On his recent flight from Sweden to Rome, Pope Francis told reporters, “Concerning the ordination of women in the Catholic Church, St. Pope John Paul II had the last clear word on this and it stands, this stands.” He added that it is not likely to ever change. The clarity of the statement surprised some in part because Pope Francis has been so supportive of the ministry of women in the church. He said, in fact, that “women can do many other things better than men.”
Are there fundamental differences in men and women that require such different roles in ministry? Making a gender role distinction by restricting women from overseeing word and sacrament, limits women, but also may limit men in the congregation. In a recent interview with Salt and Light, for example, Stephen Colbert shared a story about witnessing a female priest oversee Eucharist:
When I heard a woman say ‘This is my body,’ the freshness of hearing a woman say that gave the message a universality that it always should have — and I’m not saying it doesn’t coming out of a male priest — but it opened my ears to the possibility that it is also my body. That in my participation in the Eucharist, I participate in the gift that Christ gives me …
Saying women are better than men at many things also limits men. When he says women are better than men at some things, is it really because men are less capable of these things or is it because of society’s role restrictions? Take Glennon Doyle Melton passage from her latest book, Love Warrior, as an example:
God created woman as a Warrior. I think about the tragedies the women in my life have faced. How every time a child gets sick or a man leaves or a parent dies or a community crumbles, the women are the ones who carry on, who do what must be done for their people in the midst of their own pain. While those around them fall away, the women hold the sick and nurse the weak, put food on the table, carry their families’ sadness and anger and love and hope. They keep showing up for their lives and their people with the odds stacked against them and the weight of the world on their shoulders. They never stop singing songs of truth, love and redemption in the face of hopelessness. They are inexhaustible, ferocious, relentless cocreators with God, and they make beautiful worlds out of nothing.
It is a beautiful passage that made me nod my head and smile. It’s true. Women are amazing at this kind of love. I see it all around me. I think she is getting at what the Pope means when he talks about the essential ministry of women in the church. I have to wonder, however, aren’t these actions human actions, not feminine ones? Society calls on and expects women to hold families together, but that is not to say that men can’t.
Pope Francis’ statement about female ordination seems to carry some finality. Yet, in our love of God and neighbor, in our love of Christ and the Church, and in light of our recent presidential election, I believe it is essential now more than ever to continue to ask critical questions about how gender roles in our church and our world limit us all so that all of God’s children can flourish.