I had just returned home for Thanksgiving (which I wasn’t actually supposed to do, but Mom’s pumpkin pie before syllabi, right?) and had tons of reading and research to do in preparation for four lengthy final papers. So, you can imagine I was a bit perturbed when Pope Francis came out with an encyclical on November 24th. Of course, I had to read it. And of course, it was so relevant to one of my already-written final papers that I had to go back and add another section. I mean, couldn’t he have waited until after finals were over?
Seriously, all kidding aside, I have mixed emotions about the release of Evangelii Gaudium. Part of me, the Jesuit-educated girl whose Catholic faith saved her life at one time, wants to keep spreading the Pope-love. He washed the feet of a Muslim woman on Holy Thursday! He doesn’t have red shoes! He spent his birthday with the homeless! He just defended breast-feeding in public! The list goes on and on. I love this man. I feel hope. As I read through the encyclical, I found myself shouting “Amen!” at many points. He cautions against viewing the Kingdom of God as a purely otherworldly reality. Religion does not solely exist “to prepare souls for heaven,” as God wants “his children to be happy in this world too (182).” The kingdom is already in our midst. I wondered, do I do enough to bring it about? How often do I forget the poor?
He outright condemns capitalism (this does not amount to Marxism! Sorry Rush Limbaugh!), He calls for a financial system which serves rather than rules. Quoting St. John Chrysostom, he exclaims, “Not to share one’s wealth with the poor is to steal from them and to take away their livelihood. It is not our own goods we hold, but theirs (57).” In many ways, Francis reflects liberation theology’s call for a preferential option for the poor. Each individual Christian and every community is called to be an instrument of God for the liberation and promotion of the poor, and for enabling them to become fully a part of society (187).”
Yet, I was disheartened as I came to the section of the encyclical where he discusses women’s role in the Church. Pope Francis writes:
“I readily acknowledge that many women share pastoral responsibilities with priests, helping to guide people, families and groups and offering new contributions to theological reflection. But we need to create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the Church. Because the feminine genius is needed in all expressions in the life of society, the presence of women must also be guaranteed in the workplace and in the various other settings where important decisions are made, both in the Church and in social structures (103).”
However,“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 (104).”
Furthermore, the Pope has not challenged the theory of gender complementarity, which asserts that by nature, men and women have certain traits that compliment one another. They are separate parts that together make up one composite whole. This view which fails to take into account those who do not fit into the male-female gender binary.
I realize that this post is a ripe target for criticism. Can’t I just appreciate all the good in this encyclical? Surely, the Pope can’t just change everything right away! Finally, isn’t my ability to worry about issues like women’s ordination a sign of my own privilege? Isn’t that a first world problem? And these critics would be correct. I am a middle-class female doctoral student in North America. I do not have to worry on a day to day basis whether or not I am going to eat or have a place to sleep. I’ve been fortunate to have never been a victim of domestic violence or sexual abuse. So, I do not have to focus on basic survival the way other women do. I think back to my freshman year at Fordham University. President Joseph McShane, SJ welcomed us with the words, “To those whom much has been given, much is expected.” I have been given the opportunity to study theology at three of the most prestigious institutions in the country. I believe pushing for women’s ordination and a change in Church teaching on issues regarding homosexuality, birth control, etc., is something I am compelled to do with the knowledge I have gained.
Is getting food on everyone’s table more important than getting to hear a woman give a homily next Sunday? Absolutely! However, what people have failed to consider is that women’s subordination is directly correlated with poverty. We cannot end poverty without tackling racism, sexism, homophobia, and other types of oppression. Households headed by women are more likely to be in poverty than those headed by men. Though the wage gap is narrowing, women, on average, have lower salaries for the same occupations. Women are more likely to be impoverished than men. Joanna Manning, in her book, Is The Pope Catholic? A Woman Confronts Her Church, describes the effect of Humanae Vitae on women in Africa. Many of these women are threatened by husbands if they refused to engage in sexual intercourse, yet are not able to obtain birth control, which results in the birth of more children than these women can feed, educate, and shelter. Women have been fired from jobs in Catholic schools for getting pregnant out of wedlock. The same has happened to openly gay and lesbian teachers. Abortion is prohibited even in the case of rape or to protect the life of the mother. Yet, women are more likely to be the victims of rape, domestic violence, and sexual assault than men. The Church claims to champion equal rights for women in the workplace, yet maintaining gender complementarity, the Church insists that a woman’s (but not a man’s) primary duty is the home, that women should not work outside of economic necessity. This makes it harder for women to find jobs when abandoned by their spouse or when walking away from an abusive relationship.
Systems of oppression intersect with one another. Racism, sexism, and homophobia are major causes of poverty, as they treat persons as less than human, and decrease their opportunities for achievement. If, as the Pope advocates, we are going to end the hierarchical gap between the rich and the poor, then we need to eliminate other oppressive hierarchies as well: man over woman, white over black or Latino, straight over gay or lesbian, etc.
So, yes, I am not satisfied with Evangelii Gaudium. I respect the Pope, but I cannot celebrate an encyclical that seeks to end poverty without addressing the subordination of women, which contributes to poverty. If the Church really wants to end poverty, Pope Francis should order that all single pregnant women and gay/lesbian teachers who were fired from their teaching positions be given their jobs back to ensure their economic security. The Church should finally acknowledge that women can act “in persona Christ” and not let young girls grow up in a Church in which they are made to feel that their bodies are taboo, that regardless of how much they love Jesus, they cannot consecrate his body and blood at mass. The Church should realize that not all families fit into the male-female gender binary, and push for these “non-traditional families” to receive the benefits and protections they need to provide for themselves and their children.
The Church needs to set the example, the Church needs to make the kingdom of God a reality now. In that kingdom, there is no domination. There is no structure where only celibate men get to make all the decisions, and decide what is best for people affected by oppressions they have never had to experience.
Maybe I am asking the Pope for too much, but doing “too much” and shaking up the status quo is the only way to really put a stop poverty. Sure, it might cause controversy and it might make the Pope really unpopular with certain groups of people. But, hey, Jesus wasn’t exactly Mr. Popularity.
Two thousand years ago, a poor Nazorean woman was pregnant, not by her husband. She brought the Savior into the world. How would we treat Mary if this event happened today?