The gift of papal silence

by Anne E. Patrick


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Since his election in 2013, Pope Francis has been very generous with his words. There have been addresses, homilies, conversations, phone calls, interviews and writings, including an apostolic exhortation on “The Joy of the Gospel” (Evangelii Gaudium). Still, the pope has been silent, or very reticent on certain questions.

Meanwhile many wonder whether the special Synod of Bishops that met last October will lead to changes in pastoral practice concerning marriage and the family, and whether women will ever be eligible for ordination and decision-making in the church. Such persons may find it helpful to recall what communications expert Kathleen Hall Jamieson said when Saint John Paul II visited the United States in 1987. In response to a newscaster’s question, “Does papal teaching ever change?” Jamieson declared: “Yes, papal teaching does change. But only after there has been a period of papal silence on the question.”

A new approach to synods

In planning the 2014 synod, Pope Francis showed strong leadership concerning the process of the meeting but did not disclose his desires regarding specific results. Using a model he experienced in the Latin American bishops’ conference, he invited 174 members of the hierarchy, and 54 nonvoting observers and experts (25 of whom were women), to discuss “the pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelization.” He expected discussions to yield a report contributing to a follow-up synod next October, after which he will release an “apostolic exhortation” on these matters.

A preliminary report issued during the 2014 synod expressed a new tone of openness, and the final report maintained this tone to a lesser extent and gave evidence of disagreements among the bishops. Showing how he values transparency, Pope Francis asked for publication of the entire report, including the record of how many synod members approved or disagreed with each paragraph. Thus the final report contains paragraphs about gay people and the availability of sacraments to divorced and remarried Catholics, subjects which had not received the two-thirds majority support awarded the rest of the document. This leaves the topics on the table for future consideration.

As the meeting ended Pope Francis exhorted synod members to go find the “lost sheep” it is their duty to feed, while steering a middle course between excessive rigor and “false mercy.” Significantly, he has not said what changes he would like to see recommended by the 2015 synod. Rather he trusts that the Holy Spirit will guide the process of discussion and reflection, and that needed adjustments to church teaching and practice will emerge from this process.

What about women?

Many Catholics would like women to have had a stronger voice in the 2014 synod. They regret that only a small number of married women and one woman religious were invited, with voting reserved to members of the hierarchy.

Although Pope Francis stated in Evangelii Gaudium that “demands that the legitimate rights of women be respected . . . present the church with profound and challenging questions that cannot lightly be evaded,” he has not yet confronted these questions in depth or taken action toward finding a “possible role of women in decision-making in different areas of the church’s life.”

Many Catholics, especially in Europe and North America, have voiced their readiness for women’s ordination. The organization Women’s Ordination Worldwide, in fact, is planning a conference in Philadelphia on “Gender, Gospel, and Global Justice” for September 18-20, 2015, shortly before the pope visits the United States. Clearly the question is not going away. Vatican expert Thomas Reese, SJ noted in the National Catholic Reporter (March 14, 2014) that while Pope Francis has undertaken promising steps toward reforming the Vatican bureaucracy, he suffers the limitations of coming from a culture “that is patriarchal and paternalistic.”

In some of his remarks, Pope Francis may have been trying to overcome these limitations, as when he told the press during a 2013 flight from Brazil that, “The role of women doesn’t end just with being a mother and with housework . . . We talk about whether they can do this or that . . .  but we don’t have a deep theology of women in the church.”

In declaring this, Pope Francis spoke rightly of official church literature, which has yet to incorporate the excellent theology of women that members of the church have published for decades. The People of God already have access to such theology in the writings of Elizabeth Johnson, Margaret Farley, Rosemary Radford Ruether and many others. One hopes that eventually their insights will be claimed by the official tradition. Significantly, the pope stressed in his August 2013 interview for America that, “The image of the church I like is that of the holy, faithful people of God,” and said that “We should not . . . think . . . that ‘thinking with the church’ means only thinking with the hierarchy.”

Pope Francis sees reform as a long process requiring “dialogue among the people and the bishops and the pope” with the assistance of God’s Spirit. He has stated that today’s challenge is “to think about the specific place of women also in those places where the authority of the church is exercised. . . .” Still, more than once, Pope Francis has reminded us that Pope John Paul II said “no” to the question of ordaining women priests and bishops, though he did not address the question of diaconate. This “papal no” reminds one of the passage from Mark’s Gospel (7:24-30), in which Jesus said “no” to the Greek woman from Syria who requested a cure for her child. We have Mark’s report that when she argued with Jesus, he changed his position and told her that, thanks to her reply, the demon had left her daughter. The question of priestly ordination for women may not be as settled as some believe. After all, Pope Francis only said “the door is closed.” He did not say it is nailed shut and sealed for all eternity.

