Pope Francis should reconsider women’s place in the Catholic Church

Frank Ching believes the reformist Pope Francis will one day lead the church to face up to its unfair exclusion of women as priests

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 March, 2014, 4:53pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 March, 2014, 2:21am

On International Women's Day, on Saturday, the International New York Times carried an editorial that quoted Pope Francis as saying that "women must have a greater presence in the decision-making areas of the church".

This is good news. The pope, who just marked his first anniversary in office, has been a breath of fresh air, with his humility, his openness and his seeming desire for reform. In 12 months, he has transformed the image of the Catholic Church.

Pope Francis has properly identified the role of women as a key issue. He will, in time, have to grasp the nettle

Perhaps what was most impressive was his response when asked about homosexuals - "Who am I to judge?" He has also said that children being brought up by single mothers should not be denied baptism.

But, aside from saying that women should play a bigger role, he hasn't done that much for them, seemingly confining them to traditional roles, especially motherhood.

In the early days of the church, priests could marry. Then, the custom was changed and priests had to be celibate. Not only could women not be priests, they could not even be married to priests.

Why this denigration of women? In a word, sex.

Instead of viewing men and women both as children of God, and sex as a normal human activity, the church became obsessed with it. This hang-up resulted in a gradual distancing of the church from society and is reflected in such issues as celibacy, contraception, divorce and women priests.

Pope Francis has been emphatic in saying that women cannot be priests, citing John Paul II. This means they also cannot become bishops, cardinals and, of course, popes. Those roles are reserved for men, and men make decisions in the church.

It is difficult for the church to change, but it can happen. When I was growing up, Catholics were not allowed to be cremated. But that was bad theology, and the ban was lifted. Similarly, the doctrine of limbo has been abandoned.

The Pontifical Commission on Birth Control, originally established by Pope John XXIII, produced a majority report in 1966 proposing that artificial birth control was not intrinsically evil and that Catholic couples should be allowed to decide on the use of contraceptives. However, a conservative minority prevailed, arguing that the church should not admit that it had been wrong in the past.

The church's position against the ordination of women similarly rests on thin theological ground. Pope John Paul II, in an apostolic letter issued in 1994, pointed out that in the New Testament, Jesus chose 12 men as his apostles from his group of followers.

However, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith discussed the issue of the ordination of women in 1976 and voted unanimously that the Bible did not settle the issue one way or the other. Besides, what if all the apostles had been left-handed? Would that mean that only left-handed people can be priests?

Pope Francis has properly identified the role of women as a key issue. He will, in time, have to grasp the nettle.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator. frank.ching@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1