Francis and a deeper theology of women

Feature February 2014 Susan Wilson Pope Francis’s call for the church to develop a deeper theology of women, has been met with hope from many women. In the October 2013…


February 2014

Susan Wilson

Pope Francis’s call for the church to develop a deeper theology of women, has been met with hope from many women. In the October 2013 Wel-Com Dr Elizabeth Julian RSM suggests this call is a sign that there are cracks in the stained-glass ceiling, (the stained-glass ceiling is a metaphor for limits on women’s participation in church leadership).

Elizabeth observed that baptism is the sacrament of ministry with the associated privileges and responsibilities.

Professor Anne Tuohy reminded us in the December 2013 Wel-Com that through baptism all are equal in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:27-8). This is foundational in our tradition. We are a new creation, the old ways have passed, all is made new in Jesus.

When I first read of Pope Francis’s call, I wondered what he might mean. Surely there has been a great deal of theological work by women and about women in the past 50 or so years. Elizabeth and Anne have contributed theologies that include women as subject in their writing over a number of years. So have many other theologians, women and men.

Furthermore, at least 50 percent of Catholics in the world are women; thus women are not a small or disengaged group in the church. On the contrary, if the presence of women at Mass is anything to go by, it could be argued that women are the majority in the church. So why has the Pope singled out women for a ‘special theology’?

Theologian Karen Kilby suggests, by calling for a more profound theology of women, Pope Francis ‘is acknowledging that all is not as it should be in either the church’s theory or its practice’ in relation to women. She writes, ‘(t)he Christian tradition’s understanding of women has not always been especially flattering. Women have routinely been presumed inferior, less rational, naturally subordinate.’

In his 2013 Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (EG), Pope Francis says, ‘we need to create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the church’ (103). Pope John Paul II, in his 1994 apostolic letter, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, said that ordination of women was not possible, nor is it to be discussed further. Thus the broader opportunities for women will not be in the area of ordination.

Pope Francis reiterates JPII’s statement and adds: (The reservation of priesthood to men) is not a question open to discussion, but it can prove especially divisive if sacramental power is too closely identified with power in general. It must be remembered that when we speak of sacramental power we are in the realm of function, not that of dignity or holiness.

The ministerial priesthood is one means employed by Jesus for the service of his people, yet our great dignity derives from baptism, which is accessible to all. The configuration of the priest to Christ the head – namely, as the principal source of grace – does not imply an exaltation which would set him above others. In the church, functions do not favour the superiority of some vis-à-vis the others (EG 104).

In light of what Pope Francis has said, it will be interesting to see what a more ‘incisive presence of women in the church’ will look like and what may happen ‘with regard to the possible role of women in decisionmaking in different areas of the church’s life’ (EG 104).

A starting point for this discussion is found in the above quotation where Pope Francis reiterates that centrality of baptism. Both Elizabeth and Anne wrote about this in their articles. Through baptism we are drawn into a new life of Christ. As St Paul said, ‘It is no longer I that live, but Christ that lives in me’ (Gal 2:20). Like me, you might imagine how your life would change if you lived this fully. This dignity of all the baptised suggests it is incomplete to focus only on the ordained as representing Christ, for example in the Catechism #1548:’The priest, by virtue of the sacrament of Holy Orders, acts in persona Christi Capitis’ (in the person of Christ the head).

The mission of Jesus is the mission of the whole church; it is not something we can leave to one group within the body of Christ. We have different roles and functions, but we are all part of the body of Christ Jesus, all called to be a light to the world, all commissioned to go and preach the good news.

Pope Francis says, ‘All the baptised,whatever their position in the church or their level of instruction in the faith, are agents of evangelisation, and it would be insufficient to envisage a plan of evangelisation to be carried out by professionals while the rest of the faithful would simply be passive recipients’(EG 120).

Further, the gospel of Matthew reminds us that Jesus is not only present in the baptised or in the church as the body of Christ. He is encountered in the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick and the imprisoned: ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’ (Matt 25:40).

It is in the face of the other, especially the troubling other, that we see the face of Jesus in our world. Again, like me, you may find this discomforting – we are called to act and to get our hands dirty.

How does this relate to the call for a deeper theology of women? Firstly, it reminds us that all the baptised are called to further Jesus’ mission in the world; secondly, that we look for the presence of Jesus in others, especially those who call us out of comfort into somewhere new. Jesus’ presence in the world cannot be restricted.

Finally, as a church we need to be better at respecting those with whom we disagree. Any new theological development
can cause hope for some, fear or anger in others. Because our faith is important to us, we can forget that the person with whom we may not agree is also baptised in Christ Jesus. It is not enough to speak the Good News, it is also important to act in ways that are consistent with the gospel. Thus being mindful of the dignity and value of those with whom we may not agree or may not like is essential.