In his answer the Pope said that “I don’t know where this idea sprang from. Women in the Church must be valued not 'clericalised.' Whoever thinks of women as cardinals suffers a bit from clericalism.”
Throughout the three years since, Francis has consistently called for a more “incisive” feminine presence in the Church, yet has refrained from limiting this presence to a mere position.
In a May 16, 2015, speech to men and women consecrated of the diocese of Rome, the Pope said that when people tell him “women must be dicastery heads,” his immediate thought is “Yes, they can, in certain dicasteries they can; but what you are asking is simple functionalism.”
Simply putting a woman in charge of a department “is not rediscovering woman’s role in the Church. It is more profound,” he said, explaining that while women are certainly able to hold leadership positions and that this is happening more often, “this is not a triumph.”
“This is a great thing, (but) a functional thing,” he said, noting that “what is essential to the woman’s role is – speaking in theological terms – acting in a manner which expresses the feminine genius.”
“When we face a problem among men we come to a conclusion, but when we face that same problem with women the outcome will be different. It will follow the same path, but it will be richer, stronger, more intuitive,” he said.
“For this reason women in the Church should have this role, they must clarify, help to clarify the feminine genius in so many ways.”
When we look at what Pope Francis says, it’s obvious that what he envisions for women is not just structural insertion into the Church, but involves opening doors so that the very fiber of what makes a woman “womanly,” her most unique and innate qualities, can flourish.
One of these qualities Francis has never ceased to bring up with praise and adulation is that of intuition and maternity; i.e., that natural maternal instinct each woman has no matter her state or position in life.
In his speech to the men and women consecrated of Rome, the Pope pointed to maternity, saying it isn’t just having children, but involves accompanying people in their growth: “maternity is spending hours next to a sick person, a sick child, a sick brother; it is spending one’s life in love, with that love of tenderness and maternity.”
“On this path we will find even more the woman’s role in the Church. Mary’s love and the love of the Church is a concrete love! Concreteness is the quality of this maternity of women.”
In a speech to theologians in 2014, after appointing several women to the Vatican’s International Theological Commission, an advisory body which assists the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in examining questions of doctrine, he said women have the ability to prompt reflections that men cannot.
“By virtue of their feminine genius, women theologians can take up, for the benefit of all, certain unexplored aspects of the unfathomable mystery of Christ,” he said, and urged commission members to take “full advantage” of the specific contribution that women give to “the intelligence of faith.”
In a 2015 address to the Pontifical Council for Culture, Francis said that women “know how 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.”
While speaking to journalists on board his return flight from Sweden Nov. 1, the Pope said that when it comes to theology and the mysticism of the Church, Mary’s role is more important than that of the Apostles on the day of Pentecost.
Women, he said, “can do so many things better than men, even in the dogmatic field,” but he clarified how it is still a separate dimension from that of priests and bishops in the Petrine dimension.
Again and again Pope Francis has repeated the same message that Villa herself expressed: women are more than just what position they hold, and the discussion on them is much wider than what it’s been reduced to.
While the question still looms as to what he will do with the female deaconate, having formed a commission to study the issue and its relevance in modern Church life, it’s clear that he won’t proceed with a “clerical” vision in mind, yet is open and willing to investigate what the different options for women might be.
So, all in all, it’s safe to say that the discussion on women in the Church has so far been fairly limited, and it’s clear that a shift in focus in needed. It seems that we’re only beginning to scratch the surface of what the debate should really entail, and with Francis at the helm, we’re guaranteed to have a few surprises.
This article was originally published on CNA Nov. 16, 2016.