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Conscience Magazine

Pope’s Apostolic Exhortation Indicates Reform Will Not Extend to Church Teachings on Women

February 19, 2014

Pope Francis elucidated his view of some of the problems faced by the Catholic church as well as the direction reforms will take in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) released in late November. With its admonition that the church should avoid “habits that make us feel safe,” the wide-ranging text stirred debate among Catholics and non-Catholics alike. On issues affecting people the world over, Francis took what might be deemed a progressive approach, warning of “a globalization of indifference” and a “culture of prosperity [that] deadens us,” which have brought about an “abandonment” of the poor and the elderly. The pope said that “the papacy and the central structures of the universal Church also need to hear the call to pastoral conversion.” Divorced and remarried Catholics might find hope in Francis’ statement that “the doors of the sacraments” should not be “closed for simply any reason.”

For those concerned about issues specifically affecting women in the church, however, the statement represented little hope for change. Francis said, “We need to create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the church,” with no suggestions for what greater roles women might expect. Previously, in July, he stated that Pope John Paul II had “closed the door” to women’s ordination.

On reproductive rights, the pope acknowledged the “profound anguish” experienced by women who were pregnant—either as a result of rape, or who were living in extreme poverty. He asked, “Who can remain unmoved before such painful situations?” But the pope dismissed those who call the church’s abortion stance “ideological, obscurantist and conservative,” asserting that advocating for abortion access is not “progressive” and the “defense of unborn life … at every stage of development” is a position that will remain unchanged.

Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, called the shortcomings of Evangelii Gaudium evidence of Francis’ “blind spot on women,” as issues like women’s ordination and reproductive health access are far from “settled” for many Catholics. O’Brien said, “We know that there is ample room in Catholic teaching to have a more equitable approach to women who access abortion care and support reform in the laws worldwide.”