Editor’s Note: Kirsten Powers is a CNN senior political analyst and New York Times bestselling author of “Saving Grace: Speak Your Truth, Stay Centered and Learn to Coexist with People Who Drive You Nuts.” Follow her on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook @KirstenPowers. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the author. View more opinion at CNN.
Pope Francis put another crack in the Catholic Church’s “stained glass ceiling” last week, announcing reforms that will allow women to head some Vatican offices. The Vatican is now free to hire the best person for these jobs, instead of being limited to an ever-shrinking group of cassocked men.
The news caught some by surprise, because as recently as 2015 Pope Francis rejected the idea out of hand.
Kate McElwee, the executive director of Women’s Ordination Conference, a feminist Catholic organization, told me, “The fact that [Francis] evolved on this question in such a short amount of time is huge and gives a lot of hope to me.”
Indeed, the step is laudable. But it’s time for Francis to evolve on another issue: his opposition to ordaining women.
Francis has made other moves towards women’s equality in the church, including issuing a decree that formally allowed women to give readings from the Bible during Mass, act as altar servers and distribute communion. And significantly, last year he appointed the French nun, Sister Nathalie Becquart, as the first woman to serve as an undersecretary of the Synod of Bishops, an advisory body to the pope.
The core arguments against ordination as deacon, priest or bishop of more than half of all Catholics are far from persuasive.
Catholics are asked to believe that Jesus’s selection of only male apostles presents unequivocal evidence he wanted only men to be ordained. Worse still, we are told that women can’t be ordained because Jesus was a man, therefore women can’t “image” or stand in as a representative of Christ.
Internationally recognized Catholic theologian Phyllis Zagano, who Pope Francis appointed to the 2016 Papal Commission for the Study of the Diaconate of Women, considered these claims in her 2020 book “Women: Icons of Christ” and found them wanting but undeniably influenced by anti-female animosity.
In her book, Zagano makes the case for the ordination of women deacons as the next obvious step toward full equality for women in the church. Deacons are ordained ministers who can preside at weddings, baptisms and funerals but cannot celebrate Mass.
Zagano pointed out in an interview that John Paul II’s Ordinatio Sacerdotalis does not apply to deacons, so that is one less hurdle to overcome. Pope Francis deemed the research of his first commission on the topic “inconclusive.” He did, however, announce a second commission in 2020 to again study the issue.
This resistance is frustrating because the case for female deacons is obvious. As Zagano points out in her book, “the only person in Scripture with the descriptor ‘deacon’ is Phoebe and Paul did not feminize her title to ‘deaconess.’” She also writes that, “[b]ishops in the past…clearly ordained women as deacons with virtually identical ceremonies to those they used for the men they ordained as deacons.”
The argument that comes in for the most vigorous challenge from Zagano is the idea that women can’t be icons of Christ. “Not only is [this] wrong,” Zagano writes, “It is a statement that redounds to the most serious and most dangerous views of women around the world,” including the belief that women are “unclean.”
Zagano called the denial of ordination of women as deacons a “scandal” that “goes [so] deeply against the teachings of the Catholic Church and Scripture that it is probably formally heretical.”
To suggest that women can’t “image Christ” because Jesus lived as a man is to completely miss the point. It bizarrely has not registered with the men who have developed the theology of the Catholic Church that Jesus could only have been a man. How would a woman in a culture that unapologetically treated women as inherently inferior become a spiritual leader of Jesus’s magnitude? It’s preposterous.
What ordained ministers are imaging is not anatomy, but essence. If a person cannot see the image of Christ in an ordained woman, but naturally confers that on an ordained person with male anatomy, then they have some deeper issues with which to wrestle. “To deny sacramental ordination for women as deacons is to deny their full humanity as created in the image and likeness of God,” notes Zagano.
“The people who are wed to this ‘iconic’ argument argue that…when people are looking at a woman at the altar, that woman doesn’t point to Jesus in the same easy way that a man would,” Catholic scholar Natalia Imperatori-Lee told me. “But we don’t make priests retire when they are 33 (the age Jesus was believed to be when he died). Many priests are old and Jesus never looked old.”
Many people might find engaging in this debate a waste of time. Countless Catholics have understandably fled the church, and those outside of it – and even inside – can find it archaic, misogynist and abusive. But ignoring the Catholic Church won’t change the enormous influence it has over people’s lives. There are more than a billion Catholics worldwide, and in many cultures extricating oneself from its cultural power is not a real option.
“The Catholic Church is a huge superpower, and we believe that the church could restore its moral voice and credibility if it practiced gender equity. Equality for women and girls changes the world,” McElwee told me. “It’s easy for some of us in Western countries to opt out of the church’s powers, but in a lot of communities, the church runs the only hospital or the only school. The theology that teaches that girls are somehow subservient or the complements to men filters through, and that gets taught around the world.”
Even for those who could walk away, many don’t want to abandon their faith, which is a source of solace and support. They want a church that serves its people, behaves morally and operates according to the teachings of Jesus rather than patriarchal norms and a boys’ club ethos.
Having ordained women is the only hope of achieving this goal.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece misidentified the organization headed by Kate McElwee. It is the Women's Ordination Conference.