Church still marginalizes women


Last week, Pope Francis loosed a media tsunami by dropping a pebble of sanity into an ocean of religious angst. “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has goodwill, who am I to judge?” he told reporters on the flight back to Rome after his trip to Brazil.

What did it mean? Was he changing church teaching? And how might it affect 1.2 billion Roman Catholics worldwide?

Hundreds of news stories and thousands of blogs, tweets and commentaries later, most observers heard in Francis’ statement a proposal to end his predecessor’s hard line on homosexuality. Pope Benedict XVI had barred men with “deep-seated homosexual” tendencies from seminaries, calling homosexuality an “objective disorder.” But Francis said gays who sought to live faithfully — that is, celibate — were not to be judged or excluded from the church.

By looking to the individual’s heart instead of his genitals, Francis demonstrated a commitment to those who are neglected, marginalized and disenfranchised, as he repeatedly has done during his four-month papal tenure. Yet there is one group more numerous than LGBTs in the church and significantly more neglected, disenfranchised and marginalized — for whom his ministrations fall short.

Who, you ask? Roman Catholic women.

During the same interview on the papal plane, Francis said, “Women in the church are more important than bishops and priests,” just as “Mary is more important than the apostles.” Continuing, the pope said the church needed to develop a theology that addressed the role of women. But, he clearly stated, those roles would never include the ordained ministry because Pope John Paul II expressly forbade it. (I leave it to Catholic scholars and theologians to explain why Francis can all but countermand Benedict’s directives on gays but not John Paul’s on women.)

“That door is closed,” Francis told reporters. Those are harsh words for millions of Catholic women worldwide. These include nuns whose communities have been beggared by declines in vocations and decreased institutional support, lay women whose leadership sustains parishes without full-time priests and girls seeking to discover their calling in a church where ordination in impossible.

Francis’ remarks also have ramifications for millions of women worldwide whose poverty and exploitation have roots in their second-class religious status. And sadly, even if the world were full of female Catholic priests, Orthodox rabbis, evangelical preachers and Muslim imams, the problems of sex trafficking, prostitution, indentured servitude, honor killings, rape, genital mutilation and polygamy would not immediately disappear. Still, full recognition of women’s religious calling and authority would be a start in dismantling theological justifications that enable sexism, misogyny and exploitation.

Reporters who headlined the pope’s remarks on gays, knowing the story had more juice than Francis’ condemnation of drug cartels and excoriations of poverty, treated his comments on women as an afterthought. That’s because in the current media ecology of religion and public life, sex sells and gender gets a nod. (Forget religious leaders opining on violence, materialism or climate change. Unless Jesus himself appeared in a “Remember Sandy Hook” T-shirt to buy sunscreen at Wal-Mart, there’s no story.)

But the ongoing negotiation of gender has been the American story since the 1960s. The advent of the birth control pill, severing sex and procreation, catalyzed profound changes in family life, the workplace and the marketplace. And the subsequent effect on politics and economics has been perhaps most vociferously debated in the religious sphere. Headlines on abortion, the culture war and “family values” have been a staple for decades now.

Reporters tell the daily story, inflected by the demands of the “sex sells” imperative. But the absence of sustained critical attention to social and cultural forces, including religion, keeps us reeling from headline to headline. Yes, Francis took a step forward in the church’s treatment of gays. But he kept in place its bar to women.

And the import of that bar — its global reverberations in unwanted pregnancies, female poverty and sexual slavery — remains hidden in plain sight.

Diane Winston teaches media and religion at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School. She is editor of “The Oxford Handbook on Religion and the American News Media.”

Visit the Los Angeles Times at

Distributed by MCT Information Services


ARCHIVE PHOTOS on MCT Direct (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Pope Francis

ARCHIVE CARICATURE on MCT Direct (from MCT Faces in the News Library, 202-383-6064): Pope Francis


©2013 Los Angeles Times

Read more From Our Inbox stories from the Miami Herald

  • It’s not Beijing’s hackers you should worry about, it’s Moscow’s

    When U.S. officials warn of the threat foreign cyber spies pose to American companies and government agencies, they usually focus on China, which has long been home to the world’s most relentless and aggressive hackers. But new information shows that Russian and Eastern European hackers, who have historically focused their energies on crime and fraud, now account for a large and growing percentage of all cyber espionage, most of which is directed at the United States.

  • Elizabeth Warren’s needed call for student loan reform

    As commencement season approaches, graduating students will soon hear words of wisdom from speakers offering experience, advice and inspiration. One thing they’re not likely to hear about is the $1.08 trillion elephant on the quad — our nation’s student debt crisis.

  • Jenny McCarthy, vaccine agitator, does a pivot

    What do you call someone who sows misinformation, stokes fear, abets behavior that endangers people’s health, extracts enormous visibility from doing so and then says the equivalent of “Who? Me?”

Miami Herald

Join the

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category