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Kerry WeberMarch 10, 2023
Pope Francis greets women ambassadors to the Holy See and women leaders of Catholic organizations after his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican March 8, 2023, which is International Women's Day. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

Last November, I had the opportunity to sit with Pope Francis in his home and ask him about women’s ordination. In a church that has historically tended to limit such conversations, this felt, to me, like progress—not for a particular cause, but rather toward a church that is increasingly open to questions. The synod process has highlighted this, as well as the heightened emotions and tensions that can result.

Francis’ style of leadership has taken some getting used to. He has made some bold moves in his papacy, but he started with many small ones that sent a big message: the carrying of a suitcase, the name Francis, the bus rides, the personal phone calls. It was easy to feel, early in his papacy, that whatever your politics or liturgical leanings, he was going to be “my” kind of pope. (In December 2013, just months into his papacy, Francis’ approval rating among American Catholics was 92 percent.)

But Pope Francis has his own way of doing things, and his own pace. He also seems to feel more free to speak off the cuff, whether on the papal plane or from the pulpit. There is beauty in this, but it can be messy, too.

Over the last 10 years many Catholics likely have had a moment in which they thought: Wait, maybe I got Francis wrong. Maybe he is a misogynist/liberal/conservative/marxist/capitalist after all. Perhaps especially on the topic of women, Francis has offered some mixed signals. The man who famously called women “strawberries on a cake,” derided “old maids” and “spinsters,” and made jokes about mothers-in-law has also said a woman’s right to maternity leave “must be protected,” decried female genital mutilation and said that “every time a woman comes to do a job at the Vatican it gets better.”

I recently participated in a panel discussion about Francis’ anniversary. During that discussion, Catherine Pepinster, the Catholic commentator and former editor of The Tablet, summed up the frustration many Catholic women I know have expressed. She praised Francis for his emphasis on ecology and attention to refugees, but on the matter of women in the church, she argued that adding women to the curia was not enough. “Do we just have to accept that he is an elderly Argentinian gent, who is not going to change his ways…or is it because he thinks that the church isn’t ready to develop further, and he would like it to but he just doesn’t think this is the moment? And if so, when is the moment?”

In response, a fellow panelist, Anna Rowlands, professor of Catholic social thought at Durham University, pointed out that Francis, like each of us, contain multitudes: “The truth is [the Catholic Church] remains a significantly patriarchal institution…and many of Pope Francis’ own comments sometimes on women are fairly essentializing, and some would find them patronizing. He is a man of his culture and age, but I don’t think we can overlook the fact that there is genuine material progress in terms of the inclusion of women in governance roles within the Vatican.” She also noted that he is the first pope to request that his encyclicals be produced in inclusive language.

“It’s imperfect, and it’s a tale of two cities,” Rowlands said. “But we need to pay attention to both sides of that.”

As Kate McElwee, executive director of the Women’s Ordination Conference, wrote recently in the National Catholic Reporter, “Francis has modeled leadership that listens. While not the fireworks of change that many pray for, nor the revolution that women need, it is movement.”

I hope that we continue to move toward a church community in which it is both less relevant that I am a woman—and more interesting because of it.

And in a church that counts time in centuries, movement, even slow movement, in a spirit-led direction is good. And as the synod progresses, it is crucial that we move closer to being a church that allows people to ask questions, and that we truly listen to one another’s answers. This will allow us to think more deeply about who we are as a church. To think more about who we are willing to acknowledge as part of the church. To think about being filled with less rage and more with persistent resolve.

When I spoke with Pope Francis, I began by saying, “Holy Father, as you know, women have contributed and can contribute much to the life of the church. You have appointed many women at the Vatican, which is great.” And at these statements, he gave a little cheer of sorts and smiled and raised his fist in a kind of solidarity.

His cheer was warranted and, I think, genuine. Under his direction, the percentage of women working at the Vatican has risen from 19.3 percent to 23.4 percent, according to Vatican News statistics.

And I am heartened by the persistence of these women in the face of resistance to these changes. Maria Lia Zervino, President of the World Union of Catholic Women’s Organizations, was appointed to the Vatican’s Dicastery of Bishops last year. She recently told The Washington Post that, despite the resistance she faces, “there is no possibility of going back” to the days before Francis opened these roles to women.

