Seven reasons some women wince when Pope Francis starts talking

  • Pope Francis delivers a blessing Dec. 8 while praying at a statue of Mary overlooking the Spanish Steps in Rome. (CNS/Paul Haring)
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When Pope Francis this month wanted to highlight his appointment of several women to a blue-ribbon theological commission, he called the female theologians "strawberries on the cake."

Yikes.

Two weeks earlier, when the pontiff gave a speech to the European Parliament, he used another lady-based analogy, this time underscoring the continent's demographic decline and cultural crisis by comparing Europe to a grandmother who is "no longer fertile and vibrant."

Ouch.

Yes, Francis is a veritable quote machine, tossing off-the-cuff bon mots that the public finds enormously appealing in large part because they are coming from a Roman pontiff -- not an office known for its improv routines.

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But when he speaks about women, Francis can sound a lot like the (almost) 78-year-old Argentine churchman that he is, using analogies that sound alternately condescending and impolitic, even if well-intentioned.

Indeed, Francis has spoken repeatedly of the "feminine genius" and the need for a church to develop "a deeper theology of women," and of his determination to promote women to senior positions in Rome. He also points out that some of his remarks are meant as jokes, the fruit of a sense of humor that is part of his appeal.

Still, not everyone is amused.

"I am at a loss to see how this could be other than insulting to women who've already given up having families of their own to serve God," The Washington Post's Melinda Henneberger wrote after a speech in which the pope warned nuns not to become spiritual "old maids."

And in a Los Angeles Times column this week, New Testament scholar Candida Moss of Notre Dame and Yale Bible professor Joel Baden blasted Francis' granny comments to the European Parliament as "nothing other than crass chauvinism."

For all his positive comments and reforms, they said, the pope "reveals a highly patriarchal view" of the value and traditional role of women.

Here are seven examples of what these critics are talking about:

1. "Be a mother and not an old maid!"

"Please, let it be a fruitful chastity, a chastity that generates sons and daughters in the church. The consecrated woman is a mother, must be a mother and not an old maid [or "spinster"]. ... Forgive me for speaking this way, but the motherhood of consecrated life, its fertility, is important."

-- Address to nuns from around the world, May 8, 2013

2. "I am wary of 'masculinity in a skirt.' "

"It is necessary to broaden the opportunities for a stronger presence of women in the church. I am wary of a solution that can be reduced to a kind of 'female machismo' ["machismo in gonnella," he said in Italian, or "masculinity in a skirt"] because a woman has a different make-up than a man. But what I hear about the role of women is often inspired by an ideology of machismo."

-- Interview with Jesuit publications, September 2013

3. "The fact is, woman was taken from a rib."

Q: Do you see a bit of misogyny in the background [of your references to women mainly as mothers and wives rather than leaders]?

A: "The fact is, woman was taken from a rib." (The pope gives a hearty laugh.) "I am kidding, that was a joke."

-- Interview with the Italian daily Il Messaggero, June 29, 2014

4. "Pastors often wind up under the authority of their housekeeper!"

Q: Can we expect some historic decisions from you, such as making a woman the head of a Vatican department?"

A: (He laughs again) "Well, pastors often wind up under the authority of their housekeeper!"

-- Interview with the Italian daily Il Messaggero, June 29, 2014

5. "Europe is now a 'grandmother,' no longer fertile and vibrant."

"In many quarters we encounter a general impression of weariness and aging, of a Europe which is now a 'grandmother,' no longer fertile and vibrant. As a result, the great ideas which once inspired Europe seem to have lost their attraction."

-- Address to the European Parliament, Nov. 25, 2014

6. Woman theologians "are the strawberries on the cake!"

"I would like to note, in the context of the increasingly diverse composition of the Commission, the greater presence of women -- still not enough. ... They are the strawberries on the cake, but we want more!"

-- Address to the International Theological Commission, Dec. 5, 2014

7. "A church that seems more like a spinster than a mother"

"When the church does not [evangelize], then the church stops herself, is closed in on herself, even if she is well-organized, has a perfect organizational chart, everything's fine, everything's tidy -- but she lacks joy, she lacks peace, and so she becomes a disheartened church, anxious, sad, a church that seems more like a spinster than a mother, and this church doesn't work, it is a church in a museum. The joy of the Church is to give birth."

-- Homily at morning Mass, Dec. 9, 2014

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