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Conscience Magazine

In His Thoughts and in His Words

By Miriam Duignan January 26, 2015

Pope Francis has introduced a new style to the Catholic church. He has been lauded as more open, loving and nonjudgmental than his predecessors. As internationally loved as Pope Francis is, the status of women within the Catholic church is his blind spot, where the open debate and relaxation of strict rules have not extended. When Francis said, “Who am I to judge?”1 in relation to gay priests, he seemed to step away from the disapproving tone and explicit moralizing normally associated with the Catholic hierarchy. Yet absolute judgment still applies when it comes to women.


Through his own words, Pope Francis’ attitude toward women is a traditional Catholic hierarchical attempt to combine binary stereotypes about women. On one hand, he glorifies women: the Virgin Mary, exalted mother of Jesus; the “feminine genius” of motherhood;2 the “church is a woman.”3 On the other hand, he rejects real women living in the 21st century. He condemns feminism, women with a vocation to priesthood and women who use birth control. Francis’ statements reveal a conviction that there are two kinds of women. One category contains the women who are chaste like Mary and thus deserve respect. Then, depraved women like Eve are willful, disobedient and unchaste and deserve condemnation and control. This confusion is unhappily reinforced by misread scriptural texts and misdirected popular devotions to “holy women as statues and saints.” Francis dodges the issue by saying that the hierarchy still needs “to develop a deeper theology of women”4 and later, went on to appoint a few “safe” women to roles in the Vatican, believing that this might make the question of women’s exclusion go away.


Francis is not shy about delineating the role of women. He praises this half of the Catholic population only for the mothering role they are destined to fulfill. He describes the “irreplaceable role of the woman in the family … [t]he gifts of -delicacy … which are a richness of the feminine spirit, represent a genuine force for the life of the family … without which the human vocation would be unrealizable.”5

These words echo a brand of sexism where motherhood is presented as the only worthwhile role for women—a prejudice firmly rooted in the lingering Catholic conviction and teaching that women are tainted by sin and can only be redeemed through self-sacrifice and service as mothers. In the glorification of motherhood, any woman is demonized when she steps outside of this mold and seeks an alternative role. Pope Francis does not imagine that women can lead worthwhile lives beyond motherhood, nor does he recognize that not every woman has a calling or ability to be a mother.

According to Francis, the ultimate role model for women is the Virgin Mary, whom he holds in the highest regard. In his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, he referred to Mary as “more important than the bishops.”6 He uses her elevated status to reject suggestions that women are not valued in the church, yet the pope also sets her virginity against women who are seen as unchaste. Francis is often seen with his head bowed in silent adoration of a statue of the Virgin Mary—the image of quiet suffering and self-sacrifice. She is not recognized as a woman who made choices and was a leader in her time—Francis’ devotion does not include admitting that Mary was recognized as the model for all priesthood in the early church.

From compendium of Christine de Pizan’s works, 1413. British Library, Public Domain.
From compendium of Christine de Pizan’s works, 1413. British Library, Public Domain.

Pope Francis also avoids referring to Mary, or any other woman for that matter, as a loving wife. Despite constant exhortations to take care of families, he doesn’t mention women in the context of married life or as being loved by men as an equal partner. This would suggest a sexual relationship that is outside the express purposes of reproduction and would prevent women from remaining chaste. Despite an update to church teachings in 1965, which sanctioned sex within marriage as a way for couples to maintain their bond rather than limit it to the purpose of procreation,7 it seems likely that the current pope has reservations about this teaching.

Francis sees the church as a woman: “The church is Mother; the church is fruitful.”8 But this notion dismisses the need for women in official participatory roles in the church. They do have one important role to play—as the foundation of the faith because they bring up children in the Catholic tradition. Francis fails to address the question of why a female-oriented church would only allow male voices to be authoritative in official Catholic teaching.

In stressing that women need nothing more than motherhood to be fulfilled, Francis’ words can be used to justify limiting the education of women. If mother-hood is their prevailing nature and singular vocation, why would girls need to expand their knowledge? His depiction of women’s destiny to be selfless, self-sacrificial and fulfilled by domestic careers has echoes of the church philosophy used to defend other grave injustices where the wish to be liberated is interpreted as unwillingness to accept the way God created the world.9


Although Francis expresses great admiration for a certain type of women, he also fails to understand women’s real experience and is so far removed that he often resorts to jokes that mock and minimize them, betraying his belief that women are a “valued” yet rank-and-file group.

In his first interview with a female journalist since becoming pope, Francis was asked if he thought his standard responses about women had an underlying tone of misogyny. He responded, “The fact is woman was taken from a rib,” and then brushed off the comment as a joke.10 He knows the Book of Genesis never referred to women as a rib, and for the section in question the Hebrew word meant “side” (i.e., two equal parts of one whole).11 Rather than using the opportunity to highlight the equality that appears in the creation stories, he laughed about this intentional mistranslation that has been used to diminish women for centuries.

