More than once in Paul Vallely’s excellent book, Pope Francis: Untying the Knots, the writer quotes a former long-time aide who describes Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s irritation with the high-handed advice of Rome. He had no patience, we are told, for “Italians with emptying churches telling bishops in countries with growing congregations what they should and should not be doing.”
Pope Francis’ attitude towards the meddlesome Curia offers hope to women who have long been more than irritated with the men of the church telling them what they should or should not be doing with their bodies. Vallely makes the argument repeatedly that this is a Pope who has undergone a personal transformation: from a charismatic leader who was “unyielding and domineering with the Jesuits in his charge” during his time as Provincial of the order in Argentina to a pontiff who has sent several signals that he intends to bring back the spirit of Vatican II. The man who was once the “hammer” to Liberation Theology when it expressed its active solidarity with the poor, has taken many steps to usher in its revival. In word and deed, he has embraced “a new model of leadership, one which involved consultation, participation, collegiality, and listening.”
Tradition has not served women in the church as well as women have themselves served the church and the community through many ministries. The male leaders of the church have been happy to raise their eyes heavenward and sing the praises of Mary and the many female saints they place on pedestals while consigning the women around them to positions of pure service, if not servitude. Women have been seen primarily as little more than petri dishes, vessels for the development of fertilized eggs and the perpetuation of the human race. The refusal to accord to women the right men enjoy and would not tolerate even being questioned—namely, the right to make their own decisions about their lives—is the basic dehumanizing affront that underlies the tradition of male dominion over women.
Women who still see themselves as part of the church, look to the New Year, and to Pope Francis for concrete action that acknowledges the full equality in the church that they have attained in politics, business and civil society. Their patience with men without wombs telling women who have them what they should or should not be doing with “the fruit” therein is frayed to the point of exhaustion. Women wonder how long more before they will be consulted and accepted as full participants in all aspects of the life of the church; how long more before they will be acknowledged as equals and be listened to as much as they have been pressed into obedient service through the ages.
If anyone can remake the church and promote a more Christ-like spirit, it is a pope who takes his name from the saint who heard Christ’s call to “rebuild my house.” Leonardo Boff, one of the founding fathers of Liberation Theology expresses just that hope in a comment that Paul Vallely quotes: “Francis is more than a name—it’s a plan. It’s a plan for a poor Church, one that is close to the people, gospel-centered, loving and protective towards nature which is being devastated today.”
Pope Francis is a pope for our times and for our hurting planet. It is the prayer of millions of people in the pews who have grown weary of the politics of the Church, that he may continue to be guided by the spirit of the saint who in his time, threw off tradition in favor of the tough truth of the Gospel. Women, given their due and their rightful place as equals, could be one of this Pope’s most effective instruments for much needed healing, change and new life in the Church.