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Radical Pope's gender flaws


Pope Francis on the cover of Time magazineLast year I experienced firsthand the hospitality of the Catholic Church in its incredible country of origin. During my holiday in Italy I stayed at two convents: one in the south, halfway up a mountain overlooking the coastal town of Sorrento; the other, right in the centre of Rome, a stone's throw from the Colosseum.

At both I was warmly welcomed, fed free breakfasts, and communicated with using whatever English the sweet, serene nuns could muster. Any problems I had were addressed with a true willingness to serve. The times I managed to communicate my gluten-free requirement (an interesting challenge in a country synonymous with pizza and pasta) they went to whatever lengths necessary to provide for me.

I mention this to demonstrate that although I am not a Catholic, I don't easily write off the positives of the Catholic Church. After all, a worldwide membership of over one billion undeniably represents a broad cross-section of good people.

And when Pope Francis was first elected a year ago, I was excited. Like a lot of people, I felt change in the air. Here was a Pope who seemed to have a real focus on alleviating poverty, and who cared more about speaking out in love rather than toeing the line in fear. A Pope who did not too easily alienate the LGBT community or people of other faiths, or use his platform to push contentious arguments about the use of condoms and AIDS.

My Christian friends became enamoured with the man, and my Facebook feed filled with Pope-pushing platitudes and odes of love to the new leader who some christened 'the change the Church needs'. I shared their enthusiasm — at least at first.

The shine started to wear off when the Pope opened up about his position on the role of women in the Church. In a well-publicised Q&A with journalists during a flight back to Rome after World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, Francis stated, 'With regards to the ordination of women, the Church has spoken and says no.'

It seems the malleability he calls for on select issues doesn't apply to fundamental beliefs on gender roles.

He is quick to give a tick of approval for the increased participation of women in the Church (just not as leaders), while keeping in mind 'the irreplaceable role of women in the family'.

But, he has asked, 'How is it possible to expand an effective presence in so many areas in the public sphere, in the world of work and in the places where the most important decisions are made, and at the same time maintain a special presence in, and preferred attention for, the family?'

Well, men have managed this for centuries. Or is the male presence in the family less important than that of women, their attention to their children less valuable? Beyond the ability to lactate, are men unqualified to love, care for and attend to their children? Why can't this be their 'preferred attention' and why must it be women's?

Perhaps I am most disappointed not with Francis himself but with the general lack of response to these views. The broad support Francis receives from progressives, despite his unwillingness to even consider female ordination, demonstrates how marginalised women's issues really are in our society. He may have changed the game in terms of the Church's engagement with the poor, but this does not diminish the significance of his oppressive and outdated views on gender roles.

Consider it from another angle. Imagine a global institution of a billion members, led by an old white man the world has extolled, which unequivocally banned all non-white people from leadership. Would we overlook the obvious racism and say, 'Well, just look at all the other great things he has said. He's really come a long way'?

I grew up in the Uniting Church where women can be ordained as ministers (not only deacons but ministers of the word); serve as moderator of a synod (state body) or president of the Assembly (national body). I have no doubt that the presence of women as ministers and leaders has enriched and strengthened the Uniting Church immensely. While I have no plans to become a minister, I place a high value on having that option.

The fact that 'progressives' seem willing to overlook Francis' position on women shows how far we have to go when it comes to taking women's rights seriously. He should be commended for the compassionate leadership he has shown when it comes to the Church's engagement with the poor and powerless — but it is high time he led by example and addressed the powerlessness of women within the structures of his own Church.

Megan Graham headshotMegan Graham is a Melbourne based writer, journalist and occasional blogger. She won the 2013 Margaret Dooley Award for her essay 'Slow down, you're just in time'.

Topic tags: Megan Graham, Pope Francis



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Existing comments

What a wonderful illustration of the progress we have made. Who'd have thought, only a few short decades ago, that a young woman might be wiser than the Pope and his venerable institution. Onward, Christian sororities.

