What do you call a man who has become the leader of 600 million women?
Cardinal Jorge Maria Bergolio, as he was, is an unassuming Argentinian Jesuit. As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he acquired a reputation for a concern for social justice and eschewing the Episcopal limousine in favour of travelling by bus.
The vast institution he now leads is the oldest in the western world; its relationship to women characterised by paradox. Its priesthood is all male and apart from Eastern Catholics and Anglican converts, unmarried. Yet the most important saint in its communion, revered as the Theotokos (God-bearer) and Queen of Heaven, is the Blessed Virgin Mary and women, who tend to be more religious than men, form the backbone of its congregations. Despite this modernity poses new challenges for Catholic women particularly in the realm of sex and reproduction. As he gets ready to lead the Church through its great feast of Easter for the first time as supreme pontiff, Pope Francis also faces the task of renewing the Church’s relationship with women. Here are ten ways he could do that.
1. Start in the Vatican itself. There is a broad consensus that the Vatican’s bureaucracy, the curia, is in urgent need of reform. The curia in its current state is also marked by its dearth of women: the highest-ranking woman in the Vatican is a Salesian, Sister Enrica Rosanna who is undersecretary of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. The clamour for curial reform affords Pope Francis a golden opportunity to sweep out the back-scratching, occasionally backstabbing bureaucratic old guard and promote female excellence in the corridors of power.
2. Direct the reforming spirit downwards and outwards. Just as bureaucratic ineptitude isn’t limited to the Vatican; neither should a drive for professional civil servants with representative numbers of female staff end there. Church agencies, Bishops Conferences, diocesan offices should be dragged out of their sleepy complacency and firmly manoeuvred into a new era of industry and competence. As part of that drive female talent should be identified and nurtured.
3. Turn all Catholic workplaces into centres of excellence for family-friendly employment. Catholic social teaching stresses that access to employment and the professions should be open to all without unjust discrimination. The principle is a noble one but it needs to be underpinned by action to remove barriers to employment and the ones which women face are strongly linked to their family roles. Flexi-time, workplace crèches, allowance made for women who have had to take career breaks, all these should be the norm in the 21st Century Catholic Church workplace.
4. Take a lead in providing affordable childcare. The Catholic Church teaches that couples should be open to the gift of life, a principle which is made harder to live up to by women’s economic needs. At the same time research suggests women in the UK are not having as many children as they would want and that one of the obstacles they face in combining their reproductive and economic aspirations is a dearth of inexpensive childcare. We are used to free Catholic schools, why not free or cheap Catholic-run nurseries available to Catholics and people of all faiths and none too?
5. Invest in research into fertility awareness. One of the key areas of contention between Catholicism and feminism is the Church’s rejection of contraception. Yet the Catholic Church also accepts that “responsible parenthood is exercised by... those who for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts decide not to have additional children.” The Catholic Church can plough funding for research into fertility management which complements rather than compromises its core principles.
6. Put women and their needs at the heart of its Pro Life activism. The Catholic Church’s opposition to abortion is where its most significant confrontation with feminism occurs. Elective pregnancy termination is also a commonplace in modern industrialised nations. A creaking Pro Life lobby is ill-equipped to consider why women opt to have abortions and what they need to continue their pregnancies willingly. Enlightened leadership by the new Pope would see a rejuvenated Pro Life lobby being as tough on the causes of abortion as abortion itself.
7. Education as a good in itself and a key to women’s liberation. The Catholic Church was a pioneer in educating women and today educates ten of millions of women and girls worldwide. This is good but there’s still for improvement. Education leads to quantifiable improvements in women’s lives yet some 61 million children, an estimated 60 percent of which are girls, are denied access to education. The new Pope comes from an order, the Society of Jesus, which is justly famed for its educational mission; a campaign utilising the Jesuits’ centuries of experience and expertise to provide an education to every child in the world would ensure Francis’ papacy left a lasting legacy of good for women worldwide.
8. Women’s rights are human rights. Vatican documents are studded with references to the dignity of women and decrying their mistreatment. The Holy See also has Permanent Observer status at the UN and diplomatic relations with 176 states. The Catholic Church is thus uniquely placed to advocate for and assess progress on women’s rights at the local and national level. Inspired leadership from Rome could see use made of existing diocesan and parish structures to advance women’s rights, not just in lofty international conferences but on the ground, from the grassroots upwards.
9. Continue to lead opposition to Population Control campaigns; do so intelligently. From Peru to Mexico, India to China, the crimes which have been and still are being committed against women, especially poor and ethnic minority women in the course of population control campaigns is shocking. The Catholic Church has been the most consistent voice of opposition to these human rights violations yet time and again she has been outmaneuvred at the conference table and her efforts cynically misrepresented to the detriment of countless women living under authoritarian regimes. Effective action against population control must be prioritised by Pope Francis as a matter of urgency.
10. Spread the Word. In a world where crimes against women continue to stun, the Catholic Church’s insistence that women are not to be reduced to mere instruments for the satisfaction of men’s desires is more boldly countercultural than is realised. Under Pope Francis, the Church’s teaching that women have equal dignity to men should be boldly proclaimed. Some 50 years ago the reforming Second Vatican Council was in its first year. In its closing address, the Council declared, “the hour is coming, in fact has come, when the vocation of women is being acknowledged in its fullness, the hour in which women acquire in the world an influence, an effect and a power never hitherto achieved.” The vision is a stirring one, time will tell whether it will be any further to being realised under Pope Francis' pontificate.
Catherine Lafferty is a freelance journalist