In his Evangelii Gaudium, Francis wrote, “The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion, but it can prove especially divisive if sacramental power is too closely identified with power in general.” If you see the priesthood as just one element of power within the Church – and circumscribed to men alone merely by virtue of historical artifact (the Gospels) or a theological metaphor (Christ as the groom to the Church as bride) – then I suppose this makes some sense. But that is emphatically not what the priesthood as traditionally meant. It has meant absolute authority and power, unequaled in any parish, and only constrained by bishops and cardinals.
The Pope has spoken of women as the future of the Church. I couldn’t agree more. Their long, ignored, demeaned sacrifices and pastoral and educational and maternal role in the living church signifies how much more could be achieved if the female genius were released from the chains of misogyny and prejudice in the future. But without opening up the priesthood, Francis must surely propose some transformative administrative change to reflect that potential: female cardinals, for example? Perhaps an all-female curia to balance the worker-bees of the all-male priesthood? Or a re-imagined all-female diaconate? To balance out the all-male priesthood, we need, it seems to me, an all-female position of equal power. We need a Mary and a Mary Magdalen to balance Peter and John.
Erin Saiz Hanna makes a different point:
Where Francis misses the mark is suggesting that women are seeking ordination simply as means to gain power. While women’s decision making and leadership is certainly vital, the fact of the matter is women are called by God to serve alongside their brother priests. For a pope who seems so in tune with the marginalized, how does he not see that women are weeping and yearning for justice in the church? How can his sense of social justice not extend to the women of the church and their capacity for ordained ministry?
By including women as priests, the church would model Jesus’ radical example of equality and solidarity with women. It would also have a powerful and positive impact on a world stunned by economic crisis and continually reeling from sexism, racism, homophobia and other forms of oppression.
Douthat reads the Pope very differently:
The suggestion here, addressed to all readers but especially to a certain kind of dissenter, is that there may be space for reform — for a fuller “recognition” of women within the church, and a fuller share in ecclesiastical “decision-making” — within the limits imposed by a male priesthood.
Which suggests, in turn, that a plausible mission for liberal Catholicism in the age of Francis would be to identify such areas of reform, where the church could move in their direction without overturning settled doctrine, rewriting capital-T Tradition, or betraying the clear language of the gospels.
The role of women in church governance is one such place. The possibility of ending the rule of celibacy (or at least expanding the exceptions), highlighted today by my colleague Bill Keller, is another. The possible changes being bruited to the rules surrounding communion for remarried Catholics is a potential third example. And no doubt there are more.
For my own part — if liberal Catholics don’t mind a little advice from a conservative — I think the first area is by the far the most promising, since it offers a way for the church to say, in effect, “yes and no” to the cultural revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s: Yes to the dignity of women, yes to their further empowerment, but no to the idea that this dignity and empowerment depends on jettisoning Catholic (and biblical, and New Testament) ideals about sex and chastity, male-female difference, the indissolubility of marriage and the elevated place of celibacy in Christian life.
I’d be eager for a conciliation on the lines Ross lays out: a meaningful, transformative, reform within the tradition rather than from outside it.