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On Pope Francis, and disappointment

November 2nd, 2016

I didn’t think I’d find myself saying this, but Francis, by far the most outstanding pope the Catholic Church has elected in, well, quite frankly centuries, if not ever, has managed to disappoint me quite badly.

No women priests, he has announced — never. His logic, such as it is, seems to hinge on two key points. The first, one we can dismiss reasonably readily, appears to be that his predecessor-but-one said so, and if John Paul II said no to priestesses, then the case is closed, Francis appears to be saying. But this is shaky ground — John Paul II, recently canonised by Francis, did indeed say that there was no room in the Church for women priests. He was clear in his opposition to the ordination of women: “In calling only men as his Apostles, Christ acted in a completely free and sovereign manner. In doing so, he exercised the same freedom with which, in all his behavior, he emphasized the dignity and the vocation of women, without conforming to the prevailing customs and to the traditions sanctioned by the legislation of the time;” he even went so far as to “declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.” It was women priests that so utterly challenged the Church that he had to create a whole new category of popely pronouncement,  that of judgemetnts that must be “definitively held.” The ordination of women to the priesthood was clearly so harmful to the Church that, for John Paul II, decisive action had  to be taken — clearly, then he saw this doctrinal matter as a massively greater threat and challenge to the integrity of the Church than, say, a nauseatingly widespread network of child-molesting priests and bishops who enabled, and quite possibly joined in withm them, a minor problem that warranted much less dramatic interventions.

So John Paul was not, then, a Pope we should always defer to on how best to protect the Church. Let’s look instead at Francis’  other key point, the simplistic notion that since Jesus only chose men to be priests, only men can be priests, the Church’s long-standing argument keeping women out of the priesthood. It’s hard to fathom how a thinker as fresh, as clear, as kind as Francis can fall into this trap — the idea that the one thing that identified the Twelve, the thing that Jesus had in mind when he chose them, was their sex. Setting aside for a second the fact that there are at least fourteen named apostles in the four canonical Gospels, which does make the idea of “The Twelve” a little questionable in itself, let’s see if they had anything else in common. Well, they were all Jewish, for a start. So does that mean that, since Jesus only chose Jews to be his apostles, only Jews can be priests? It’s hard to argue the Church’s line on priesthood being the preserve of men on the basis that Jesus only chose men, and not then insist that it also be reserved for Jews. He only chose men who lived in Galilee. He only chose a dozen — well, around a dozen. So why does the Church demand that the only characteristic that really matters is maleness? Why insist that only men can be priests, but allow more than a dozen Galilean Jews to be priests? And, given that at least one of Jesus’ choices was less than inspired, maybe we really should cast our nets a little wider when we’re looking for their successors. (Parenthetically, the Church has traditionally claimed that bishops are the successors to the Apostles; claiming that women are excluded from the priesthood on this basis is an over-extension of this already flimsy logic.)

This entrenched misogyny from an otherwise profoundly enlightened and compassionate man is disappointing. There is no good reason for excluding half of the membership of the Church from the hierarchy of the Church, for denying them one of the seven sacraments. Francis is — he should be — so much better than this.

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