Jean Vernau | 12 March 2014  

#Guess what Megan? Pope Francis is not a lightening rod of fickle sociological PC aggro, but Peter's successor as rock, not jelly-blubber, with a grave commission to guard and protect the doctrine of faith and morals.

Father John George | 12 March 2014  

Megan, you're not a Catholic. Fair enough. So, either you're right that women are able to be ordained, or the Catholic Church is right that they can't possibly be. Now in the event that the Catholic Church is right about women not being able to be ordained, isn't the Pope being helpful to everyone - not least of all women - in pointing this out?

HH | 12 March 2014  

Some possibly sexist, presumably partisan responses to an informative and helpful article - thanks to Megan Graham for her reflection and referencing of the inherent challenges that await the Catholic Church in a transformed world. As a non-Catholic who wishes the best for the Church as the reigning heavyweight, I am grateful to eureka street for the diversity of views and voices it fosters. I trust eureka street's desire for respect and genuine pursuit of truth; a beautiful alternative to bitterness, and fear of change.

Barry G | 13 March 2014  

Barry G was Jesus being chauvinist,misogynist,sexist at men only ordination Last Supper?[possibly out the back in kitchen during mens business, after warming up mens take-a-ways?[ Mark 14:15] Give us a beak!

Father John George | 13 March 2014  

Whatever his strengths and weaknesses, Francis is still an old man elected by a bunch of old men who were appointed by an old man who was elected by a bunch of old men who were appointed by an old man... So don't expect too many changes in the near future, Megan.

Ginger Meggs | 13 March 2014  

Sometimes it takes an outsider to point out the obvious – that the emperor has no clothes. Surely Pope Francis’ argument – that women must “maintain a special presence in, and preferred attention for, the family” – is negated by the fact that leaders within the Catholic Church come from religious orders requiring chastity, among other commitments, to the church. Such women would be unfettered by the demands of family, having devoted their lives to the service of others. We can only assume from this that it is the lack of a penis that disqualifies such women from becoming leaders. Or is there some other attribute women inherently lack?

Deb B | 13 March 2014  

HH says: "Now in the event that the Catholic Church is right about women not being able to be ordained..." So, half the world's population is excluded from ordination in the Catholic Church on that doctrine. Gulp.

Pam | 13 March 2014  

Excuse me for failing to see the point to the gender/ordination debate - but can someone point out to me the queue for women lining up wanting to be ordained as priests? I think the relevance of the priesthood should be addressed be considered and whether we'll have enough bums on seats in parishes to need them (at least in western countries where it seems to me we are just importing priests from TH Philippines, India and Africa to keep the show on the road till the old priests and parishioners are dead and gone and the last person the be cremated or buried turns out the lights and sells the church to some artists cooperative, community hall function or hipster real estate mogul).

AURELIUS | 13 March 2014  

An interesting article which seems to combine elements of your Uniting Church background, modern feminist thinking and gender studies in arguing for the ordination of women in the Catholic Church, Megan. None of this is from traditional Catholic sources: in fact it is quite alien. Historically there have been extremely powerful and influential women in the Catholic Church, such as St Catherine of Sienna, who never thought of themselves as disempowered or marginalised. This position is a very modern one. Obviously you have read the theological reasons as to why the Catholic Church does not ordain women. This is a position you obviously disagree with. I think the vast majority of the world's Catholics, particularly, but not solely, in the areas the Church is growing most rapidly, would disagree with you. Many men and women who have come to the Ordinariates would as well. To claim the women in these cases are repressed would be to project certain assumptions onto them. I think the Pope is right in maintaining his Church's doctrinal stance but with compassion. That may seem paradoxical to you but paradox lies at the heart of the Christian faith and practice.

