Credit: Creative Commons

Over at the National Catholic Reporter, Sister Maureen Fielder has an intriguing critique of Pope Francis’s public discussion on women. In sum, on the subjects of women and gender, Pope Francis’s comments make Sister Maureen want to cry. I sympathize.

In his already widely-discussed document “Evangelli Guadium,”which translates as “Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis has once again slammed the door shut on the ordination of women, as if the first time around last July was not enough. In the new document the pope writes, “The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion.”

Yet for those of us who support women’s ordination, what is arguably even more disturbing than the pope’s continuation of the exclusion of women from the priesthood is the language he employs to justify his position. As Sister Maureen writes,

He talks about women’s “sensitivity, intuition and other distinctive skill sets which they, more than men, tend to possess.” He mentions “the special concern which women show to others, which finds a particular, even if not exclusive, expression in motherhood.” In another sentence, he talks about the “feminine genius.”

I am firmly of the belief that when average men, “regular fellas,” use this kind of over-the-top flattery to describe women it’s usually because they have an ulterior motive. Since Tikkun Daily is a family-oriented blog, I won’t get more specific about that male ulterior motive, other than to say that its precise location can be found below the belly button, but above the thighs.

But Pope Francis is not a “regular fella” – he’s the pope. So why is this pope, who otherwise wrote a thoughtful document on the spiritual dimensions of economic inequality, employing such patronizing language about half of the human population? As a 76-year-old pope, his motives are clearly different from “regular fellas” on the hunt for – to borrow a term from singer Ciara – “goodies.” But the pope clearly wants something from Catholic women nonetheless: their ecclesiastical submission.

While the flattery strategy may not work for Sister Maureen Fiedler and those of us who would like to see women ordained to the priesthood, it’s bound to mollify some Catholic liberals, keeping them from a more concerted Catholic agitation for women’s ordination. That’s good for the pope, bad for Catholics who want change. Insofar as Pope Francis has now cemented himself as an influential global cultural figure beyond just the Catholic Church, it’s also bad for the global discourse of gender and sexuality, which do go hand in hand, much as some would like to separate the two.

As Sister Maureen wrote of the pope’s statements on women, “in almost every phrase, he seems to think of women as a different species of human.” For a pope who, in the same document, reaffirmed the Catholic Church’s teaching on abortion – that human life begins at conception and that the taking of unborn human life is evil – the fact that he indeed treats women as a “different species of human” is problematic, certainly from a feminist standpoint, but also from a standpoint of male gender construction and sexuality.

(Pope Francis and Argentine President Kirchner/ Credit: Creative Commons)

In other words, the pope clearly would like Catholic men – and really all men – to incorporate into their own male gender construction a view toward women that holds them up as a morally higher species with a “distinctive skill set”, and more “sensitive and intuitive” than men, even though he thinks they should be forever barred from the priesthood, and even though he acknowledges the willingness of many women to electively abort. And that begs the question: What the heck is an impressionable Catholic man – one who embraces the church’s teaching on abortion – to think about women, and particularly in relation to his own sexual desires for women? Well, according to the pope himself, women are of a higher moral order than men, incapable of the kind of violence, selfishness and ruthlessness of men. In other words, she’s the high-minded moral Ying to his lustful Yang. But life, and human beings, are more complicated than that.

While one can see with the naked eye that most cultures of this world do indeed give greater social license to men to engage in certain forms of brutality, there is nothing I can discern in the Gospels that would in any way, shape or form suggest that the female human heart is somehow less sinful than the male human heart. Men and women may have different gender perspectives to bring to table, obviously, but we’re entering dangerous territory to assert or imply that one gender is morally superior to the other, either way.

Indeed, as concerns gender, Jesus is an equal opportunity critic of the human heart’s capacity for sin, just as he is an equal opportunity praiser of the human heart’s capacity for affection, the latter of course being the state of heart which all of us, men and women, should hold dear for ourselves and others.

The question must be put plainly on the table: Is it right of Pope Francis to tinker with that revelation of the human heart, male and female, and to do so all as part of a strategy to fend off criticism from Catholics who support women’s ordination?

More fundamentally, what might be the real world consequences of Pope Francis doing so, particularly on the matter of abortion and the role of the governments regulating abortion in all corners of the globe?

At the end of Pope Francis’s papacy, will Catholic women, as well as non-Catholic women who heed his teachings, have a deeper sense of their full equality with men, which includes the equality of human sinfulness?

Or will they have a completely distorted, twisted, and altogether deluded view of their own personhood: namely, that of being far more advanced in the human morality and human sensitivity spheres than men, but simultaneously still in utterly desperate need of the state to be the ultimate controller of their own wombs, because they simply aren’t capable of governing their wombs responsibly on their own?

If it’s the latter, it does not bode well for the future of motherhood. Indeed, such a future might be described as a kind of stratification of motherhood itself: women becoming mothers because of state coercion, not because motherhood was in their hearts.

Sister Maureen is right to cry at this clear, if cleverly delivered, gender setback in the Catholic Church. Superimposed gender constructions have a tendency to crush what is best about being human, namely our capacity to love, and that crushing is worthy of more than one box of Kleenex.

Related Post: Burying the Aborted Dead: Can Pope Francis and Spiritual Progressives Find Common Ground?


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