Of course most Catholic women will not work in the Vatican, and the questions around the full participation of women in the church extend far beyond what happens in Rome. Recognizing women’s pastoral needs is just as important as choosing who is in power.

When I asked Pope Francis what he would say to a woman who feels called to be a priest, his first response was that “it is a theological problem,” and he gave a lengthy answer about the Petrine and Marian principles in the church.

I did not expect the pope to express support for women’s ordination, but I was surprised that he didn’t appear to hear the heart of the question, which was aimed at the pastoral: What do we do in response to this pain?

I am grateful to have had the chance to be in conversation with the Holy Father. But I am also learning to worry less about how the pope sees me and focus more on how God sees me.

I know many joyful, faithful Catholic women who are happy to be a part of the faith. But the church, whether through its doctrine or its disciples, has also caused many of these same women a great deal of heartache. Francis’ synodal church is a step toward acknowledging this pain.

Dr. Rowlands pointed out that the synod process has resulted in many Catholics saying, “This is the first time in my life…where the church has genuinely wanted to hear about my experience and my views.” And she emphasized “that absolutely has included an emphasis on women’s experience and the failure to hear that.” She said it isn’t just a “looking-inwards question” regarding participation in the church, but it’s also “a question about the socioeconomic realities of the lives that women are leading across the globe. And the capacity of the church to be active witnesses and accompany women in those contexts.”

I believe that Francis wants to be an active witness to women’s experience in the church and the world, and I believe he wants Catholic women to feel supported by the institutional church.

“We have to tell the truth,” the pope said recently, “the fight for women’s rights is an ongoing fight because in some places women have equality with men but in other places they do not.”

He was referring here to political and social equality within nations, but the statement works just as well for the church itself.

In the preface for a book titled More Women's Leadership for a Better World, Francis wrote, “I like to think that if women could enjoy full equality of opportunity, they could contribute substantially to the necessary change towards a world of peace, inclusion, solidarity and integral sustainability."

I like to think so, too.

We have a ways to go before our church reaches this kind of equality. But I refuse to allow my faith to stall until the Holy Father catches up to the Holy Spirit. I want a church that will offer a more equal place for women in leadership at all levels of the church, but I also know that every Catholic holds a responsibility to help make that happen.

There are few who hold more power over the future of the church than the mothers, the catechists, the teachers conveying the faith to children, through word and example.

Women already hold countless roles in parishes and dioceses across the country, and the value of that work should not be overlooked in the name of focusing on “real” power at the Vatican. There are few who hold more power over the future of the church than the mothers, the catechists, the teachers conveying the faith to children, through word and example.

The institutional church is never going to move at the pace I want it to on some issues. But part of the beauty of our church is that it is not about what I want.

Ours is a church that seeks the common good, that calls people to communion. There are a million ways to live out the Gospel call—to justice, to love, to mercy—and the pope is meant to remind us of that call, over and over again. We are all asked to live the faith as authentically as possible, to look for examples of other people doing the same, and to encourage them along the way. Hopefully the synod process can help with this. I believe Pope Francis himself is a good example.

I did not expect the pope to express support for women’s ordination, but I was surprised that he didn’t appear to hear the heart of the question, which was aimed at the pastoral: What do we do in response to this pain?

But the pope—his existence, his personality, his priorities—whether it is Pope Francis or whoever comes after him, is never going to make everyone happy. Through the grace of God, he encourages us to be holy. But my understanding of my dignity, as a Catholic or as a woman, cannot hinge on his statements or affirmation.

I am grateful to have had the chance to be in conversation with the Holy Father. But I am also learning to worry less about how the pope sees me and focus more on how God sees me. In doing so, I hope to help build a church in which the fact that I am a woman is not an obstacle to ministry and in which the fact that I am a woman is respected and seen. I want to be a part of a church that does not assign me qualities based on my gender, but that acknowledges the gifts I bring because of who I am. I hope that we continue to move toward a church community in which it is both less relevant that I am a woman—and more interesting because of it. That, too, would feel like progress.

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