What progress is the church making on women's issues?

Catholic News Agency provides a substantial list of articles relating to women in the church since the beginning of the Francis papacy. The articles are listed in a descending order of occurrence. Does any of it represent progress? It definitely represents both forward and backward steps, which is probably to be expected. Is there a gradual progression within this back-and-forth activity?

For those who believe that nothing less than the immediate ordination of women to the Roman Catholic priesthood is acceptable, no other movement will be seen as noteworthy. Yet the fact is, we are part of a sluggish organization that is as resistant to change as any in history. Sometimes small steps may have to be considered real progress.

The earliest articles go back to 2013 and seem to offer nothing new to the church's view of women. Women are revered and have great dignity. They are valued, particularly for motherhood and faithful discipleship, just like Mother Mary.

Even when Pope Francis says we need a new study of what the role of women in the church might be, his language often sounds too much like past clerical views of women. Women's issues are probably the one area where Pope Francis has received the greatest criticism from liberals. His failure to intervene in the Vatican's attacks on U.S. nuns is a case in point.

The most recent articles mentioned, however, seem to reflect a slight change in direction. If, as we are told, actions speak louder than words, perhaps we are seeing some small indications of action at the Vatican. Women's voices are included in a Vatican magazine, more women are added to the Vatican theological board, and the first woman is named to a Vatican congregation.

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None of these changes are earth-shattering, but they may be a beginning. Women are finally being brought into significant positions. They are becoming part of the discussion. Much more is needed, of course, but external pressure will likely add to the number of these appointments. 

If the Vatican chooses to add only the voices of very conservative women to the discussion, they are, of course, not serious about really listening to female concerns. The women chosen to attend the synod were disappointing. Who knows? Pope Francis may have his own reasons for doing it this way. We will just have to wait and see.

We need the women who are chosen to speak up and make sure they are indeed being heard. Their impact can be enormous. The female justices serving on the U.S. Supreme Court have made a difference, and it can also be true in the church. Over the years, women in the church have made important contributions that can only be enhanced by having strong voices at the Vatican.

So how are we to feel about progress in the church for women? Candidly, one can not really feel very good. However, maybe the church is beginning to get the message. Maybe the Vatican is finally beginning to recognize the need to actually talk to and interact with women. Continued pressure will be needed. The synod on the family will let us know whether there is any reason to hope. I think, however, it is not time to give up. The more women are brought to the table and given a voice, the greater their influence will be, and real change will come, albeit slowly, to the Roman Catholic church.


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