Edward Fido | 13 March 2014  

Megan, A couple of points in response. I too am concerned about the issue of ordination. However, firstly, Pope Francis has not excluded women from leadership, in fact he has talked about ways of getting women in to leadership positions. To equate leadership with ordination is being slave to clericalism - one of the things he warns against. Yes, at the moment the leadership is clerical, but it doesn't have to be. Secondly, would women in the Church really want to be absorbed in to the clerical structures as they exist? I think if we reflect on this, the need for non clerical leadership to reform the current structures is a most important first step. No, Francis will not ordain women, he is a conservative theologically, but he will help us to change and free the Church for the future. This, for me, is more important in the short term. My prayer too is for ordination for women, but much must happen first, including a completely different idea of the role of clergy.

Vivienne | 13 March 2014  

Thank you, Megan. The emotional responses your article has elicited demonstrate that the role of women in the Catholic Church is still very much a hot-button issue and one that is unlikely to go away any time soon. It is not simply a theological issue. It is a social justice issue and a pastoral issue that the Church's leadership needs to address with understanding, compassion and mercy.

Donella Johnston | 13 March 2014  

Megan, thank you for sharing your insights. I agree that while Francis is in many ways the breath of fresh air most of us had been waiting for, his affirmation of Wotyla's fatwa against ordination of women has been most disappointing.

Peter Downie | 13 March 2014  

Pam, It's much, much more draconian than that! All male children are excluded. Plus, currently, all married men in the Western Church, all those who have attempted suicide, or who have participated in abortion/murder, those with no hands, with total gluten intolerance or with mental illness, those who are or who have been public heretics or schismatics..., plus (needless to say) all non-Catholics. The list goes on. And after all that, one who escapes disqualification on one or more of these grounds must still be approved for ordination by relevant canonical authorities. In the end, the vast bulk of the world's population is ineligible, for one reason or another, for the priesthood. It seems God is almost as discriminatory today as He was in choosing priests under the Old Covenant.

HH | 13 March 2014  

Edward Fido ":Obviously you have read the theological reasons as to why the Catholic Church does not ordain women"....... Would someone please list those "theological reasons"? The only ones that seem to come to mind is that Jesus chose as leaders,(Servants of the people?), only Middle-Eastern men, mainly fishermen. And this at a time when women in general were denied most basic rights, including education. Times have changed, as has the status of women. The first of the faithful, ( Acts2:44), "all lived together and owned everything in common; ..." Is this less of a tradition than selecting only Middle Eastern male 'leaders'?

Robert Liddy | 13 March 2014  

John George, Do you regard exclusive church doctrine as more important than the inclusive teachings of Jesus. Remember him?

Lorraine Parkinson | 13 March 2014  

Dear Megan I take that the issue of women ordination is going forward even for Catholic Church. Not so long ago, popes were not even willing to talk about it. Now, it is acknowledged (albeit in non formal way). Factual ordination of women is happening, and it is a fact even Catholic Church will have to come to terms with, sooner or later. Your article is making it happen. I am a man

Marek | 13 March 2014  

Megan, as a 'progressive' catholic myself, I do not disagree with you. Pope Francis does seem to have a blind spot on the issue of women and their place in the Church, particularly in the area of decision-making. However, he has already changed much that most probably cannot be undone and we are hoping for much more change under his leadership. No doubt, we will not get all the changes we want, but this is a good start!

Rob Brian | 13 March 2014  

Did The Woman Say Frances Croake Frank Did the woman say When she held him for the first time in the dark dank of a stable, After the pain and the bleeding and the crying, “This is my body, this is my blood?” Did the woman say, When she held him for the last time in the dark rain on a hilltop, After the pain and the bleeding and the dying, “This is my body, this is my blood? Well that she said it to him then, For dry old men, Brocaded robes belying barrenness, Ordain that she not say it for him now

Rosemary Grundy | 13 March 2014  

As a Catholic woman Megan, I believe many of us take the Catholic Church's male hierarchy with a pinch of salt. (I have high blood pressure so I'm pretty much sworn off them all on medical grounds). Unfortunately those in less fortunate circumstances may not have had the opportunity for inoculation, and therefor may have a lower immunity to the inherit abuse of power.

