Forget E.F. Hutton. It’s P.F. (Pope Francis) these days who, when he talks, people listen.
And then they get busy trying to figure out what he was really saying. Even non-Catholics are keen to study his words, so surprised and delighted are they to hear a pope say things that suggest to them a more enlightened view of the world, even if those views are attitudinal rather than tangible.
Each time Francis speaks, his words are as shiny objects on a desert floor. We scramble to examine them, turning them over, looking for hidden meanings, holding them up to the light in search of codes and encryptions.
Perhaps Francis finds this amusing. Then again, perhaps he is as shrewd as he seems to be guileless. He says what he means to say, and if people want to argue over the implications of what he says, well, so be it. Once he has said something, the light he sheds travels with the speed of a meme.
Many examples come to mind, but the most recent was about women, always treacherous territory for a pope — or any man. Speaking to a crowd of students at the University of Santo Tomas during his recent visit to the Philippines, Francis noted with gentle disapproval that there weren’t many women in attendance.
Then he said a series of things so simple and true that they were at once obvious and sublime.
“Women have much to tell us in today’s society. Sometimes we’re too macho, and we don’t leave enough room for women.” And, “Women are able to see things with different eyes than us. Women are able to ask questions that men can’t understand.”
Well, now, that’s a mouthful. But what was he really saying?
On MSNBC’s Morning Joe, co-anchor Mika Brzezinski postulated that Francis was hinting at changes in the church that might allow women to become priests. Many people, including Catholics, think it’s time, but it’s not likely to happen under Francis’ watch. The pope has said that the issue is settled and “that door is closed.”
But, wait, what does that mean? Didn’t he say “door”? See how fertile the pope’s words are?
Robert McClory, Northwestern University journalism professor and author of As It Was in the Beginning: The Coming Democratization of the Catholic Church, explored the door as metaphor in an article for the National Catholic Reporter. Francis didn’t say the issue is behind a wall or a barbed-wire fence, McClory wrote. A door can be opened.
Might Francis have been hinting as much?
In the same vein, writer Lorena O'Neil said in her article Catholicism, Women and the Winds of Change that Francis is “touching the doorknob to see how hot the fire is on the other side.”
Perhaps they are right. But while we’re speculating, there’s yet another possibility. Maybe he was signaling to followers of Islamic fundamentalism, which subjugates and dehumanizes women. I doubt he was, but I like this idea. Does the Taliban pay attention to what the leader of the Catholic Church has to say?
To those who would suggest that the church also dehumanizes women by keeping them in subordinate positions, there’s the problem of Mary. She wasn’t just the mother of Jesus but the mother of God, no secondary role. In the church, Mary is the mediator of all grace and in the hierarchy of heaven, she is higher than all men.
Even non-believers believe this, or so goes the joke (wit unknown) beloved by Catholics: “There is no God and Mary is His Mother.”
This is to say, Mary holds an exalted position in the church that can never be compromised. Herein lies the conflict for modern feminists, who long ago renounced women’s status as the revered object on a pedestal and traded the favors of chivalry for the mundane privilege of full participation in the machinations of “mankind,” for lack of a better word.
And, though Francis wishes to soften the language of the church and welcome all to the pew, he isn’t likely to budge that door. Whatever his intent in Manila, which, someone has to say, may have been only an observation intended for his immediate audience, Francis got people thinking and talking about a subject the larger world still needs to hear: Women have much to say.
© 2015, Washington Post Writers Group