Skip to main content

What the pope left out about women

By Alice L. Laffey, Special to CNN
July 31, 2013 -- Updated 1556 GMT (2356 HKT)
Pope Francis makes some <a href='http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2013/07/29/pope-francis-on-gays-who-am-i-to-judge/'>unexpected comments on issues facing the Roman Catholic Church</a> on Monday, July 29. He spoke on the record to journalists on a flight back back to Italy from Brazil after finishing his first international trip as pontiff. Among the topics he addressed were homosexuality, the church's alleged "gay lobby," the role of women, abortion, divorce and the Vatican Bank. Pope Francis makes some unexpected comments on issues facing the Roman Catholic Church on Monday, July 29. He spoke on the record to journalists on a flight back back to Italy from Brazil after finishing his first international trip as pontiff. Among the topics he addressed were homosexuality, the church's alleged "gay lobby," the role of women, abortion, divorce and the Vatican Bank.
HIDE CAPTION
Pope Francis on hot-button issues
Pope Francis on hot-button issues
Pope Francis on hot-button issues
Pope Francis on hot-button issues
Pope Francis on hot-button issues
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Alice L. Laffey: Pope Francis says Catholic Church needs "deep theology of women"
  • But she says many will accuse church of discrimination as long as it denies women priesthood
  • She says jury still out: By some theological readings, women not precluded from priesthood
  • Laffey: His warm stance toward women in church bodes well for taking on issues of poverty

Editor's note: Alice L. Laffey is an associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the College of the Holy Cross. She was a member of the Women's Ordination Conference after Vatican II and published "An Introduction to the Old Testament : A Feminist Perspective" (Fortress, 1988) and several articles on power for the College Theology Society's annual volume. She is working on contributions to Carol Dempsey's forthcoming volume on Isaiah for the Wisdom Commentary Series (Liturgical Press).

(CNN) -- When Pope Francis gave his now-famous, 80-minute interview on the plane back to Rome from Brazil, he was asked, not surprisingly, about the role of women in the Roman Catholic Church. He said that John Paul II had "closed the door" to the possibility of women priests, but he affirmed that the church lacked "a deep theology of women." His comments conveyed a deep respect for women.

Whatever Francis' own virtues, however, the church will continue to be accused of sexual discrimination, especially by many Americans and Europeans, as long as it denies the priesthood to women.

Alice L. Laffey
Alice L. Laffey

No matter what efforts Pope Francis makes with respect to women, if he refuses to move the ordination question forward, many, including Catholics, will consider his efforts toward women as insufficient or even hypocritical.

That John Paul II "closed the door" to women's ordination is undoubtedly true, but the door may not be closed for all time. After John Paul II's pronouncement against the ordination of women, the Catholic Theological Society of America, the country's leading professional society of Roman Catholic theologians, at its June 1997 meeting, endorsed a resolution indicating that there are "serious doubts regarding the nature of the authority of the teaching" that the church lacks the authority to ordain women to the priesthood and that the all-male priesthood is a truth that has been infallibly taught and that the faithful must accept.

What we learned about Pope Francis in Brazil

The resolution continued that "there is serious, widespread disagreement on this question not only among theologians, but also within the larger community of the Church," and recommended it be given further "study, discussion and prayer."

But the ordination of women is not the most pressing question for most Catholics or even for most Catholic women. Women also experience discrimination and exclusion in the secular sphere in the United States and Europe, but their exclusion and discrimination in the developing world are far greater.

Quinn: Pope's comments 'positive'
Pope says he won't judge gay priests
Change in papacy's tone 'revolutionary'

Throughout the world, women and their children make up the greatest percentage of human beings living in destitution. Their main concern is not women priests but food, health, education and physical safety. Francis' genuine concern for the real lives of the poor and suffering warmly embraces women.

Pope Francis is charting new territory. I don't know how Pope Gregory the Great acted out his self-understanding of the pope as the "servant of the servants of God" -- the humble designation he first used -- in the sixth century, but clearly Francis sees himself as a leader who is committed to serving.

Many commentators have pointed out his letting go of the material trappings of hierarchy and exclusion, from Prada shoes to papal apartments, and they have commented favorably on his compassion for the poor, his desire to lead all the faithful to a discipleship of service. Francis clearly sees himself as a disciple, and wishes to set an example like that of his namesake, from Assisi, who said, "Preach the Gospel, using words when necessary."

Opinion: What do pope's remarks on gays mean?

Will Pope Francis advance the conversation regarding the ordination of women? I suspect he will not. But I think his behavior toward all, from the most powerful to the least, but acting very explicitly without judgment and with love and compassion on behalf of the least -- most of whom are women -- will "open the door" to future conversation.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Alice L. Laffey.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
ADVERTISEMENT