During a July 28 press conference on his flight home from World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, Pope Francis was pressed to outline his future plans for expanding the role of women in the Church. Would he approve a "feminine diaconate" or perhaps the appointment of a woman to lead a Vatican office?
Reporters who hoped for a scoop heralding the Pope’s plans for cracking the Church’s "glass ceiling" were probably disappointed with his answer, which offered a broad framework for discussing the integral role of women in the Church while restating Rome’s "No" to women’s ordination.
"A Church without women is like the Apostolic College without Mary," he said. "The role of women in the Church is not only maternity, the mother of the family, but it’s stronger: It is, in fact, the icon of the Virgin, of Our Lady, the one who helps the Church grow!"
"Our Lady is more important than the apostles! She is more important. The Church is feminine: She is Church; she is spouse; she is Mother," the Holy Father said.
In a pointed reference to advocates of women’s ordination and their allies in the media, he shifted gears a bit, noting his belief that "we have not yet made a profound theology of women in the Church. She can only do this or that: Now she is an altar server, then she does the reading; she is president of Caritas. But there is more. A profound theology must be made of woman."
Then the Latin-American Pope offered a "historical example" from Paraguay to help clarify his meaning. He recalled Paraguay’s desolation, in the wake of the 1864-70 War of the Triple Alliance, where the death toll left most women without husbands — "eight women for every man." Yet, in the face of such shattered dreams, he recalled that some Paraguayan women then made a "rather difficult choice: the choice of having children to save the homeland, the culture, the faith and the language."
At first glance, the fortitude of those women, who chose to remarry and bear heroic witness by raising large families, may appear to have little to do with the challenges of 21st-century America. But, as we scan the cultural landscape before us and take a fresh look at the problems that now grip our land — from the jump in non-marital births to low high-school graduation rates — we will hear the Pope’s words echo in our minds and hearts.
He is telling women to view their engagement with the world in a broader and deeper way. On the one hand, they should not fixate on filling a specific role in the sanctuary or elsewhere. Rather, they must model themselves on the Virgin Mary, who "is more important than the apostles!" On the other hand, he has made the mothers of Paraguay an example, so he is surely not asking women to reject their domestic role.
In the wake of the feminist revolution, we witnessed a long struggle to secure basic equity for women in the workplace, but also an impatient dismissal of their role as culture formers.
Many gifted women, including women religious, began to question the hidden work of transmitting knowledge and faith to the young as less relevant than changing social and economic structures. Spiritual maternity receded, and political engagement filled the vacuum.
In late August, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious held its annual meeting in Orlando, Fla., where Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle joined the members for a closed-door session. Archbishop Sartain was appointed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which chastised the group for appearing to promote women’s ordination while doing little to educate its members on life issues.
The public dispute between the LCWR and the Vatican is well known and will not be addressed here. But what has received much less attention is the steady advance of many religious orders who have embraced the culture-forming work of teaching and are attracting vocations. In their vocation, these women see themselves as brides of Christ.
This month, for example, 28 young women will enter the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia, a fast-growing teaching order, whose members wear the habit and adhere to the magisterium. Ann Carey, a Register contributor and the author of Sisters in Crisis: Revisited, has reported on the increasingly popular "classic" religious orders, which embrace a "total, permanent commitment to Christ and his Church," share a common life and are often affiliated with the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, an alternative to the LCWR.
At present, many U.S. Catholics are perplexed by the tensions between the Vatican and some women religious. But when Pope Francis told the reporters that we are still awaiting a "profound theology of women in the Church," he is sending the faithful on a path for fruitful reflection, with the example of Mary before us.
During his homily for the Solemnity of the Assumption, Pope Francis presented Mary as an icon of the Church, who serves as an example for every Christian, but especially women.
"The passage from Revelation presents the vision of the struggle between the woman and the dragon. The figure of the woman, representing the Church, is, on the one hand, glorious and triumphant and yet, on the other, still in travail. And the Church is like that: If in heaven she is already associated in some way with the glory of her Lord, in history she continually lives through the trials and challenges which the conflict between God and the evil one, the perennial enemy, brings.
"Mary does not leave them [the faithful] alone: The Mother of Christ and of the Church is always with us."