As if there haven’t been enough surprises under Pope Francis, here’s another one: not only did Women’s Ordination Worldwide have an unprecedented meeting with an official from the Vatican Secretariat of State and give him a petition, the group is also being permitted to hold a public demonstration in the public gardens of Castel Sant’Angelo on Friday, the day that the Pope celebrates a jubilee Mass for priests in St Peter’s Square. Members of the women’s ordination group have also been given tickets to attend the Mass. See The Table’s report here.
Why do you suppose the Vatican is doing this?
I rather doubt it is to promote women’s ordination to the priesthood, or even move in that direction. It’s more about Pope Francis’s plan to keep the Catholic Church’s embrace large enough to include all its members. Even if he doesn’t support women in the priesthood, Francis knows that lots of Catholics do, and he wants to signal that they are welcomed members in the church. And while this decision may not be from Francis directly, it certainly reflects his pastoral approach.
The popes since Vatican II have all opposed women’s ordination, but with widely differing attitudes.
Paul VI approved a low-level curial document in 1976 affirming the ban on women priests. But he did not issue firm edicts in his own name and, despite the curial document, the question seemed to remain open for many people.
John Paul II thought a firm hand would settle the matter. Better not to waffle and raise false hopes, he thought. “In order that all doubt may be removed,” he declared women’s ordination impossible. Bishops were to cut off dialogue with dissenters and defend the official position more vigorously.
Pope Benedict, who had stated earlier as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that John Paul’s statement was infallible, did not take any major action nor issue any major statements on the matter. Nor did he need to. John Paul had set the course, and bishops who supported it were being appointed to replace the remaining wafflers in the episcopate. If anything, the rightward shift in the episcopate increased under Benedict.
The papacy of Benedict was quite demoralizing for mainline and progressive Catholics, especially those in full time church work. On all fronts, their legacy was called into question. (Think of the missal retranslation, where a high quality translation which had been worked on for 17 years was thrown in the wastebasket and a new translation of questionable quality imposed instead.) The papacy of Benedict put wind in the sails of the most zealous traditionalists, including extremists far to the right of Benedict himself. And some of these took it upon themselves to judge and condemn other Catholics, and to make the church a most unpleasant place.
So many things in the papacy of Francis say, “Enough already.” Francis may not agree with progressives on this or that point – we’re not always sure just what he thinks – but he clearly wants to call off the rampage some have been waging in the name of rigid uniformity.
Francis seems comfortable not knowing where all this will lead. Perhaps he is risking raising hopes that will only be dashed. But for now, he wants to ratchet down the conflict and buy some time. And he is a pastor above all. People are more important to him than ideas. His pastoral sense tells him that, for right now, church leaders needs to avoid divisive statements and just keep everyone on board.