While everyone was freaking out yesterday about the pope’s actually un-novel and uninteresting re-assertion of longstanding church teaching that homosexuals should not be marginalized, they missed what he said about women, which was in fact, totally fresh.
Specifically, he said:
A lot of Catholic women yesterday read these words, looked out the window, and mouthed the words, THANK YOU.
Don’t get me wrong the media wouldn’t let you believe it–but the church is teeming with women who love their faith, love their church, love priests like brothers, love their bishops, and especially love the pope. We don’t sit around and wring our hands about “female ordination” or wish we could use birth control or wonder why the church tells us not to sleep around.
That being said, this is a difficult and confusing time to be a woman living against the cultural grain. Many of us feel authentically torn between professional goals and vocational aspirations to be loving and present wives and mothers reigning over stable and happy homes. And many of us want to play a role in the church but just aren’t quite sure how. We can find a smattering of contradicting perspectives on these topics, but when we look to the church herself, we can feel a bit lost.
Pope Francis is absolutely right that a list of what we can and cannot do is insufficient. It is also un-Catholic. Our faith is not a list of yeses and nos but a catalogue of answers to the whys and what fors. And Catholic women would benefit greatly from a refreshed and expanded exploration of a woman’s role in the faith, in society, and in the family that begins with woman herself.
Pope John Paul II gave the church a beautiful start by pioneering the New Feminism and by authoring the Catholic feminist’s manifesto in Mulieris Dignitatem. His pastoral “Letter to Women” was also a brilliant treatise on the complexity of women and helped to put to rest the notion that a woman’s only place was in the home. It reminded the Catholic community that sometimes women belong in the grittier corners of the world or in the halls of government. It also rebuked the world for undermining the essential role of motherhood and for turning woman against her own children.
But much of this foundational work of Pope John Paul II sought primarily to redeem women from a culture that actively undermined female dignity. It was and is an essential enterprise in a world whose vision of woman is one where she is most empowered when severed from her fertility and her femininity.
But once she is redeemed, then what?
Women (and men) would benefit greatly from exactly what Pope Francis describes, a theology of woman. This is not to say there aren’t profound works of theology out there already that address woman, the feminine nature of the church, Mary, etcetera. But all the questions about, ‘How long should I wait to have the next kid?’ or ‘How many hours are too many hours at work?’ or ‘What roles of authority are okay in the church and what are not?’ are shots in the dark without a more profound and synthesized philosophy of woman that takes modernity into account and comes from the highest level of church authority.
The footage of Pope Francis clutching a statue of the Madonna with an almost childlike look on his face, his lower lids swelling with tears, at the Marian shrine to Our Lady of Aparecida last week should give Catholic women everywhere great confidence that Pope Francis will lead the church forward on this front with the ultimate woman of all times as his guide.