When it comes to women, Pope Francis has five strikes against him, but he also has some good points.
First strike: He is male. Any man who thinks he has something to say about women to women needs his head examined. The smartest thing men can do when it comes to women's topics is shut up and listen.
Second, he is celibate. Not having sex is not what makes celibates ignorant of women; it is not having a wife to set you straight when you say something dumb.
Not having daughters is also a problem. "Get real, Dad!" is not something celibate males hear, but they should. Nor is there anything like cheering on your daughter's soccer team to turn an otherwise Neanderthal male into a feminist.
Presidents of Jesuit high schools and colleges got scores of complaints from alumni when their institutions first went co-ed. A few years later, these same alumni were trying to get their daughters into Jesuit schools. Having a daughter makes a man more sympathetic to the rights of women.
Explore this free Global Sisters Report e-Book with in-depth reporting on refugees and how Catholic sisters are helping worldwide.
Pardon the stereotyping, but the third strike against Francis is that he is Latin American. Latin American culture is patriarchal and paternalistic. Times are changing, but being "macho" is part of the Latin American male's DNA.
The fourth strike against Francis is that he has no experience of first-world feminism. In the U.S., we have had decades to learn and absorb feminist views. It has been impossible to get a college education or watch television without being confronted with feminist perspectives. You may love it or hate it, but you can't ignore it.
Pope Francis does not know the language of first-world feminism, so he often gets in trouble even when he is trying to say something nice about women. He falls back on the language of John Paul II and uses phrases like "complementarity" or "feminine genius." Then, when he lists the special virtues of women (tender, patient, sensitive), the response is: "Shouldn't men have these virtues? What about intelligence, courage, creativity?"
The fifth strike against him is his opposition to women's ordination. Many women (and men) see this as the stained-glass ceiling in the church. As long as authority is linked to priesthood, women will have only an advisory role in the church and no real power. Why only men can preside at the Eucharist and other sacraments is not understandable to women who have seen almost all roles opened to them in society and culture.
Five strikes would normally more than put you out of the game, but Francis is no ordinary player. Most women still love Francis and can forgive him these failings because they love so many other things about him: his simplicity, his concern for the poor, his authenticity, his stress on compassion, etc.
But even on women's issues, he is not a complete ignoramus. After all, he lived in the country of Eva Peron, who was one of the most powerful Argentines of the 20th century. As a young man, Jorge Mario Bergoglio was a Peronista. And his country had a woman president long before the United States. True, he has had a rocky relationship with President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, but he had the same problems with her husband when he was president.
So the first point is: He is used to seeing women in powerful political roles.
Second, although he may not have experience with first-world feminism, he did learn about women's issues by listening to the concerns of women in the slums of Buenos Aires.
As archbishop, Bergoglio sat in the homes of scores of poor women, drinking mate and listening to their stories. They told him of the crushing burden of poverty and the need for jobs for both themselves and their husbands. This made him a strong critic of capitalism and globalization and a strong advocate of the government's role in creating jobs. These women were not complaining about not becoming a CEO; they were afraid they could not put food on the table.
He also heard mothers worry about their daughters being kidnapped and forced into prostitution. The authorities would not care about a teenage girl who did not return to her home in the slums. Slum kids are not a priority. Even in the United States, have you noticed that most of the missing children who make the news are blonde and blue-eyed?
But Bergoglio cared, and he became a leader in the anti-trafficking movement in Argentina. For third-world girls and women, this is a huge issue.
In fighting human trafficking, Bergoglio teamed up with a female lawyer in Argentina. I met her in Washington and asked her, "What was it like working with Bergoglio?"
"It was wonderful," she responded. "He did whatever I told him."
And this is the third point: Bergoglio is not afraid of smart women. He is not afraid of women with power. He has no problem working for a woman. In fact, in the first job he had as a young chemist, he had a female boss who mentored him. He was always grateful to her for her guidance, and they became close friends for life. She was a Communist, and he tried to protect her and her family from the military government.
Perhaps the most hopeful thing Pope Francis has said about women is that the church needs a new theology of women in the church. Some feminists do not even like this language. What is needed, they would say, is a new theology of person -- women should not be singled out. But let me put that objection aside for the moment.
The important point here is that the pope has admitted that we don't have an adequate theology on women. This is an extraordinary statement from the official who used to be presented as the man who had an answer for everything. Certainly, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI could never have said this. John Paul surely thought his theology of the human person included a wonderful theology of women.
By saying that we need a better theology of women, Pope Francis threw John Paul's theology of women under the bus.
By saying that the church does not have an adequate theology of women, the pope is inviting all the church (women and men, theologians and bishops), into a conversation about women.
In the long run, having this conversation in the church is probably more important than the pope simply mouthing some statements that feminists like. An ecclesial conversation on women's issues would be good for the church, of which women make up at least half of the membership.
Feminists are not going to be happy with everything the pope will say, but no thinking person should ever expect to agree with everything another person says. What we can hope for is mutual respect and dialogue. I think the pope is ready for that.
Wait a minute. Didn't I say that celibate males should shut up and listen? Whoops. Please ignore everything I just said.
[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasReeseSJ.]