Possibilities in ‘The Joy of the Gospel’

In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis seeks to enhance the status of women without opening the possibility of ordination. Catholic feminists are likely to hear more than he intended to say when declaring, “No to an economy of exclusion,” and “No to the inequality that spawns violence” (59).  He likely meant the economically marginalized in writing, “When a society . . . is willing to leave a part of itself on the fringes, no political programs or resources spent on law enforcement or surveillance systems can indefinitely guarantee tranquility.” Some, however, will hear different overtones in such words, perhaps thinking of the ineffectiveness of visitations to communities of women religious and public rebukes to their leaders.

Women are discussed explicitly in a section about laypeople headed “Other Ecclesial Challenges.” It suggests that Pope Francis shares the “complementarity” anthropology of his predecessors, viewing women as essentially different from men and gifted with particular qualities, though he qualifies this position somewhat: “The church acknowledges the indispensable contribution that women make to society through the sensitivity, intuition and other distinctive skill sets that they, more than men, tend to possess.” He says, “We need to create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the church” (103). He goes on to declare, “Demands that the legitimate rights of women be respected, based on the firm conviction that men and women are equal in dignity, present the church with profound and challenging questions that cannot be lightly evaded;” and immediately adds, “The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion, but it can prove especially divisive if sacramental power is too closely identified with power in general.” Priesthood, he insists, is “always a service to God’s people.” He admits that, “This presents a great challenge for pastors and theologians, who are in a position to recognize more fully what this entails with regard to the possible role of women in decision-making in different areas of the church’s life” (104).

Although his anthropology and position on ordination are disappointing to many, Pope Francis allows for the possibility that views of women’s nature and roles can improve. Indeed, he concludes this section on ecclesial challenges by stating, “I have not sought to offer a complete diagnosis, but I invite communities to complete and enrich these perspectives on the basis of their awareness of the challenges facing them and their neighbors” (108). The tone is very different from that found in the writings of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. To some extent such remarks undermine the earlier assertion that the door is closed on women’s ordination.

On this question and on specific policies concerning marriage and family life, Pope Francis has been offering the kind of silence that Kathleen Hall Jamieson says is necessary before there can be change in papal teaching. Significantly, in saying “the door is closed” on women’s ordination, Pope Francis is not repeating the arguments of his predecessors. He is not going to discuss this matter, much less change the practice during his papacy. But he may be laying the groundwork for future change by setting in motion consultative processes toward other reforms that will challenge the clericalism and careerism that have blighted ordained ministry in the past.

Pope Francis recognizes that women should have a more prominent role in the church, but does not yet grasp, or does not feel it is the time to deal with, what many Catholics regard as a very problematic fact – namely, that sacramental sex discrimination undermines claims to recognize our full human dignity. Those concerned about justice for women and girls have reason to be hopeful that things will change for the better, but the process in a global church will require more time than many would like. The Gospel image of yeast hidden in dough, which gradually leavens the whole loaf (Mat 13:33, Lk 13:21), seems to describe the way reforms take place in church history. Efforts by reformers are important, but in God’s providence they do not usually lead to immediate results. The leavening process takes a while. Pope Francis says something to this effect toward the end of Evangelium Gaudium, when he recommends that we be concerned about processes. “What we need,” he says, “is to give priority to actions which generate new processes in society and engage other persons and groups who can develop them to the point where they bear fruit in significant historical events” (223).

How long it will be until the process bears fruit remains to be seen, and perhaps there will never be the sort of sacramental equality that many advocate. But history offers countless examples of what was once thought to be the “last word” proving not to have been final after all. And there is reason to hope that the tone Pope Francis is setting, the processes he is starting, and the restrictions he has imposed on his own speech, will contribute to the reforms we need. Maybe the silence of this pope will prove to have been a gift after all.

[Anne E. Patrick, SNJM's most recent book is Conscience and Calling: Ethical Reflections on Catholic Women's Church Vocations ​(Bloomsbury/ T&T Clark). She is William H. Laird Professor of Religion and the Liberal Arts, emerita, at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.]