Pope's rhetoric on women regrettably consistent

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Editor's note: Jamie Manson is on hiatus to work on several writing projects. Jamie has invited NCR Today contributor Kelly Stewart to fill in for her while she is away.

The Vatican hosted an interfaith colloquium, “Humanum: The Complementarity of Man and Woman,” last month that attracted considerable media attention, largely because it featured a number of prominent religious conservatives: Rick Warren, Tony Perkins, Russell Moore, N.T. Wright, Archbishop Charles Chaput, and Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, among others.

The colloquium presentations, video series, and final document, “A New Affirmation on Marriage,” celebrate procreative, heterosexual marriage as the foundation of church and society, “a base from which to build a family and from there a community.” They warn, too, that marriage is under attack.

In his opening address to the conference, Pope Francis said:

We know that marriage and the family are in crisis. We now live in a culture of the temporary, in which more and more people are simply giving up on marriage as a public commitment. This revolution in manners and morals has often flown the flag of freedom, but in fact it has brought spiritual and material devastation to countless human beings, especially the poorest and most vulnerable.

Liberal critics have focused on what Francis’ involvement in the colloquium means for LGBT people and marriage equality, and they have asked how we should understand the apparent contradiction between Francis’ recent defense of complementarianism and his famous line: “Who am I to judge?” In many cases, they conclude that Francis is affirming official teaching on gender, marriage, and family to appease conservatives.

Nick Squires at the Telegraph, for example, writes, “Pope Francis appeared to bow to pressure from Catholic conservatives on Monday when he delivered a robust affirmation of the importance of the traditional family.”

Adam Withnall of the Independent, too, interprets the pope’s remarks as “a shift towards placating conservatives in the Church from a Pope who once asked ‘who am I to judge gay people’ and whom Elton John described as ‘my hero.’ ”

And Jay Michaelson of the Daily Beast is careful to emphasize that even Francis’ most positive comments about gay people have marked only shifts in tone, not changes in doctrine. But he, too, seems to read Francis’ words, and the colloquium itself, as evidence that the pope must answer to “powerful conservative forces within the Catholic Church and beyond it.”

Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, disagrees. In his Bondings 2.0 blog post “Pope’s Comments on Marriage Raise Questions About His LGBT Outreach,” DeBernardo writes, “I think what we are seeing is what Pope Francis has been doing for a long time: defending traditional doctrine, but avoiding angering those who oppose it.”

There is another sense in which Francis is doing what he has been doing for a long time. While Francis’ controversial remarks at the colloquium are more pointed than his usual rhetoric regarding gays, they are typical of his rhetoric regarding women. Let’s consider a short timeline of examples:

  • In July 2013, during his now famous “Who am I to judge?” interview, Francis said that “the door is closed” to women’s ordination.
  • In June 2014, Francis deflected a question about misogyny in the church by joking that, “woman was taken from a rib.” When pressed on the issue of women’s exclusion from institutional leadership, he added, “Priests often end up under the sway of their housekeepers.”
  • In October 2014, Francis held the first meeting of the synod on marriage and family. The synod reiterated official opposition to birth control, celebrated the witness of couples who practice natural family planning, and closed with the beatification of Pope Paul VI.
  • And last month, Francis addressed the Humanum colloquium, where he spoke passionately about the “decline of the marriage culture,” the “crisis in the family,” the “beauty of complementarity of man and woman in marriage,” and a child’s “right to grow up in a family with a father and a mother.”

Read in the context of his history of comments about women, Francis’ colloquium address starts to seem less surprising. It starts to seem less like a concession to conservatives than a sincere affirmation of patriarchal gender roles.

So why haven’t more critics of the colloquium highlighted Francis’ history of conservative rhetoric about women? Maureen Fiedler’s blog titled “Complementarity of the Sexes: A Trap” is one of the few responses that treat sexism as a primary concern. Others have mentioned sexism, yes, but they have mostly mentioned it in passing and treated it as secondary to homophobia.

That has limited these analyses, because sexism is not a subset or offshoot of homophobia. Complementarianism is not just an alibi for anti-gay prejudice. In official teaching, beliefs about women’s subordinate status, natural capacities for martyrdom, and procreative responsibilities are logically and historically prior to beliefs about homosexuality or marriage equality.

That doesn’t mean questions about women are somehow “more important” than questions about LGBT people in the church. It means that if we really want to understand the pope’s attitudes on marriage, family, gender, sexuality, and authority, his history of sexism offers a more useful starting point for discussion than his history of relatively pastoral remarks on gay Catholics.

If we took sexism as a starting point for understanding the colloquium, Francis’ papacy, or Catholic theology and ecclesiology more broadly, how else would our analyses have to change? What would those changes mean for how we focus our work, and where we put our hopes, for church justice?

[Kelly Stewart earned her Master of Arts in Religion at Yale Divinity School, where she studied feminist and queer theory and Catholic sexual and reproductive ethics. She is a former Loretto Volunteer.]

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A version of this story appeared in the Jan 2-15, 2015 print issue under the headline: Sexist roles hidden in pastoral rhetoric.

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