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Colleen DulleApril 02, 2024
Salesian Sister Linda Pocher speaks to reporters at the Vatican Feb. 20, 2023, about the release of a two-volume book on the theology of the priesthood and the need to promote a better understanding of priesthood in a "synodal" church. (CNS photo/Justin McLellan)

The quarterly meetings of Pope Francis’ Council of Cardinal Advisors generally do not garner much attention, but since last year’s synod, they have made headlines thanks to a series of presentations being given to the cardinals about women in the church.

For the first time, the cardinals’ February meeting included a female Anglican bishop who spoke about the Anglican churches’ experience with incorporating women into the priesthood and diaconate. In their December meeting, the pope and cardinals heard presentations that challenged aspects of the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar’s concept of Marian and Petrine ministries in the church. Balthasar’s concept essentially claimed that only men are called to ordained ministry as St. Peter was, while women are representative of the church as “Bride of Christ”—meaning that they are important, as Mary was, but not ordained.

There will be two more presentations to the cardinal advisors before the October 2024 meeting of the synod. America spoke with Linda Pocher, F.M.A., the Italian nun organizing the presentation series, about how the series came to be and what effects she hopes it will have. Sister Pocher is a lecturer in Christology and Mariology at the Pontifical Faculty of Educational Sciences in Rome.

This interview was conducted via email correspondence and has been edited for clarity.

To start, please tell me about the series of meetings you’ve been asked to give the Council of Cardinal Advisors. Where did the idea come from and what is the goal of these presentations?

The idea came from Francesco [Pope Francis]. He asked me to deepen the topic of women and the church, which was one of the hotter topics of the synodal dialogue [in October 2023], between the first and the second phase of the synodal assembly. I think the goal is to have a theological look, but from the women’s perspective, at a topic that is very complex and sensitive.

The topic of women and the church is, as you mentioned, complex, sensitive and also, I would add, broad. What specific areas within this topic have you guided the cardinals to reflect on? Who have been the speakers so far and how did you choose them?

So far, I have organized two meetings with the pope and the C9 [Council of Cardinal Advisors]. The first meeting focused on Hans Urs von Balthasar’s thoughts on the Marian and Petrine principles and the magisterium’s use of this thought. For that meeting, I invited two theologians [who are] experts on the topic. 

[Editor’s note: The theologians were Lucia Vantini, a professor of 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; and the Rev. Luca Castiglione, a lecturer in fundamental theology at the Milan Seminary.]

For the second meeting, on the theme of women and ministries [in the church], I invited an Anglican bishop [Jo Bailey Wells, a married woman with two children] and a Catholic liturgist [Giuliva Di Berardino, a consecrated woman of the Diocese of Verona]. I tried to choose people from different backgrounds and with different life experiences who, at the same time, had something interesting to say about the proposed theme.

What subjects are you planning to cover in the remaining meetings? Can you reveal who will be presenting?

I’d prefer not to disclose anything about future meetings.

How have the cardinal advisors and Pope Francis responded to these presentations?

The pope and the cardinals have shown a great deal of interest and eagerness to listen to our reflections. They have freely expressed their points of view and their concerns.

How does the series relate to your theological training and research? Why did you want to do it?

I simply responded to a call from the pope. I believe I was chosen because I am familiar with the thoughts of Balthasar, and I specialize in reflecting on themes related to the life and experience of women in the church.

You recently published a book with two other scholars on Balthasar’s Marian and Petrine principles of ministry in the church; this is a principle Pope Francis has often invoked to explain why women cannot be ordained priests. Could you summarize your understanding of the Marian and Petrine principles? Does it differ from Francis’, and if so, how?

The book [Demasculinizing the Church? Critical Comparisons on the ‘Principles’ of Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Pauline Editions, 2024] gathers the lectures we offered to the pope and the C9 during our first meeting with them. Our intervention aimed to highlight the critical points of [Balthasar’s] thought and to question whether [the Marian and Petrine principles] are truly suitable to accompany the current situation of the church, which is very different from that of 50 years ago [when Balthasar was writing].

The pope, as he himself wrote in the preface of the volume, was surprised by our criticisms. In particular, Balthasar’s thought is criticized for an excessive idealization of women and too rigid a division of roles.

What effect do you hope these presentations will have on the Council of Cardinal Advisors and the Holy Father? For example, is the goal simply to offer new perspectives or to convince them of something in particular?

I hope that these meetings can help the cardinals to see things from perspectives different from those they are accustomed to. In this phase of the synodal process, I am convinced that opening up to thoughts and perspectives different from ours, without rushing to make decisions, is the fundamental step to take.

The presentations you are coordinating fall between the two meetings of the Synod on Synodality. What role do they play in the synod process?

After the first meeting we decided, in agreement with the pope, to make the texts of the lectures available to the public, and starting from the second volume, which will be released in June, also [include in the text] some reflections from the cardinals.

The synod requires that believers be trained and informed on discernment issues. I hope that these meetings can stimulate reflection and dialogue not only between the pope and the [cardinal advisors] but also within different ecclesial communities.

Correction 04/03/24 7:43 p.m.: An earlier version of this article mistakenly stated that Sister Pocher is Spanish. She is Italian. The article has been updated to reflect this change.

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