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Colleen DulleDecember 07, 2023
Pope Francis meets with the members of his renewed Council of Cardinals at the Vatican April 24, 2023. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

In recent weeks, Pope Francis has drawn attention to the question of the role of women in the church, which has been a key topic in the global Synod on Synodality process, running from 2021 to 2024.

At a Nov. 30 meeting of the International Theological Commission, a group of theologian-advisors to the Vatican’s doctrinal office that has included women since 2004, Pope Francis spoke off the cuff, lamenting that only five of the 30-plus theologians on the commission were women.

“The church is woman,” the pope said, “and if we cannot understand what a woman is, what is the theology of women, we will never understand the church. One of the great sins we have witnessed is ‘masculinizing’ the church.”

He continued: “This is the job I ask of you, please: Demasculinize the church.”

This week, at the monthly meeting of the pope’s cabinet, the Council of Cardinal advisers, the pope invited three theologians—two women and one man—who have written on the role of women in the church to speak to the council about the subject.

The theologians were:

  • Linda Pocher, F.M.A., a lecturer in Christology and Mariology at the Pontifical Faculty of Educational Sciences in Rome;
  • Lucia Vantini, who teaches fundamental theology and philosophy at the Institute of Religious Sciences in Verona, philosophical and theological anthropology at the Studio San Zeno in Verona and the philosophy of dialogue at the San Bernardino Institute of Ecumenical Studies in Venice;
  • The Rev. Luca Castiglione, a lecturer in fundamental theology at the Milan Seminary.

Although the proceedings of the Council of Cardinals are confidential, a statement from the Holy See Press Office said that the cabinet “agreed on the need to listen…to the feminine aspect of the church, so that the processes of reflection and decision-making can benefit from the irreplaceable contribution of women.”

The synod’s month-long assembly in Rome this October was the first such meeting of the Synod of Bishops—previously an all-male body—that included women, both religious sisters and lay, as full, voting members. Whether this arrangement will continue is an open question: At the synod, one prelate stormed out of the room and said, according to participants who wished to remain anonymous due to the synod media regulations, “This is not a synod of bishops!” Others have stressed that bishops need to have their own assemblies in addition to assemblies that include lay people. The October 2023 meeting’s final document mentions the diverging opinions on the nature of the synod but does not resolve the question, though the same women who participated in this meeting will again be full, voting members at the final October 2024 synod assembly.

[Deep Dive: What just happened at the Synod on Synodality?]

The October meeting’s final document stressed that it was “urgent” for women to be included in decision-making processes and “assume roles of responsibility in pastoral care and ministry.” It also called for women to be allowed to be judges in all canonical processes and for further reflection on the female diaconate.

The synod made clear that the 11 months between the 2023 and 2024 assemblies should be used to deepen reflection on some of the key questions that emerged from the 2023 assembly. It also recommended creating a special commission to work between the sessions to explore possible changes to canon law that may be necessary to elevate women to positions of greater authority in the church, in particular regarding the separation of ecclesial authority from the sacrament of Holy Orders.

‘The church is woman’

The pope’s understanding of gender in the church is strongly shaped by 20th-century theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar’s idea of the “Marian and Petrine principles” of the church.

Responding to a question about women’s ordination from Kerry Weber, an executive editor at America, last year, the pope said:

The church is woman. The church is a spouse. We have not developed a theology of women that reflects this. The ministerial dimension, we can say, is that of the Petrine church…. But there is another principle that is still more important, about which we do not speak, that is the Marian principle, which is the principle of femininity (femineidad) in the church, of the woman in the church, where the church sees a mirror of herself because she is a woman and a spouse. A church with only the Petrine principle would be a church that one would think is reduced to its ministerial dimension, nothing else. But the church is more than a ministry. It is the whole people of God. The church is woman. The church is a spouse. Therefore, the dignity of women is mirrored in this way.

He added that in addition to these two “theological” principles of the church, “There is a third way: the administrative way…. And, in this aspect, I believe we have to give more space to women. Here in the Vatican, the places where we have [appointed] women are functioning better.”

The pope insisted to Ms. Weber, “Your place is that which is much more important and which we have yet to develop, the catechesis about women in the way of the Marian principle.”

Some women at the synod said they feel dignified by this theological framing of women’s role in the church. Inside the synod hall, one lay woman theologian spoke about the importance of recognizing women’s baptismal dignity without “clericalizing” them—a common argument against women’s ordination—and received resounding applause from the mostly bishop assembly, according to synod participants.

As the Catholic Church moves toward greater inclusion of women in administrative roles, it will also increasingly run up against the question of women’s ministerial roles.