Val | 13 March 2014  

Thanks, Megan, for stating the obvious, which some Catholics still have difficulty in seeing. This is not just a matter of fairness. First, no modern secular organisation would ban women from key positions because intelligent people realise that decision making benefits from gender balance. Secondly, the Church's discrimination presents an excuse for treating women as second-class citizens and, as with all discrimination, ultimately provides excuses for violent men who expect their wives to be subservient. Thirdly, God made humankind, men and women, in God's image and likeness - would not God expect us to reflect his image, both male and female, in God's Church? Pope Francis is himself a victim of the clericalist male culture.

Peter Johnstone | 13 March 2014  

Robert Liddy: it is not difficult, by searching the net, to come up with the material you ask for. This simple Wikipedia article lists the theological objections and also mentions some who dissent. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catholic_Church_doctrine_on_the_ordination_of_women There are several other articles on the web.

Edward Fido | 13 March 2014  

I am amazed at some of the comments/put downs made on this blog by some presumably intelligent males. Do grow up boys and comment like adults.

John | 13 March 2014  

Thank you Megan for your article. It is good to have such robust discussion on an issue that is so very important.

Kim-Maree Goodwin | 13 March 2014  

Megan, some of your critics would do well to imitate Pope Francis' style of communication with his measured, warm, friendly, respectful approach and his willingness to dialogue. Fr John George, you might be interested to know that many Catholics, myself included, see the Last Supper as the gift of the Eucharist and not a men only ordination ceremony. Edward Fido, Megan Graham's approach may be a very modern one, but hey - we live in the 21st Century and a modern approach is legitimate and appropriate.

Ellen | 13 March 2014  

Just for one day, perhaps even one week the church should allow women to be priests and let's see how many people go to them for Confession.

james | 13 March 2014  

Give the man a break. Roman bigotry wasn't built in a day!

Martin Loney | 13 March 2014  

Well done, Megan, you have very adequately expressed the thoughts of the majority of Catholic women. In the time of Jesus, there was no careers to be carved out by men much less women - those were the times. Jesus picked 12, on the whole, unintelligent men to be apostles. Things would be different, today. The problem today, is that the male church lives in Ancient Times. Women's eyes are now wide open and at any time, they can down arms and then, only then, will be the male church have eyes wide open.

shirley McHugh | 13 March 2014  

The idea that men and women are exactly the same, apart from trivial anatomical details, and that 'gender roles' are arbitrary and cultural, is exceptional. It is not supported in most of the world nor has it been over nearly all of history. This is not to say it might not be true. But to advise a 2,000 year-old institution how to behave on the basis of such exceptionalism strikes me (a non-catholic) as arrogant. Is it really self-evident that the assumptions peculiar to Western, mostly Anglophone city-dwellers in the last 30 or so years are based on some special enlightenment? Is it not conceivable that the Church might have reasons for its doctrines other than malice, malevolence and misogyny?

J Vernau | 13 March 2014  

Perhaps, Ellen, in retrospect, you might like to consider your statement: "Edward Fido, Megan Graham's approach may be a very modern one, but hey - we live in the 21st Century and a modern approach is legitimate and appropriate." There are several "modern approaches", such as the legislation, either in place or pending in the Netherlands and Belgium on euthanasia, which are quite frightening. Not all that is modern is necessarily good, nor necessarily bad. For a clear theological explanation of Catholic Doctrine on the ordination of women see this article by Scott Richert is http://catholicism.about.com/od/beliefsteachings/f/Women_Priests.htm It is a theological piece which clearly answers all the questions Megan raised. There is a difference between a theological argument and "I want". I am dubious whether any of the pro OOW posters here have put forward any credible theological arguments for their position.

Edward Fido | 14 March 2014  

Wow, Edward Fido - if those are the best theological arguments you can come up with against the ordination of women, then thank you for illustrating for us just how unconvincing the 'theological' argument actually is.

