In Pope Francis’ recent meeting with the women’s section of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, he focused on the content and meaning of the apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem (On the Dignity and Vocation of Women), written by John Paul II in 1988, twenty-five years ago.
The pope’s comments reveal that he wholeheartedly endorses and agrees with John Paul II’s theological view of complementarianism. This view holds that men and women have different, but complementary, roles in the functioning of family, society and religion – according to the will of God.
As it usually does, this view leads Francis to focus on the capacity of women for childbirth and he expounds on the notion that women bring mercy and compassion (and other romantic notions of motherhood) to the Church. He seems to resonate strongly with a notion that is expressed in the apostolic letter – that “God entrusts man, the human being, to woman in a special way.”
Francis ponders the meaning of this statement. He asks, “What does this ‘special entrusting’ … of the human being to woman signify?” He then goes on to add, “It seems evident to me that my predecessor is referring to maternity.”
Besides the fact that many women within the Church are not called to the vocation of motherhood, sweeping changes have occurred in the last twenty-five years with regard, especially, to gender roles. Regarding the constitution of the family, we can contest the evidence of a simple bi-polar relationship between men and women, where couples embody complementary opposites of traditional masculine and feminine roles. In Canada, for example, men and women can now share maternity leave after a pregnancy, affirming not only that males are just as capable of providing maternal qualities of care for their children as females are, but that in fact, some families are finding that the male is more suited to the role of staying at home with the children. The family has changed in its constitution, a fact that is being recognized by civil society and which more and more is recognized even within religious groups.
What is being recognized outside the restrictive view of a complementarity paradigm is that women are persons who incidentally happen to be women. Persons are capable of a multitude of things that are not confined to, or restricted by, gender. Roles of leadership and service that were formerly restricted to males are now fully open to women based on this new perspective. But here is an important point: women’s capacities and capabilities have expanded to meet the need of their communities – and not merely as a way of encroaching on male domains of power and influence.
Francis’ comments reveal a fear shared by many people who are confronted by women’s desires to transcend traditionally female roles. Some people believe that women who desire to take on leadership and decision-making roles, instead of working in support roles to the men who exercise these functions, are simply hungry for power. A woman’s accountability necessitates that she answer this accusation head-on, but only in the same way such an accusation must be answered by males in the same position. The proof is in the fruits of the woman’s leadership and service, just as it should be evident in the fruits of a man’s leadership and service. Does it support, nourish and sustain the community? Does it help the community to achieve its mission? If so, is that not a fruit of the spirit?
Francis names two dangers facing women who seek emancipation today: one, that her full potential will remain unrealized because she is unable to exercise responsibility in the community; two, that she will simply aspire to fully abdicate her femininity in order to assume a masculine persona. (This is my interpretation of Francis’ words.)
I name a third danger, not mentioned by Francis. This third danger is that the restrictions imposed on gender roles through Francis’ currently adopted view of complementarity will create a huge “middle class” of female citizens in any religion or society that officially endorses this view. The women will be elevated above the role of “child-bearer” and domestic servant. They will have rights to offer themselves in service as leaders in the community. But the ceiling will remain to keep them from the highest offices of responsibility – incapable of moving into positions of decision-making and into those roles reserved exclusively to males within the current structures of the religion or society. Therefore, on the one end of the spectrum, women may avoid being hidden and silenced in their communities, but on the other end of the spectrum, they will continue to be absent from those bodies that have ultimate decision-making power in the official structures and processes of the community.
John Paul II sought to elevate the view of complementarity of gender to a theological level. Francis says that this view has a sound anthropological base and that it is enlightened. This is concerning, since it seems to raise the issue beyond the realm of discussion and closes the door on learning. It prevents transcending the status quo. It prevents the community from being the place where invitations to vocation are met and accepted.
Francis has stated that the view of complementarity has a sound anthropological base, which it certainly does at the level of reproductive biology. But there are other dimensions of human living to take into account in the pondering about gender roles and rights in the Church. If women are not to be solely valued for their reproductive capacity, we must expand the horizons of possibility to include women in all of the human activity of community life. Maintaining restrictions to prevent women from assuming roles that have absolutely nothing to do with their biology (or with male biology, for that matter) is simply a barrier to accepting revelation concerning women’s full human potential.
We can hope that, at least, the ban has been lifted on discussing the role of women in the Church, but we must keep pressing for a fuller revelation, for freedom in our conversations, for overcoming bias in considering the evidence that lies before us and for deeper trust in each other as human beings.