Pope calls again for 'incisive' women's presence in church, offers no specifics

by Joshua J. McElwee

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Pope Francis has called again for a more "incisive" presence of women in the leadership of the Catholic church, calling them akin to a "welcoming womb" but offering little specifics for how they might take on additional responsibilities.

The pope has also praised the role of women in the public sphere, saying they should have a "freedom of choice" between work and family roles.

"I am convinced of the urgency of offering spaces for women in the Church and to welcome them," the pope said Saturday in a speech to the Pontifical Council of Culture.

"It is desirable," the pontiff continued, "a feminine presence more capillary and incisive in the community, so that we can see many women involved in pastoral responsibilities, in the accompaniment of persons, families and groups, as well as in theological reflection."

Women, Francis said, "know to incarnate the tender face of God, his mercy, which translates into availability to give time more than to occupy spaces, to welcome instead of excluding."

"In this sense, I like to describe the feminine dimension of the Church as a welcoming womb that regenerates life," said the pope.

The Vatican's Culture council has been hosting a closed-door meeting in Rome this week on the theme "Feminine Cultures: Equality and Difference." Francis was speaking Saturday during a meeting with participants of the event.

The conference attracted some controversy when organizers posted a YouTube video soliciting input from women worldwide on the difficulties they face, but gave less than two-weeks over the Christmas holiday for people to respond.

The description of the conference online also contains a picture of a piece of artwork that some have described as offensive, portraying a naked woman's torso bound with ropes.

In his remarks Saturday, Francis decried continuing violence against women, saying there are "many forms of slavery, of commodification, of mutilation of women's bodies."

The pontiff also said he wanted to call attention to "the painful situation of so many poor women, forced to live in dangerous, exploitative conditions; relegated to the margins of society and made victims of a throwaway culture."

While Francis again did not give specifics for how he envisions opening up more space for women in the leadership of the church, where Vatican offices are mostly led and staffed by priests and bishops, he did praise the role of women in the public sphere.

The pontiff said he wanted "to encourage and promote the effective presence of women in many areas of the public sphere, in the world of work and in the places where the most important decisions are taken."

"We must not leave the women alone to carry this burden and to make decisions, but all institutions, including the ecclesial community, are called to guarantee freedom of choice for women, so that they have the ability to assume social and ecclesial responsibility, in a way harmonious family life," he said.

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is jmcelwee@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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