Pope Francis greets a group of women religious as he arrives for his general audience in Paul VI hall at the Vatican. CNS photo/Yara Nardi, Reuters

Editorial: The women’s decade

  • January 9, 2020

It seemed fitting that Pope Francis began the new year by pointing a spotlight at women, given that integrating women into the everyday running of the Church will be a major theme of the new decade.

Celebrating Mass on Jan. 1, the Pope urged the world to “take to heart the dignity of every woman” in order to build a better, peaceful world. He said women were givers and mediators of peace who “must be fully involved in decision-making processes.”

“A victory for women is a victory for all of humanity,” he said.

His primary message was that women too often face violence, coercion, degradation and exploitation, and it is folly to presume a global “house of peace” can be built without a foundation of equality and dignity for women. He didn’t specifically address elevating the status of women in the Church — a topic he has broached often — but his comments were apropos to the Church embracing this critical phase of its evolution.

Unfortunately, however, his important reflections on women were overtaken by an apology that followed a New Year’s Eve encounter with an overzealous female pilgrim. As the Pope began to turn away from well wishers in St. Peter’s Square, a woman grabbed his hand and yanked him awkwardly towards her. Startled and apparently in pain, the Pope twice slapped the woman’s hand before she released him.

“We often lose our patience,” he said. “Me too, and I apologize for my bad example last night.”

The incident was used by detractors to portray the Pope’s commitment to women as insincere. Nonsense. Pope Francis has been a consistent advocate of justice and integration of women into prominent leadership roles. Yes, the process is slow, but Francis has injected it with adrenalin and, fittingly, it is poised to accelerate.

His mindset on the matter was the theme of the December issue of a Vatican magazine dedicated to women in the Church. In the main article, the Pope called the disproportionate weight of male leadership and influence “a defect, an imbalance” that impedes the Church. He believes there are many ways to weave women into the Church’s leadership fabric without fitting them with priestly garments.

The article came a month after the Pope repeated earlier calls to place women in key advisory and governance roles, including promoting women to head up departments in the Vatican Curia, positions historically held by cardinals and bishops. The previous month, the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon supported calls to elevate women into prominent leadership roles and many bishops supported the hotly contested issue of ordination of female deacons.

All of this, of course, has been just talk and too little action. Throughout its history the Church has marginalized and patronized women. But there is a new impetus to fix that. The Church needs the coming decade to be a long-overdue turning point.

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