The New Pope and the Women’s Movement

‘The fact that I was a girl never damaged my ambitions to be a pope or an emperor’

Willa Cather, 1873-1947


Are Pope Francis and the Women’s Movement Compatible?

How will the new Pope, formerly Cardinal  Jorge Mario Bergoglio, address the issues of access to abortion, reproductive rights, and the women’s movement? 

By all accounts, the Roman Catholic Church has been in existence over 1500 years.  It is steeped in tradition and ceremony, and steadfastly refuses to move in the same rhythm as the rest of the world.  Change does not come easily; few progressive and modern-thinking priests would stand a chance to become Cardinal, let alone Pope.

It is quite clear that, at least in our lifetimes, the Catholic Church will not waver on its position about abortion.  But, does that mean that progress won’t be made in this regard and other critical rights of women?

‘Pro-life’ organizations, many of which are Catholic-supported, have long been known to hold the view that the unborn child has all the rights.  As a whole, they steadfastly refuse to become involved in protecting the rights of the mother, and even claim that the baby, once born, is ‘not their issue’.  Clearly, if an unborn fetus could see into the future, she might opt for staying longer in the womb, rather than entering the world and being figuratively dropped on her head by the Pro-Life groups.

Pope Francis may be the catalyst that changes this mindset.   From all accounts, he seems to be a softer, more humble man than his predecessors.  He once admonished his peers to remember that ‘Jesus bathed lepers and dined with prostitutes’.  This would indicate that he is far less judgmental than many of his colleagues.

While he is unwavering on his position about abortion and birth control, it would seem he at least considers the well-being of the baby after birth, as well as that of the mother, something that has largely been missing in the ‘crisis pregnancy centers’– many of which are funded by the Catholic Church.

This leads one to ponder the impact on those ‘crisis pregnancy centers’ that resort to blatantly dishonest claims in order to bully young women into keeping their babies.  Some have admitted to such atrocities as tapping out a ‘message’ from the unborn fetus to its birth mother – claiming it is saying ‘hi Mommy’.  Fetal Morse Code, of course, doesn’t exist. They make it up. Others have told young pregnant women they are too far along to consider abortion – when, in fact, they are less than 8 weeks along.  The sentiment has been that the end (preventing an abortion) justifies the means.  If the leader of the Catholic Church clearly values ethical and honest interaction with all segments of the population, and encourages compassion  even for  those who do not subscribe to the Catholic doctrine, perhaps this will become less likely to occur. The fact that he has admonished his colleagues to be less judgmental and more loving is a step in the right direction.

It also remains to be seen how the new Pope will be more inclusive of women in the church.  Clearly, it is very unlikely he will support allowing women to be priests.  However, some religious scholars feel that he may, in fact, encourage more women to serve in critical positions in the church – as advisors, Canon lawyers, judges, and chancellors.  To date, women have never been allowed to serve on the Papal Cabinet, nor are they allowed to be ordained priests.

According to Erin Saiz Hanna, the Executive Director of the Women’s Ordination Conference, “There are so many women who have been marginalized in our church, not just women who seek larger roles like ordination, but women who’ve been divorced, lesbian women, girls who want to serve at the altar, women who use birth control. There are so many women who are left outside of the church and who have no place. So, our hope is Pope Francis will be a peacemaker, live up to his name, and really reach out to women.”

Although the Pope is often loved by Catholic people around the world, not all feel obligated to agree with the Vatican’s policies.  A recent poll conducted by Quinnipiac University in Connecticut found that 54 percent of Catholics support same-sex marriage while just 38 percent are opposed.  Compare this to a 47-43 percent margin among all American voters.

With nearly 78 million Catholics in the United States (making it the largest religious denomination in our country), policy created by the Vatican will, whether we agree or not, have some impact on the attitudes and beliefs of our country, and even more in other primarily Catholic countries.

Changing even the smallest doctrine in the Catholic Church will be like trying to maneuver an ocean liner – it won’t be quick or responsive.  Perhaps, though, with a more compassionate and inclusive leader, the mindset that all people are worthy of kindness and care will filter down to everyone.




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