are in place to carry out his pastoral plan, consultation has become the order of the day rather than a Potemkin village, delegation rather than centralisation is the preferred mode of operating, and freedom to speak with candor unafraid of censure and discipline, combine to define the new era percolating wildly at a place not known for its wildness, well at least since the declining days of the Borgias and the Medici.

As some American comedians like to quip, there is a large ‘matzo ball’ hanging out there that has to be addressed and so far has only received cursory though tantalising mention: the role of women in the Church. Admittedly, Francis has spoken about a new theology of women but rather than placate and assuage such commentary has actually mystified or incensed those concerned about the issue. And it is, in many fundamental ways, the issue, and not only in Europe and North America.

Theologians puzzle at the need to ‘evolve’ a theology specific to women when no such exists for men, and many worry that Francis’s espousal of an anthropology that is both traditional and indebted to the systematic philosophical reflections of Karol Wojtyla could easily foreclose any discussion that moves beyond accepted ecclesiastical discourse and categories of thinking.


That brings me to an annual event that can serve as a metaphor for our continuing ecclesial disquiet around the role of women. Like many dioceses in the United States and Canada, the annual Chrism Mass provides an opportunity for committed Catholics to declare in a non-confrontational and respectful manner their unhappiness with current clerical structures and its delimiting ministry. Fair game.

In the Diocese of Saint John, New Brunswick, the Cathedral Church of the Immaculate Conception is a stately, if not now wobbly, edifice that serves as the premier church in the city of Saint John and as the episcopal seat for the wider diocese.

When the members of the local Catholic Network for Women’s Equality (CNWE) chapter gather in silent vigil outside the church as the priests of the diocese process in for the Chrism Mass, it is both inspiring and disconcerting to see that while the older clergy welcome members of the chapter, embrace them, nod with a smile, or give them the thumbs up sign, the younger clergy studiously avoid even looking at the faithful gathering of women and men.

One of the younger priests patronisingly informed one of the older women that he disapproved of her presence.

This is the legacy of decades of entrenched resistance to enlightened conversation on ministry, the unwise strictures imposed on faithful dialogue, and the specious and desperate efforts to shore up a crumbling clerical culture. Many of the younger priests boast that they are John Paul II priests or Benedict XVI priests as if being a priest of Jesus Christ is a diminished ontological entity.

If they must use such muddled language, then at least let’s hope for Francis’ priests, men of pastoral sensitivity, redolent of the smell of the sheep, eager to embrace women as their equals.