Pope Francis is a Feminist? Not!
Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig in The New Republic thinks that feminists should not give up on Francis. Maybe not though he provides little to chime my feminist bells. My view is that any suggestion that Pope Francis is a feminist is like calling Raul Castro a Republican. It is simply absurd.
While one can affirm many good things about Francis’ views on the environment, the end of capitalism, and the need to transform global structures of power, all of which I agree with, his views on women and most ethical issues having particular impact on women are problematic with devastating consequences. Think about the ban on birth control and then try to use the word “feminist” in the same sentence. It does not compute. The educational needs of poor women and dependent children are simply too grand to pass over a key element of what opens doors for them, namely, safe, reliable, legal, and economical forms of family planning.
Time and again Francis reiterates what in Argentine Spanish is called “porquerias,” a folksy way of saying “rubbish” or “garbage.” His pious statements about women as mothers and wives are embarrassing. His notion that women theologians are like “strawberries on the cake” would make Sigmund Freud do a double take. When he isn’t joking about women, he is proclaiming the need for more women to be involved in church life without making any structural changes, e.g. ordination, to make that real. One statement in which he said having women in key positions would be a form of “functionalism” remains completely obscure. Whatever can he mean? What does having men in those jobs signal? I admit that I am confounded by it.
On his recent trip to Ecuador, Francis had lunch with a group of Jesuits. A picture of it is haunting. The pope and two dozen of his confreres were enjoying a happy occasion at a well-set table with a nice red wine, joking and toasting as the boys will do. Several women, hovering in the background and well out of their sight, served the table. One peers around the corner of the open door (to the kitchen no doubt). The men are focused entirely on one another; the women exist to serve them, if they exist at all. The photo captures a reality I have seen too often. It makes me ill.
Uncritical journalists give Francis a pass on women, as if he were someone’s old uncle who just crawled out from under a rock. Yet they praise his pastoral touch, his homilies, and his erudition on lofty matters of science and economics. What would it take to get him to sit down with a few women and hear how we see things? I could connect him with some powerful feminists in Argentina who could talk in his preferred language about experiences in settings he knows well. They would give him an earful and be ready to answer his questions with patience and kindness.
Did it ever occur to the gentlemen at the luncheon to turn the tables and serve the women the next day? Women are not decorations and servants. We are far more than the sum of our marital status and our commitments to children. Many of us are trained and able, capable of professional work with the best of men, no questions asked. And we are well aware of the plight of most women in the world who still can’t resist their husbands sexual advances, many of whom lose children to unclean water, live with HIV/AIDS, and want the best for their families. What is so complicated that he can’t understand about twenty-first century women?
It is amazing that someone who can call for massive lifestyle changes to deal with climate change cannot see the connection between women’s reproductive choices and population issues. It is stunning that someone who preaches equality at every turn has to think twice about ordaining women to the priestly ministry and thereby including them in the decision-making structures of their own church. It is beyond belief that a pope who understands global politics does not get the fundamentals of feminism that that shares many of the same goals he espouses but with full and dynamic participation of women on women’s own terms.
How does one explain a pope who comes from a male religious community with many, perhaps a majority of, gay members who is unable to see the beautiful reality of same-sex love and justice of marriage equality? What gives Francis the right to pronounce on women’s use of contraceptives and abortion as if he were going to care for the children that result from policies he supports?
Apologists for Francis reinforce and reinscribe male power by ignoring his limitations when it comes to women. My question is why so many people, especially in the media, are so enthusiastic about him despite this major lacuna in his thinking. Obviously his predecessors were even less attuned to how cultures have changed with regard to gender and sexuality. But it is only if one brackets the matters most specific to women that such enthusiasm can be sustained. I, for one, cannot bring myself to do so.
I cannot utter a full-throated praise of Francis much as I support his efforts to socialize resources and protect our fragile Earth. I respect him, which means I have high expectations and high hopes. Thus far, I have been deeply disappointed when it comes to half of the world. What surprises me is that many others do not respect him and expect as much of him as I do.
What does he have to do to erase the asterisk I put on virtually every sentence he speaks– *except for women? First, the problem is not really the pope but the papacy. The very structure of a hierarchy with one person in the highest spot is antithetical to feminist commitments to participation and power sharing. The logical step would be to jettison the papacy and every structure that flows from it in favor of a horizontal, concentric circles model of church.
Assuming that won’t happen, I would expect him—as a minimum condition for qualifying for a history-changing papacy—to strike down all distinctions between men and women in church teachings and policies. That would mean making women eligible for every office and ministry, involving women in making decisions at every level, and ending clericalism as we know it. He would also need to regularize the sacraments for everyone, i.e., ordination of all who feel called, are trained, and vetted; marriage for all who request the sacrament, including same-sex couples.
If there is any justification for a hierarchical structure with one person having Francis’ quantity of power, it must be used to open doors. Thus, Francis could show his colors by telling recalcitrant church officials to rehire those fired because of their sexuality, reappoint priests who have married, receive with a warm welcome those who are divorced and remarried, and especially make reparations for sexual abuse and its cover-up by clergy. That’s for starters and none of it is novel, just common sense driven by history and the good example of other Christian groups.
The argument will be that no one can change a two thousand year old institution in five years. To the contrary, I think that anything less is simply more of the same power wielding of his predecessors albeit with a kinder, gentler face. After all, we now send an email in a nanosecond rather than posting a letter to the Vatican in the diplomatic pouch. Now is the time to change while there are still people who are interested. Millenials’ interest in things Catholic is surely on the wane. Concern for market share if nothing else ought to play a role in making change.
It is all well and good for Francis to decry capitalism and call for environmental changes. But without a) involving women as full partners, b) making connections between patriarchal theological ideas and problems of inequality planet-wide, and c) leaving aside outmoded notions of women as virgins and mothers, this pope will be half as effective as he could be, and nothing even faintly resembling a feminist. I know a lot of women (and a few feminist men) around the world who would be delighted to help him change that.