In the same interview, Pope Francis turned his attention to women in positions of domestic servitude. When asked if he planned to appoint any women to senior positions in the Vatican, he replied, “Well, so many times priests end up under the authority of the housekeeper,”12 implying that women can exert influence in church matters by cleaning and cooking for the men. He suggests that this access is already enough involvement.

Despite his constant praise for mothers, their value declines when a woman is no longer able to bear children. In a recent speech before the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, Pope Francis warned Europe was losing its relevance and attraction, like a “‘grandmother,’ no longer fertile and vibrant,”13 intimating that the value of women lies in their fertility.


In his idealized vision of family and its prescribed gender roles, Francis presumes marriage guarantees that all women will be provided for by men. He does not acknowledge the burden placed on women who are compelled to have more children than they can take care of. In addition to the decline of marriage, the pope also blames capitalism for causing poverty, which glosses over the fact that many women are destitute because they were denied access to birth control.

All of Francis’ words add up to a man still conflicted by the hierarchy’s views on women.

Despite encouraging people to “learn to listen more to our conscience,”14 Pope Francis continues to endorse Pope Paul VI’s controversial 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae, which banned artificial contraception and reiterated the teaching that “each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.”15 Pope Francis has praised his predecessor, Paul VI, for his “courage to stand against the majority, to defend moral discipline, to exercise a ‘brake’ on the culture.”16 Francis announced in October that Paul would be beatified, bringing the author of Humanae Vitae one step closer to sainthood. The pope has also stated that he does not believe that teaching on contraception needs revision but has vaguely referred to “ensuring that pastoral [efforts] take into account people’s situations.”17 Presumably, he means that individual priests should be merciful about those Catholics who use birth control, rather than labeling it as “intrinsically evil” as was encouraged in previous church teaching.18

Pope Francis often speaks about -abortion as emblematic of a “throwaway culture.”19 In a speech to healthcare profes–sionals he said, “Every child who, rather than being born, is condemned unjustly to being aborted, bears the face of Jesus Christ…. They cannot be discarded, as the ‘culture of waste’ suggests!”20 These comments imply abortion is an easy decision that doesn’t need thought. Laden with guilt, the pope’s comment suggests that every possible life could be Jesus.

Pope Francis defends the rights of the fetus, but does he really consider every fetus, however early in gestation, to already be a child? In his failure to acknowledge circumstances in which abortion is a morally acceptable choice, the pope fails in his own pastoral duty to treat women as responsible people and to show compassion for those in difficult circumstances.

In comments on abortion, Pope Francis makes a connection to an ego-based, modern-day pursuit of freedom. Women’s moral discernment is dismissed as a shallow, selfish lifestyle choice. One example comes during an address to a large crowd in St. Peter’s Square: “People do not choose life … because they are dictated by selfishness, self-interest, profit, power and pleasure, and not by love, by concern for the good of others.…”21 The pope went on to say that “the living God is replaced by fleeting human idols….”22 Like the reference above to each potential life as a Jesus, pregnancy here is “the living God,” meaning that the divine is extinguished when women decide to have an abortion.


Pope Francis has spoken out strongly against feminism in the past. In 2010, then Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio said:

Feminism, as a unique philosophy, doesn’t do any favors to those that it claims to represent, it puts women on the level of a vindictive battle, and a woman is much more than that. The feminist campaign of the ’20s achieved what they wanted and it is over, but a constant feminist philosophy does not give women the dignity they deserve…. [I]t runs the risk of becoming chauvinism with skirts.23

Although his language has softened in recent years, as pope the themes still remain the same. Namely, that feminism is the rejection of motherhood and an attempt to usurp male roles outside the home. Speaking at a seminar called “God Entrusts Humanity to Women,” Pope Francis stressed that some have made the mistake of promoting “a type of emancipation that, in order to occupy the spaces subtracted from the male, abandons the female, along with her valuable characteristics.”24

He does not consider that women—other than a handful granted select posts—should be present in all roles nor that they can have a talent for leadership. He dismisses those calling for women to have fuller participation as a demonstration of aggressive inclinations that upset the natural order of things. Pope Francis’ interview with America magazine was titled “A Big Heart Open to God,” but there was a notable exception to this openness: women. In that conversation Francis stated, “It is necessary to broaden the opportunities for a stronger presence of women in the church. I am wary of a solution that can be reduced to a kind of ‘female machismo,’ because a woman has a different make-up than a man.”25


Rejecting any suggestion that women, too, can discern a vocation to the priesthood, Pope Francis tries to dismiss women’s ordination as a modern feminist attempt to assume male roles, rather than a restoration of the full participation that existed in the original church.

