This opening line of a Miami Herald editorial on Pope Francis’ impromptu news conference while flying back from Brazil early this week represents mainstream media reaction to some of his extraordinarily revealing, unscripted remarks: “It was startling to hear Pope Francis declare, ‘Who am I to judge a gay person of goodwill who seeks the Lord?’ He is, after all, the supreme pontiff of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, arbiter of moral issues and symbol of ecclesiastical rectitude. If he is not prepared to judge, why should anyone?”
The media are giving Pope Francis widespread applause for his comments hinting at a more progressive, more real-world and inclusive form of Catholicism. And I can hardly blame reporters. I, too, have written about Francis’ endearing and refreshing style since his very first public acts and his renunciation of papal materialism. Francis is as close to Jesus, in terms of his love of the weakest among us, as any pope of my lifetime and well beyond. He is returning church mission and style to its roots. He is making it a loving, supportive, welcoming environment and pressing back against its recent judgmental and exclusive posture.
I would argue, however, that most media have seized on the wrong part of Francis’ airborne comment as being “startling” or transformative. Yes, it was interesting to hear him say that even he was not in a position to judge gay Catholics. But even his most stalwart supporters agree that was not a signal of any doctrinal change.
This may not be the case with his comments on the role of women in the church. When asked whether he might support the ordination of women as priests, the pope gave the stock response. “The church has spoken and said, ‘No,’” Francis said, referring to John Paul II’s statement that because Jesus chose only men as his disciples, the church was not able to ordain women.
However, another of Francis’ statements has the potential to change church doctrine. The pope said the Catholic Church must develop a theology that explains the importance of women in the church. “It is not enough to have altar girls, women readers or women as the president of Caritas” charities, Francis said. “Women in the church are more important than bishops and priests,” just as “Mary is more important than the apostles.”
New scholarship developed during the past two decades has turned on its head church conceptions about proper roles for women in the hierarchy. Scholars are discovering early Christian women had much more power in the church, as apostles and as leaders of home churches — the only type there were under Roman rule, which banned Christianity.
Karen L. King is one such scholar. She is a professor of New Testament studies and the history of ancient Christianity at Harvard Divinity School.
“Women held offices and played significant roles in group worship,” King writes. “Paul, for example, greets a deacon named Phoebe (Romans 16:1) and assumes that women are praying and prophesying during worship (I Corinthians 11). As prophets, women’s roles would have included not only ecstatic public speech, but preaching, teaching, leading prayer, and perhaps even performing the Eucharist meal. ... Women’s prominence did not, however, go unchallenged. Every variety of ancient Christianity that advocated the legitimacy of women’s leadership was eventually declared heretical, and evidence of women’s early leadership roles was erased or suppressed.”
To this day, women’s early leadership roles are challenged and denigrated by many members of the church hierarchy.
Do I hope or believe that Pope Francis will promote women to positions of real authority? Something tells me even he will not do that. But the fact he’s talking about it at all is hugely significant.
Bonnie Erbe, host of PBS’ “To the Contrary,” writes this column for Scripps Howard News Service. Email email@example.com.