Charles Boy | 14 March 2014  

Edward Fido, I would have thought that all would realise I was speaking of a modern approach to questions of women's roles in the church. But, historically speaking, perhaps it's also time to look again at women's roles in the early church.

Ellen | 14 March 2014  

I'm glad the piece has stimulated discussion & I appreciate the supportive comments. The "theological argument" that 'Jesus was male, all priests till now have been men, therefore ordination of women is impossible' is anti-intellectual and circular. Is it 'arrogant' for a woman to question the sexism of an institution simply because it's been around for many years? (possible working definition of feminism actually) I think it's arrogant to be mocked by men for voicing this opinion (I don't spend my time heating up take-away for groups of men Fr John George, but what a meaningful picture you paint); told by a man (Edward F) that past women in the RCC haven’t considered themselves disempowered (look at the response they might’ve got if they did think so and voiced it); to be advised to be thankful to Francis in case he is right (HH) – unless expecting a ruling to soon be handed from above, Catholics might need to discern for themselves; and to be asked, 'where are the queues of women wanting to be ordained?' (AURELIUS) – how strange that Catholic women can't afford to wait around to be told they’re unfit to enter the priesthood!

Megan Graham | 14 March 2014  

Well done Megan! Please be assured that many of us are appalled by the mocking of some men in their comments and reaction to your article.

Ellen | 14 March 2014  

Actually Ms Graham the relevant dogma[ordinatio sacerdotalis is not that Jesus was male but he explicitly, counter-culturally chose and ordained males. Ordinatio Sacerdotalis is an Apostolic Letter issued by Pope John Paul II on 22 May 1994, whereby the Pope expounds the teaching of the Catholic Church's position requiring "the reservation of priestly ordination to men alone." In its clear proclamation that "the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women"

Father John George | 14 March 2014  

Megan, as I wrote (and stand by): if the Church is right on the male-only priesthood, then Pope Francis is in fact helping people to be guided by this truth, regardless of what opponents to that position may aver. How does my statement imply: “Therefore those who disagree with Pope Francis about the male only priesthood should nevertheless thank him for helping women, because after all they could be wrong and he right on the matter”? Attack what I wrote, not straw men.

HH | 14 March 2014  

Thanks for taking the time to comment, Megan. It’s great to have real interactivity. I meant nothing personal in using the word ‘arrogant’, but merely that you seem to arrogate a choice that is, in my view, the Church’s to make. I too am unimpressed by specious theological arguments against the ordination of women. I think the doctrine is more likely to be of a political nature, as priestly chastity is, in being a protection against simony (I’m no expert on theology, though; I’m still confused about the Trinity). Still, a political reason is a reason nonetheless. In my opinion, if you would characterise the Pope’s view as “oppressive and outdated”, it is incumbent on you to explain why, even if it is self-evident to you. After all, if you do not invite me to your house, do you oppress me? Is there something supernatural about the number 2,014? I do not mean to be patronising (now there’s a gender-laden term!) but I admire your passion in this matter without agreeing with every detail of your argument.

J Vernau | 14 March 2014  

I think some of the comments here are spot on: "Megan, you're not a Catholic. Fair enough. So, either you're right that women are able to be ordained, or the Catholic Church is right that they can't possibly be. Now in the event that the Catholic Church is right about women not being able to be ordained, isn't the Pope being helpful to everyone - not least of all women - in pointing this out?" And: "#Guess what Megan? Pope Francis is not a lightening rod of fickle sociological PC aggro, but Peter's successor as rock, not jelly-blubber, with a grave commission to guard and protect the doctrine of faith and morals." I don't expect you to agree, if you're not Catholic, but if we're wrong, we'll just die out for lack of grace. To use the Gamaliel principle: "In the present case, I say to you, stay away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or action is of men, it will be overthrown; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them; or else you may even be found fighting against God." (Acts 5)

