Ten ways Pope Francis can renew the Catholic church's relationship with women

The realm of sex and reproduction in particular is an area where the Vatican needs to improve its approach to its female followers.


What do you call a man who has become the leader of 600 million women?

Pope Francis.

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 MexicoIndia 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

Pope Francis. Photograph: Getty Images

Catherine Lafferty is a freelance journalist.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.