This commentary is adapted from a Berkley Center lecture delivered at Georgetown University on November 5, 2012.
The unexpected election of Pope Francis has brought a surprising sense of renewal and hope to the Catholic Church. His every gesture and word has found a positive reception among the faithful and the world at large. Most encouraging and welcome has been the change in tone from an inward and institutionally self-absorbed preoccupation to one of concern and service for every person, with a preferential option for the poor and needy, embracing all of humanity, believers and non-believers.
From the start Francis has found it natural to speak urbi et orbi, to the city and to the globe, in a direct and unassuming language that everyone can understand and appreciate. Equally important has been what was left unsaid. There has been no mention of any of the issues that had lately been at the center of magisterial and episcopal pronouncements and which served to define Catholic moral confessionalism to insiders and outsiders. There has been no mention of contraception, abortion, same-sex marriage and related gender issues, no critical mention of feminism, the ideology of gender, or the culture of death.
One should not expect any change in doctrine or teaching during this pontificate. But the change in tone and the relegation of issues of gender and sexual morality from the core to the periphery of church teaching and the foregrounding of the Sermon on the Mount is in itself relevant. A temporary moratorium for the time being on very divisive sexual and gender moral issues actually serves as a welcome respite.
But issues of gender will not go away, and the growing gap between church and secular morality on sex and gender will need to be addressed eventually, hopefully in a new spirit and with a new tone. While the principle that “all men and women are created equal” is becoming an ever more self-evident truth, the task of bridging the gap between the norm and the appalling reality of gender inequality is likely to remain one of the most important historical-political challenges for all societies and institutions, including religious ones.
The gender question is in many respects the fundamental moral question of our times in the same way as the social question was a key challenge to church and society alike from the middle of the 19th century. The Catholic Church has a commendable record of addressing the social question. But when it comes to the gender question, church leadership has not succeeded in addressing the new challenge theologically or institutionally.
A renewed church less self-absorbed in its own clericalism and embracing the poorest and the weakest must per force pay greater attention to women, who remain the poorest, the weakest, and the least respected in every society and every organization including “the people of God.” It is to be hoped that lay and religious women will gain greater access and participation in the priesthood, in the magisterium, and in the administrative authority of the church at every level. In the same way that Cardinal Bergoglio praised the exemplary dedication of married clergy within the Eastern Rite Catholic Church, pointing out that clerical celibacy is a matter of discipline not of faith, the church could discern more openly which aspects of the exclusion of women from positions of authority in the church are matters of faith versus discipline, and therefore open to change.
Of no lesser importance is the need to address the radical transformation in sexual and gender morality. Sociologically, in reaction to the Catholic Church’s official defense of a “traditionalist” position on gender issues and a singularly obsessive focus on “sexual” moral issues, one can observe throughout the Catholic world a dual process of female secularization and erosion of the church’s authority on sexual morality. Female secularization is probably the most obvious aspect of the drastic secularization of Western European societies since the 1960s. Female secularization, particularly among young women, has also become a serious trend within North American Catholicism and is becoming one within Latin American societies, particularly in Brazil, the largest Catholic society in the world. Unlike male Catholics who tend to leave the church to become secular and non-religious, female Catholics tend to leave the church to join other religious groups.
Equally crucial and of grave societal relevance is the secularization of sexual morality. Increasing numbers of practicing Catholics follow their own conscience on most issues related to sexual morality. And there is increasing evidence from public opinion polls in Europe, North America, and Latin America that young Catholic adults are dissociating their sexuality and their religiosity, claiming that religion has absolutely no influence upon their attitudes toward sexuality.
Perhaps in no area has the gap between societal and church morality been more publicly visible than in the clerical sexual abuse of children. The church has had great difficulties in understanding the extent to which sexual abuse of children is not just a grave moral sin but has become a sacrilegious moral and legal crime in supposedly sexually free-wheeling contemporary societies.
Notably, the single most important cause in the sudden and rapid decline of clerical sexual abuse was a change in secular societal morality that led to the criminalization of the sexual abuse of women and children. Going forward, it behooves the church to discern carefully the providential signs of the times in such secular moral developments. Feminism might not be the main problem facing the church. On the contrary, rather than banishing the very term “gender” to a syllabus of errors as ideological anathema, a proper response to the feminist challenge could in fact be a solution to many of the contemporary problems facing the church.
José Casanova is senior fellow at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and professor in the Department of Sociology. He heads the center’s program on globalization, religion, and the secular and is leading a new initiative on Jesuits and globalization.