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March 31, 2013Pope Francis arrives to lead an open-air Easter Mass in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. Pope Francis celebrated his first Easter Sunday Mass as pontiff in St. Peter’s Square, which was packed with pilgrims, tourists and Romans.Alessandra Tarantino / AP
After serving as Roman Catholic priest for 40 years, nine months ago I was expelled from the priesthood and my Maryknoll community because of my public support for the ordination of women. While being expelled from my religious community that I loved was incredibly painful, that pain doesn’t compare to the hurt endured by women and LGBT Catholics who have been marginalized by our church for centuries.
In a wide-ranging interview with press while returning to Rome following World Youth Day in Rio, Pope Francis covered a variety of topics that have real import to the life of the church, and the lives of individuals. In the two most-reported comments, the pope talked about the need not to marginalize gay people while maintaining the ban on same-sex relationships, and said that the issue of ordaining women to the priesthood is closed, stirring reactions to his comments among people across the globe. He added that the felt the church needed to examine the role of women, and perhaps open more ministries to them.
While many bishops are doing their best to say the pope was merely reiterating current church teaching and that his words should be seen in that light, the extraordinary global response to this press conference demonstrates that most people know there is much more going on. In a world increasingly marked by division—between rich and poor, among people of different faiths or sects, among races and ethnicities, between war-torn countries and those who supply weapons—the pope, as head of the earth’s largest Christian denomination, can be the symbol of the unity and justice yearned for by so many. He comes to the papacy from ministering in urban South America, rather than from an office in the Vatican bureaucracy. He has the potential to be a truly transformative figure.
It seems clear to me that the pope is still coming to terms with the power of his office, and how he wants to use it. He seems a bit conflicted between his pastoral sensibilities and the doctrinal tradition he has been handed. And he has yet to fully grasp the connections among the many kinds of alienation experienced within our church.
I wonder if Pope Francis has thought through the inconsistencies in his comments on women and gay people. Can you imagine if the take-away quote had been: “If a woman is of good will and called by the Lord to serve, who are we as men to judge and interfere with that call?” Or if the pope had acknowledged that we lack a truly deep theology of sexuality and relationships? Talk about letting in fresh air by speaking truth!
As a priest I learned that when there is an injustice, silence is complicity. I saw the exclusion of women from the priesthood as a grave injustice and, in good conscience, I could not remain silent. The punishment for raising the question of equality was severe I was thrown out of the community that I love.
Perhaps the biggest change demonstrated by the pope’s comments is the sense of liberation among Catholics to freely discuss the many issues facing the church. The fear that led so many to keep their doubts about current policy to themselves under the previous two popes seems to have been lifted. However, Pope Francis’s pastoral tone should not be mistaken for pastoral action. We need mechanisms and forums for the official church to hear the voices of the laity, especially women & LGBT Catholics. The people of the church are talking but we need the hierarchy to listen to groups like the Women’s Ordination Conference, DignityUSA, and the majority of Catholics who support a church based on justice. We cannot allow for the inconsistencies of justice in Pope Francis’s comments to stand without speaking out.
I am filled with hope because I know most Catholics have a personal experience that has convinced them that God’s love is not constrained by a person’s gender, sexual orientation, relationship status, or any other factor we humans may define. Nor is the call to ministry and the ability to serve God’s people. We need all Catholics– laity, priests and leadership –to engage in discerning what living this conviction would mean for our church. Only then we will experience the deeper theology called for by our pope, as well as an end to marginalization among too many of our church’s members.
Until true justice is achieved, we can continue to take action, speak out, and pray. On Monday, National Women’s Equality Day, Catholics can stand in solidarity with Catholic women and women of many faiths who are denied equal participation in their tradition by fasting and joining the interfaith event: Equal in Faith. Those in Washington, D.C. are encouraged to attend the prayer service at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church at 6:30 pm. I will fast in solidarity with those calling for inclusion and hope you join me.
Roy Bourgeois is a former Roman Catholic priest and author of “My Journey From Silence to Solidarity.”