Is the new Pope bad news for women?

March 18, 2013

As most of you probably know already, the newly-elected Pope Francis represents a lot of firsts: First Jesuit to become pope. First Latin American (or from the ‘New World’). First pope to take the name Francis.

I’m Italian I take a special interest in his election. He’s the new archbishop of Rome and – due to a long history of mingling between the Italian state and the Catholic Church, due to culture and religion – Italians tend to follow Papal elections with a particular, even if unwanted, attention.

I was messaging my mom on Skype the night the whole thing happened – live webcam on St. Peter’s Square and everything – and I have to say a sort of emotional shiver went through my body as she texted “Biancaaaaaaaaaa” (white) to me as puffs of white smoke rose from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel.

I don’t know exactly why but it was an emotional moment. When they announced that the new Pope had picked the name Francis, in honour of St. Francis of Assisi, we all interpreted it as a sign of hope – a sign of humility, a vow of poverty and spirituality.

Also, many of us saw it as a move in a new direction, perhaps a signal that the Church – unlike the Italian state – is willing to change, maybe become more tolerant, embracing the massive changes that have shaken our society in the last 50 years. And perhaps, a sign of recognition that a clean-up is needed in order for this millennia-old institution to survive and retain its credibility.

Then I moved on to a different question, one that is dear to my heart: is the new Pope going to be bad news for women?

Surely it is too early to say but I thought we might extrapolate something – analyse some “hints” – by reviewing some facts and quotes attributed to the new Pope Francis, formerly Jorge Mario Bergoglio, son of an Italian railway worker who emigrated to Argentina, who rose to lead the Jesuit community in Argentina.

Let’s start from what the New York Times wrote last week, that Francis is “a doctrinal conservative” (not that surprising, given he’s a Jesuit, notoriously strict on the doctrine side), who has opposed liberation theology, abortion, gay marriage and the ordination of women, standing with his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI in holding largely traditional views.” Nothing too surprising there. The Church is bound to be conservative and slow to embrace huge changes in society such as gay marriage and the idea of ordaining women. The Church’s unyielding stance against abortion rights is likely something they can’t give up, as it is against the basic Catholic principle of preserving and perpetuating life. Nonetheless, my hopes did sink a bit at that.

I was glad to read in the New York Daily News that, even though Francis opposes contraception in general – that’s the standard view of the Catholic Church, very unlikely to ever change even though many Catholics practice it – he conceded that contraception is permissible in some cases to block the spread of disease.

This would be a significant step forward from former Pope Benedict XVI’s position, best exemplified in a 2009 trip to Africa where he voiced his – and the Church’s – fierce opposition to the use of condoms in a continent still plagued by HIV/AIDS. However, Francis’ position also is in line with a tentative step forward made by Benedict in 2010, when he allowed that condom use might be acceptable when used to prevent disease—not conception.

Then a colleague wrote on Facebook: “He (Francis) said that women are by nature unfit to take on political roles – that the natural order of things and facts of life teach us that the man is THE political being, the Scriptures show us that women are there to support the creative thinking of the man, but nothing more than that.”

There are conflicting reports on this statement. I couldn’t verify this so it might as well be the ignorant rant of someone ignorant. If this is true though, it is a pretty strong statement and we’re certainly not down for much progress in terms of women’s rights, especially within the Church.

However, hope climbed up a notch again when I read another report saying that he chastised priests in Argentina who refused to baptise the babies of single mothers because born out of wedlock.

Another couple of facts I read last week make it seem like Francis is actually a humble guy. Apparently, he has never lived in the sumptuous palace reserved to the archbishop of Buenos Aires but in a humble room with just one heater. Apparently, he cooks his own meals. Apparently, he doesn’t like being chauffeured around in private cars or limos but he’d rather take public transport.

The BBC also said that, if he resigns in ten years time as Benedict did – and Benedict happens to still be alive – we’ll have 3 popes hanging around in Rome. Not sure how I feel about that.

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Jorge Bergoglio did say women are inept and it was published by Argentina’s National News Agency TELAM on June 4, 2007: e-bergoglio-pope-francis-women-are.html

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