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Florence Deacon wants a new pope “with experience of living with a lot of ordinary folks. Someone who understands the difficulty of having to live the gospel and at the same time get a little boy to eat his breakfast before he goes off to school.”
Margaret Farley wants to see a church leadership “marked by the grace of listening and respect — and mutually so.”
Deacon and Farley are not just Catholic women, they’re nuns. And both have run afoul of the administration of Pope Benedict XVI. Sister Florence is president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which continues to be investigated for what the Vatican has called doctrinal inconsistencies, including “radical feminism.” Sister Margaret is an emerita professor at Yale. Her 2010 book, “Just Love,” was censured by the church’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for being “in direct contradiction with Catholic teaching on sexual morality.”
No wonder these women, who have given their lives to God, hope for a pontiff who might signal a new era of diversity, listening and respect, and an understanding of — if not experience with — the way real people live real lives.
The Second Vatican Council ended with a resounding call for the inclusion of women into church life.
“The hour is coming,” read the council’s closing documents, “in which women acquire in the world an influence, an effect and a power never hitherto achieved. That is why, at this moment . . . women imbued with a spirit of the Gospel can do so much to aid humanity in not falling.”
But that prescient rhetoric has turned up empty. The status of nuns within the Catholic organization, at least in the West, has dropped precipitously — and so, accordingly, have their numbers.
Sister Florence says that although her organization represents 50,000 American sisters, the LCWR has no regular audience with the pope. She has never met any pope. No one in the American church leadership has ever asked her opinion on a matter of national, political or ecclesiastical significance, such as the contraception mandate in President Obama’s health plan or the use of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS.
Regular meetings with church leaders would “allow you to see each other as real people, and if you have a question or a concern, you talk it over. You don’t let things get blown out of proportion and let situations fester. It would be nice to have periodic access,” she says. Instead, the LCWR is in the position of having to defend itself to the pope’s men against allegations made by the pope’s men.
In the meantime, the church hierarchy has closed ranks, appearing to the public more than ever like a group of old guys in dress-up, deaf to the real concerns of their members. Allegations of sexual abuse and coverups continue to ripple through the church at high levels, while an insistence on the immorality of birth control seems to define the U.S. bishops’ public position on the entire universe of male-female relations. It is no wonder that the young leave the Roman Catholic Church in larger numbers than members of most other Christian denominations.
Most mainline Christian denominations made their peace with women in leadership roles in the past century, but the Catholic Church has not. Not only can women not be ordained as priests, they are represented in very few real leadership roles at all. In the dicasteries — the committees that together form the Vatican — very few of the highest-ranking administrators are women. About a quarter of U.S. dioceses have put women in the position of chancellor, a job that can be either very powerful or very bureaucratic, depending on the bishop in charge.
“For the church to thrive, we must take seriously the role of women and create opportunities to elevate women to positions of meaningful leadership in the church, even in the Roman Curia,” says Kerry Robinson, executive director of the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management. “Pope Benedict XVI’s successor would do well to recognize that the church is impoverished when we do not avail ourselves of the full gifts and talents of women.”
To that end, Sister Florence has done some research, and she contends that there’s no reason women can’t become cardinals. In recent memory, cardinals have been priests first, but “in the past,” she says, “people could have been made cardinals and then ordained. I haven’t heard anyone seriously pushing this, but the cardinals are seen as advisers to the pope.”
Sister Florence speaks like a person who enjoys being a bit of a provocateur. “It’s an idea to play around with, and it puts a twinkle in my eye.”