But many Catholics disagree with this theological idea of “complementarity,” saying that viewing women primarily as wives and mothers ignores their many other contributions to society and the church. The sexual revolution and feminist movement have resulted in significant increases of women in the workforce—even if they make up a minority of executives—and college graduates, and offered women financial security outside of marriage. That progress has been much slower in the Catholic Church: Even as women are being appointed to higher and higher roles in both the Roman Curia and the Vatican City State, there are still no women in the top position (prefect) of any Curia dicastery, and only two, Sister Alessandra Smerilli and Sister Simona Brambilla, serve in the number-two role (secretary).

As the Catholic Church moves toward greater inclusion of women in administrative roles, it will also increasingly run up against the question of women’s ministerial roles: It has already been called to do so by the synod, which recommended further debate on the women’s diaconate at next year’s assembly and for the secret final reports of the two Vatican  commissions into studying the history and possibility of the women’s diaconate to be submitted to the 2024 synod for review. The time for studying the issue, the synod seems to be saying, has passed. Now is the time to move forward.

‘Demasculinizing’ the church

Pope Francis’ call to the theologians to “demasculinize” the church by developing a more robust theology of women and his characterization of the “masculinization of the church” as a sin has received criticism on social media from some who see the church—where women make up the vast majority of Mass attendees—as already struggling to connect with men.

Earlier this year, the Catholic opinion columnist Christine Emba wrote a widely  debated  essay in The Washington Post arguing that young men feel “lost” in today’s society because of a lack of positive models of masculinity. Right-wing figures like Jordan Peterson and Andrew Tate offer a message of being proudly masculine, but, Ms. Emba writes, they quickly “go off the rails,” devolving into misogyny or advocating for a return to a strict gender hierarchy.

Some of this thinking has filtered into the Catholic Church, particularly in the United States: Mr. Peterson, for example, has both appeared on Bishop Robert Barron’s podcast and hosted the bishop on his own. In one episode of the “Word of Fire” podcast, Bishop Barron notes that while Mr. Peterson does not fully grasp the “mystical dimension” of the Bible, he understands its moral sense as “telling us…difficult truths about ourselves, and then calling us to something really heroic.” And while people are “running away from the churches, they’re running toward people like him.”

It seems possible that just as the complementarian position is unsatisfying to many women, a general move toward “demasculinizing” the church—whatever that looks like—might be just as unsatisfying to men.

“[Mr.] Peterson is naming something very real and very true,” the bishop says, “and young people are responding to it, especially young men.”

A 2019 analysis from Religion News Service called the pair “fellow travelers”: “These new atavists [like Peterson] share with their Catholic brethren a disillusionment with what they see as not just the disenchantment, but the feminization, of contemporary, post-feminist, post-sexual-revolution America,” author Tara Isabella Burton wrote.

Christine Emba speaks on the popularity of these viewpoints: “What critics miss is that if there were nothing valid at the core of these constructs, they wouldn’t command this sort of popularity. People need codes for how to be human. And when those aren’t easily found, they’ll take whatever is offered, no matter what else is attached.”

Ms. Emba concludes:

In my ideal, the mainstream could embrace a model that acknowledges male particularity and difference but doesn’t denigrate women to do so. It’s a vision of gender that’s not androgynous but still equal, and relies on character, not just biology. And it acknowledges that certain themes—protector, provider, even procreator—still resonate with many men and should be worked with, not against.

It seems possible that just as the complementarian position is unsatisfying to many women, a general move toward “demasculinizing” the church—whatever that looks like—might be just as unsatisfying to men who feel that they lack positive models of masculinity, which at least some of them are inclined to search for in the church.

So, what is the path forward? The synod is correct in saying that the role of women in the church requires further reflection and concrete changes. It also requires Vatican theologians, as Francis recommends, to take on the question more seriously and further develop the magisterial theology of women. But theologians like Elizabeth Johnson, C.S.J., Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and M. Shawn Copeland have been working on this for decades outside the Vatican; in the spirit of synodality, it will be important for the Vatican and synod members to engage scholars who have a wide variety of viewpoints on the matter.

Likewise, it will be important for the church to continue to offer models of positive masculinity—in men’s retreats and parish groups, in the diaconate and priesthood—that are disentangled from misogyny or reversionist (in Pope Francis’ words, indietrismo) gender ideals but that recognize the equal dignity and responsibility of men and women in the church’s leadership and ministry.

Correction 12/8/2023, 8:30 a.m.: An earlier version of this article mistakenly stated that only one woman is a secretary of a Vatican Curia office. Two are. The article has been updated for accuracy.

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