While women’s ordination would not right all wrongs currently afflicting Catholic women, the ban is the most visible sign of women’s inferior status. It’s a roadblock to acknowledging centuries of false teaching about women. When first asked about the possibility of women priests, Francis simply said that “as far as women’s ordination is concerned, the Church has spoken and said: ‘No.’ John Paul II said it, but with a definitive formulation. That door is closed.”26 He relies on papal authority rather than any clear theology to close down the conversation. Although he defers to the words of his predecessor to illustrate that the “Church has spoken” on this matter, the pope ignores the Vatican’s own commission held in 1976, which declared that there is nothing in scripture to justify excluding women from the priesthood.

pope_francis_listen-outlinedIn a later written argument against women’s ordination, Pope Francis seeks to reduce the position of priesthood to gender alone. He insists that the role of a priest is to model the maleness of Jesus, to dismiss the idea that women can be priests, stating: “The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion, but it can prove especially divisive if sacramental power is too closely identified with power in general.”27

Francis refers to his own vocation as a call to service from God and describes how priests bear the daily burden of parish work, like humble shepherds with their flock. Yet, when he speaks about women with a vocation, they are dismissed as pursuing power and status, their intentions presumed to be bad and their testimony disbelieved.

Pope Francis said to an audience in St. Peter’s square that “the first witnesses of the resurrection are women,”28 but then during his airplane interview after World Youth Day in July he remarked, “We don’t yet have a truly deep theology of women in the church.”29 Francis cannot deny that the first person Jesus asked to preach the Gospel message was Mary Magdalene, and he cannot reasonably explain why she should be the only woman to do so. Ignoring the growing support for women priests, he said that the subject of women should be separated off and studied at a later date.

It seems not to occur to him that existing official church theology intentionally obscures the truth about Jesus and his radical openness to women, as well as women’s leading role in the early church. He also overlooks the fact that the thousands of theology publications written about and by women are largely ignored, dismissed and even banned.


Francis has declared his commitment to getting more women involved in church leadership, but this stance presents him with a predicament: “How is it possible to grow the effective presence of women in public life … in the venues where the most important decisions are adopted, and at the same time maintain a presence and a preferential attention, which is extremely special, in and for the family?”30 This is a rare admission that women’s “special” roles are considered to be essential, but still secondary. Francis seems to struggle to imagine how to maintain family life if women are allowed into places where these “important decisions” are made. In his expression of concern for the importance of family life, he undersells women’s capability to combine motherhood with their other lives. He also neglects to recognize the value of fathers at home.

Francis has appointed some women to Vatican councils. They are carefully selected choices—women who are considered to be non-threatening and in agreement with the hierarchy. At the recent Synod on the Family, Francis invited just 25 women, who were mostly selected as one half of couples known to support natural family planning. Their role was only to act as observers, and they were not allowed to speak about anything outside the context of marriage and motherhood, nor were they able to vote on any proposed changes to church teaching. That privilege is reserved for ordained men alone.

Despite claiming that the Catholic church should be a church for the poor, Pope Francis does not yet connect the need to address women’s continued second-class status with their inability to escape poverty and abuse. Francis’ mercy remains a paternalistic gesture of kindness towards the less fortunate; it fails to elevate women’s position in society. Francis does not acknowledge that gender discrimination contributes to women being poor, abused, undervalued and underpaid.

Francis has chosen to uphold John Paul II’s total ban on the discussion of women’s ordination.31 Those who question official teaching on women’s roles in the Gospel, and therefore in the church, are pursued with a vigor not applied to any other group. This is not an oversight on Francis’ part; it’s a choice. The doctrinal office that oversees matters of faith has been reined in by Pope Francis on many other areas. But supporters of allowing women to be priests are seen as enemies at the gates who must be held back. Priests, nuns, theologians and teachers are still being silenced by the threat of excommunication, and dismissal from their jobs and religious congregations, if they dare to advocate for women’s ordination.

However, Pope Francis clearly connects well and shows kindness and openness to individual women he meets. There have been some powerful images that point to the possibility of a more inclusive future, including the photo of him placing his zucchetto on the head of a little girl who wanted to be pope one day. We also saw him washing the feet of two women in a symbolic reenactment of the Last Supper, despite the fact that church law dictates only men should participate. He has made many personal calls to comfort women who write to him about their real-life dilemmas and pain.

All of Francis’ words add up to a man still conflicted by the hierarchy’s views on women, and suggest a fear of women being free to make their own choices. The pope’s commitment to social justice has not yet extended to recognizing the freedom and dignity of every woman as a fully developed individual with a conscience, rather than a separate species to be shepherded in one direction for the perceived greater good of all. Francis’ leadership has demonstrated an ability to change his mind and to learn from personal experience. As he discovers the experiences and hopes of real women, may he open his eyes to the truth and change the way our hierarchy talks about and treats women.

Miriam Duignan
Miriam Duignan

is communications director for the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research, a UK-based Catholic reform think tank. Based in the UK and of Irish origins, Miriam is part of the Leadership Circle for the Women’s Ordination Worldwide movement working for equality in the Catholic church.