The news of Pope Francis telling a gathering of women religious that he is willing to establish a commission to study the role of woman deacons in the early Church with a possible eye toward present-day application is the latest, and perhaps most substantive, development in one of the more mercurial narratives of his pontificate: the developing role of women in the Church.
It’s a narrative that has seen Pope Francis quite at ease with his role as a conversation starter, as opposed to someone who prescribes answers. Similar to his greater integration of people in irregular situations in Amoris Laetitia, he wants the discernment of greater decision-making authority for women in the Church to be rooted in robust conversation in the Church and pursued as an authentic development of theology and tradition, not something hurriedly grafted on. With the bar set this high, his interventions have sometimes served more as parameters for where not to go:
Women ordained as priests? He has affirmed that “the door is closed.”
Women as cardinals? That’s clericalism.
Women as dicastery heads?
Sure, but don’t let a deeper discussion of women’s role in the Church lapse into functionalism.
But Pope Francis has also acted and spoken affirmatively, such as appointing a record five women to the International Theological Commission, up from two out of a total group of 30. He has called for a greater theology of women. He has described himself as “a bit of a feminist.” He’s called the role of women in the Church “widespread and incisive” a descriptor that rings true for a Church in which women perform many ministries and hold administrative posts in parish, educational, health care and even diocesan settings.
But the riddle that remains is how to augment the voice and decision-making role of women in a real way, in keeping with the advancements toward social equality made in society. This is complicated by sexism and other issues from which the Church is not exempt. In an Ash Wednesday pastoral letter, Bishop Mitchell T. Rozanski of Springfield, Massachusetts, shared survey answers from active and fallen away Catholics in his diocese, including a woman who said of Church leaders: “They don’t even ask our opinion nor do they seem to want it.”
Against this backdrop, the circumstances of Pope Francis’ announcement are significant. Meeting with women religious gathered as part of the International Union of Superiors General, he listened to their voices and responded. This, one could argue, is how Pope Francis would like to see questions of women in the Church addressed — a conversation with women rather than about women, rooted in the Church’s tradition and driven by a desire to see women included, in the pope’s words, by the right of their baptism.
Don Clemmer is OSV's managing editor.