In the News 2014

Women Could Have Greater Role in Church, Says Pope

The Vatican could soon make significant changes to the role of women in the Catholic Church and to its approach to divorcées, Pope Francis said in a newspaper interview.

As the anniversary of his election approaches, the Argentine-born pontiff also sought to rebuff criticisms that he has done too little to respond to the sex-abuse scandals that have rocked the church. He also touched on the issue of artificial birth control and sought to play down his huge popularity, saying that he is “not some sort of superman.”

In an interview granted to two newspapers, Corriere della Sera in Italy andLa Nacion in Argentina, the pope said that women could have greater decision-making power in the church’s hierarchy.

Some Vatican experts have raised the possibility of the pope appointing women to senior positions in the Vatican bureaucracy, perhaps as the head of one of its powerful departments.

But the pope suggested even bigger changes could be in store, with a senior cardinal now consulting female experts in considering possible options.

“Women must have a greater presence in the decision-making areas of the church,” he said. “But I would call this a ‘functional’ promotion. That won’t take us very far.”

Some church leaders advocate making women deacons, ordained ministers who can assist at Mass or perform baptisms, although the pope made no reference to such a possibility.

Meanwhile, a working group is laying the ground for a major discussion of family issues that will unfold over the next two years, with a meeting of about 150 bishops to be held in Rome in October. Pope Francis said a reconsideration of the church’s approach to divorced Catholics is part of the discussion.

Church teaching doesn’t recognize divorce or a subsequent remarriage unless the first marriage has been annulled by a church court.

At a meeting last month of the College of Cardinals, a senior German cardinal said in a speech that divorced and remarried Catholics could rejoin the fold through the sacrament of confession. In the interview, Pope Francis praised the speech as “very beautiful and profound.” The church “must offer an answer” to divorced couples and their families, the pope said.

Pope Francis also cracked open the door to a new approach on the issue of artificial birth control, although he ruled out a major change in the church’s opposition.

He referred to the 1968 papal encyclical “Humanae Vitae,” which dealt with the issue, saying it “all depends on how ‘Humanae Vitae’ is interpreted.”
“The issue isn’t about changing doctrine, but digging deep into the question and making sure that the pastoral approach considers specific situations and considers what is possible for people,” he said.

Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, an advocacy organization for church leaders in the U.S., said the group doesn’t see the pope’s words as inviting any change in the church’s position against the use of artificial contraception.

“Basically what you’re seeing here is another emphasis on mercy,” Sister Walsh said. “Mercy is becoming the hallmark of this papacy.”

Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, a liberal Catholic advocacy group based in Washington, said he sees the comments as the start of a discussion. “I see a glimmer of hope that I’m hoping will open up into a floodlight into this conversation” on artificial birth control, Mr. O’Brien said.

Pope Francis offered one of his more forceful responses yet to criticisms that the church hasn’t done enough to respond to the child-abuse scandals that have shaken the church.

Last month, the United Nations issued a report that was highly critical of the Vatican’s handling of priests who had abused children, arguing that the church allowed them to escape punishment. Victims’ groups have accused Pope Francis—who established a committee charged with developing a more uniform response to the problem—of saying too little about the scandal.

“The cases of abuse are terrible because they leave very deep wounds,” he said, citing statistics showing that most child abuse is perpetrated in the family or by neighbors. But “the church has done a lot—perhaps more than anyone….And yet the church is the only one that is attacked.”

Pope Francis also returned to a theme that has emerged forcefully during his papacy, urging church and lay leaders to focus on the needs of the poor.
At the same time, he rebuffed critics who have banded him a Marxist for his criticism of globalization and pro-market economic principles. “I have never shared the Marxist ideology, because it isn’t true, but I have known many good people who believed in Marxism,” he said.

The pope addressed the historic anomaly that has emerged since last year’s resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, with two popes now living at the Vatican. For most of last year, Pope Benedict scarcely appeared in public, but Pope Francis said he encouraged his predecessor to make the surprise appearance last month at the ceremony to elevate 19 new cardinals.

Pope Francis said he has encouraged Pope Benedict, known as pope emeritus, to become more public. “The Pope Emeritus isn’t a statue in a museum,” he said. “We have decided together that it would be better if he saw people, came out and participated in the life of the church.”

Finally, Pope Francis tried to play down the popularity he has enjoyed in the past year, which has landed him on magazine covers and even inspired an Italian artist to depict him as Superman on a mural near the Vatican.

“I don’t like this mythology of Pope Francis,” he said. “It seems offensive to me to depict the pope as some sort of superman or a kind of star. The pope is a man who laughs, cries, sleeps soundly at night and has friends just like anyone else. A normal person.”

This piece was originally published by the Wall Street Journal.

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