Catholic women have clapped back at Pope Francis after the pontiff called their struggle for ordination “clericalist” and “disrespectful”.

– Supporters of female priests “sowing division” – Francis

The pontiff makes the remarks on the women’s ordination movement in the new book he authored with his English-language biographer Austen Ivereigh entitled Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future, to be released December 1.

In the volume, the Pope defends himself against accusations that he has not done enough to further the leadership of women in the Church.

He argues that he has tried to “create spaces where women can lead, but in ways that allow them to shape the culture, ensuring they are valued, respected, and recognized”.

The Pope cites as evidence for his claim the fact that he has appointed a number of women to high Vatican roles, “so that they can influence the Vatican while preserving their independence from it”.

But those appointments of women to Vatican jobs notwithstanding, many Catholic women remain unhappy that the pontiff has not furthered the cause of women’s ordination beyond a timid opening to the study of the possible restoration of the female diaconate.

In Let Us Dream, however, Francis rejects the framework in which to be a leader in the Church one has to be ordained, and accuses women’s ordination and Catholic gender justice movements of “sow[ing] division”.

“Changing institutional culture is an organic process which calls for integrating, without clericalizing, the viewpoints of women”, the Pope argues with regard to gender equality.

“Perhaps because of clericalism, which is a corruption of the priesthood, many people wrongly believe that Church leadership is exclusively male”, the Pope laments, before adding “but if you go to any diocese in the world you’ll see women running departments, schools, hospitals, and many other organisations and programs; in some areas, you’ll find many more women than men as leaders”.

Francis’ observations in that sense lead him to conclude that “to say [women] aren’t truly leaders because they aren’t priests is clericalist and disrespectful”.

– “The real ‘clericalism and disrespect’ is in Pope Francis’ understanding of women” – Women’s Ordination Conference

The Pope’s comments linking the women’s ordination movement with clericalism and disrespect have raised the ire of the women and men of the Women’s Ordination Conference (WOC), the self-described “uncompromising feminist voice for women’s ordination and gender equity in the Roman Catholic Church since 1975”.

In a statement November 24, the WOC said it rejected the Pope’s “mischaracterization” of its own movement and others like it “working for a renewed priesthood, free from clericalism and gender discrimination”.

“Women are the heartbeat of the Church and yet every woman, from the parish worker to the Vatican advisor, is subject to the authority of an ordained man”, the women’s ordination campaigners decried.

The WOC continued:

“Women’s exclusion from ordained ministries not only undermines their capacity to make decisions as leaders, but reinforces cultural and social discrimination, and perpetuates structures that subordinate women and can lead to gender-based violence. 

“Until the hierarchy starts accusing every man seeking ordination of ‘clericalism’, we ask that the pontiff stop projecting the problems and corruption of his male hierarchy onto women longing to serve the Church.

“We urge Pope Francis to listen to women who long for equal recognition of their ministries and an equal place at the church’s governing tables”.

The WOC closed its reply to Pope Francis with an invitation that the pontiff join them this weekend for the celebrations for their 45 years witnessing to the “abundant gifts of those working for ordination justice”.

Should he join in the WOC anniversary, the Pope “would find women not seeking to be ‘clericalist’, but partners in the work to renew and strengthen a fractured Church”, the Catholic women’s rights group affirmed.

– In new book, Pope sends mixed messages on women’s equality

Elsewhere in Let Us Dream, the Pope states that he has named a number of women to non-ordained leadership roles in the Vatican because women are “much better administrators than men”, and because women “understand processes better, how to take projects forward”.

Francis adds that already during his time in Argentina he learned that “the advice of women in pastoral and administrative councils was more valuable than that of many men”.

Women’s gifts for administration, the pontiff goes on to point out, have been on full display during the coronavirus crisis, in the sense in which “countries with women as presidents or prime ministers” – such as New Zealand, Germany, Iceland, Taiwan and Finland – “have on the whole reacted better and more quickly than others, making decisions swiftly and communicating them with empathy”.

In terms of the social and economic recovery from the pandemic, too, the Pope says that “the perspective women bring is what the world needs at this time”, especially with regard to the burgeoning field of feminist economics.

More on Novena for the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women:

New book lifts lid on “shocking” sexual and spiritual abuse of women in Church

Pope pleads: “We all need to do a lot more for the dignity of each woman”

Spanish Catholic NGO decries “widespread apathy” in face of fact 30% of world’s women and girls live in fear of violence

German abbess prosecuted for sheltering asylum seekers wins Göttingen Peace Prize

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Progressive Catholic journalist, author and educator. Working on social justice, equality and Church renewal.