LM | 14 March 2014  

To Megan. A woman who wants to be a Catholic priest is putting her interests before Christ. Priests should always be conscious of the fact that in their ministry they must never put themselves or their personal opinions in the 'first place', but Jesus Christ. Any attempt to make themselves the centre of the liturgical action contradicts their very identity as priests. The priest is above all a servant of others, and he must continually work at being a sign pointing to Christ, a docile instrument in the Lord’s hands. This is seen in particularly in his humility in leading the liturgical assembly, in obedience to the Eucharistic rite, uniting himself to it in mind and heart, and avoiding anything that might give the impression of an inordinate emphasis on his own personality…get my drift?

Annoying Orange | 14 March 2014  

Christ's own practice and authority carry more weight than many supporters of women's ordination to the priesthood in this forum recognise or care to admit.. Moreover, there appears to be an assumption on the part of. Megan and her supporters that priesthood is primarily about political power.

John | 15 March 2014  

Christ's practice in relation to women was radically unorthodox in its native socio-cultural context, which makes the fact that he did not ordain women to the priesthood (as he did men, according to Catholic tradition, at the Last Supper) even more salient as a reason for regarding the ordination of women as an ecclesiological aberration.

John | 16 March 2014  

#Jesus ordination of male apostles was countercultural in an age when globally pagan priestesses were the norm [such known to jews in a rich cosmopolitan Galilee with international trade routes But more importantly Jesus counter-culturally jettisoned the ordination form of Jewish ordination: #The ancient formula for Semikhah[ordination] was ‘Yoreh Yoreh. Yaddin Yaddin’ (‘May he decide? He may decide! May he judge? He may judge!’); Semikhah (, "leaning [of the hands]"), also (, "ordination"), or (, "rabbinical ordination") is derived from a Hebrew word which means to "rely on" or "to be authorized". It generally refers to the ordination of a rabbi within Judaism Jesus settled for "Do this in memory of me" [If Jesus wanted priestesses he would have ordained such [countercultural or not] http://www.cartoonstock.com/lowres/religion-jesus-christian-christianity-apostles-vicars-ano0016l.jpg

Father John George | 16 March 2014  

One day, a Pope will finally break the ancient bonds and allow women in the Church the same rights as men. That man will deserve to be Person of the Year.

Stephen | 16 March 2014  

I must say I have been impressed by many of the comments on this thread. These are not necessarily all by people who agree with me: I would mention in particular Vivienne and Ellen. Their posts seemed replete with theological insight. I think anyone who wishes to understand the Catholic Church's position on OOW needs to understand the concept of Magisterium which defines its approach to teaching authority: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magisterium. To change the Papal approach to OOW you would have to convince the Pope (any Pope) that the previous decisions on the matter were not from a certain level of that Magisterium. I think the core to the difference between Megan and the Pope is their disagreement on the Catholic Church's claimed teaching authority. That would not appear to be an easily solvable one.

Edward Fido | 18 March 2014  

Is this your advice to Pope Francis: but it is high time he led by example and addressed the powerlessness of women within the structures of his own Church? Your error, Megan, is in your attitude. Do you wish to rise? Begin by descending. You plan a tower that will pierce the clouds? Lay first the foundation of humility. Saint Augustine

Annoying Orange | 19 March 2014  

Megan, he and the Vatican changed the terms of the game when democracy overtook military rule in Argentina in 1983 and under the watchful eye of JP11 either side of Heaven [if that's where he is], reached the pinnacle of ecclesiatical heights; no women priests if that what people want and no lessening of the vows of celibacy.

Lynne Newington | 29 March 2014  

Slow down Megan! The Catholic Church is a slow moving vehicle, always has been. Give Francis a little more time and I am sure you will see some small changes in your lifetime. however, sadly not in mine, having just reached eighty. It is a mighty task he has taken on.

Beverley Scott | 31 March 2014  

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