Once, while wandering the ancient streets of Avignon during that town’s annual arts festival, I happened upon a performance in the courtyard of a medieval building, a building that baffled me. It was called the Palais des Papes, the Pope’s Palace. “What,” I thought, “a papal palace? In France? How did that happen? What was that all about?”
The answers were my introduction to events I never had heard of prior to that July afternoon. It was then and there that I learned about the Frenchman who was elected pope but declined to move to Rome, about the six Frenchmen who succeeded him as pope, and about the last of this first group, Gregory XI, who eventually made the move. His relocation, however, was only a temporary end of popes in Avignon. Following his death, a Neapolitan was elected, a man whose suspicious nature and violent outbursts of temper so alienated the cardinals that they elected a rival pope, leading to what became known as the Western Schism and to a line of popes later deemed antipopes. Historians note that all this drama six hundred years ago was based on political rather than on any theological differences.
Not being Roman Catholic, I’ve never been invested in the belief of papal infallibility. Had I been, history certainly would have disabused me of such a notion – including the recent history of a pope’s visit to Washington. What fault could I possibly find in such an eminence as Francis I? One stands out – his continuation of a status quo that diminishes women. I understand theologians can find Biblical objections to the rights of women, but where are any moral objections to be found? I don’t expect a pope to change Church doctrine, but a pope who believes in the Big Bang and evolution, who talks about not judging gays, who says women who’ve had abortions and people who’ve had divorces should be forgiven, and who says annulments should be expedited is surely a pope capable of publicly contemplating the Church’s age-old discrimination against women. Was it not possible for him to openly discuss the equality of women without explicitly calling for an end to the ban on women serving as priests? Surely just talking about such things would not result in rebellion or, worst, a poisoned chalice. Yet, he did not, does not, do so. How much of the world’s progress is retarded when one of the most admired and influential figures on the planet chooses to ignore and dismiss a matter of such magnitude? Does talking about the life’s work of Dorothy Day or telling a gathering of nuns he loves them compensate for this lack?
Religions, including Christianity, are not the source of gender discrimination; cultures are. Religions, however, often are conduits of culture-based discrimination, making it possible that a 239-year-old country such as ours has been allowing women to vote for only the past 95 years.
Noticeably absent (or, maybe, not widely reported) during the pope’s visit was any large-scale effort by women’s groups to address the issue of women in the priesthood. It’s not as if American Catholics don’t have an opinion on the subject; for the past several years, the number of those who favor the ordination of women has hovered around 60 per cent, yet they appear content to tolerate the present situation rather than emboldened to demand change. I imagine their faith confers a patience that eludes me, a knowledge that reminds them that religions have rules and change sometimes is slow. They know there was a time when Catholic women couldn’t participate in mass, sing in choirs or even touch the cloth on a church altar.
A friend, an agnostic who describes herself as a “recovering” Catholic, has great admiration for Francis. She – among other astute women I’ve heard talk about this pope – did not seem to have a problem with his not having waded into the thicket of gender equality. When asked why, she explained she believes his beliefs still may be evolving, and that he may yet surprise us on the subject. Perhaps, but mightn’t a bit of direct action speed the process?
A pundit, speaking on a news program recently, noted it was men who voted to give women the franchise in this country. It was pointed out that those men, most likely, had wives and daughters to prod them, relationships missing from the lives of the men who make up the College of Cardinals. It is doubtful those cardinals or their leader will welcome women into the ranks of ordained clergy anytime soon without being made to do so by the laity.
The first pope of whom I became aware was John XXIII. His has been a hard act to follow. Francis may yet rise to that stature, but he may need help. He is, after all (as he would acknowledge), a man as fallible as any other.