In his annual January 1st mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, Pope Frances provided an ode to motherhood; something that rings a bit hollow given his positions on other issues including abortion and the ordination of women as well as his decidedly lacklustre response to sexual abuse by Catholic clergy.
In his sermon, he said that a mother’s example is the best antidote to today’s disjointed world of solitude and misery. According to the Pope:
“a world that looks to the future without a mother’s gaze is shortsighted. . . . We need to learn from mothers that heroism is shown in self-giving, strength in compassion, wisdom in meekness.”
Mothers should be meek
I am all for self-giving and compassion, but the word meekness left me cold. I looked up the meaning of meek, and every dictionary I turned to included the word submissive in the definition; some also used the phrase “easily imposed on.” No thanks! Perhaps he could, instead, have said that we learn from mothers that wisdom can be found in humility.
But why mothers in particular? Why not women more generally? This elevation of motherhood to a saintlike status is hard to take from the leader of a religious institution that remains stalwart in its opposition to abortion. As recently as October 2018, in a speech he gave in Italy, Pope Frances described abortion as “hiring a hitman to resolve a problem.” Notably, he did not comment on the many situations in which continuing with a pregnancy can result in the loss of another human life, that of the mother; nor did he mention ending sexual violence against women and girls or addressing the poverty in which millions of women live after they are forced into motherhood. For him, “it is not right to take a human life” is the answer.
Brides of Christ
While many have lauded Pope Francis for his progressive (relatively speaking) positions on some social and environmental issues, he has not budged in supporting the Catholic Church’s position against the ordination of women. In June of last year, he said:
“We must give them a role . . . . [but] John Paul II was clear and closed the door, and I won’t turn on this.”
Not surprisingly, this comment was greeted with considerable criticism by those who believe women should be able to be priests. An editorial on The Women’s Ordination Conference website the day after this comment said, in part:
“We are disappointed, but not surprised, that the Pope remains trapped in outdated arguments about the role of women as the ‘bride of Christ.’”
Connecting the lack of ordained women with the ongoing scandal of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy, former nun Bridget Mary Meehen, noted:
“If we had women as equals and partners, women ordained in the Catholic church, we would not be in this mess.”
Meehen has led a rebel movement to ordain women, in defiance of church doctrine: an offence that is categorized as being as serious as sexual abuse and that can lead to ex-communication.
And what about that pesky sexual abuse?
This pope has dragged his heels in responding appropriately to ongoing revelations about the sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy. There seems little doubt that, despite his protestations to the contrary, he knew enough about Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s abusive behaviour that he should have intervened many years ago. Instead, McCarrick was allowed to retire from his position with the College of Cardinals last year, after the church had paid out hundreds of thousands of dollars to young men, many of them seminarians, he had sexually abused.
In his annual speech to the Vatican Curia (the administrative institutions through which the pope conducts the business of the church) in December, Pope Francis told abusers to “hand yourself over to human justice and prepare for divine justice,” while assuring his listeners that the church will “never again” cover up clergy sexual abuse.
I am not a religious person, but it seems to me the Catholic church would be better served if, instead of empty platitudes like these and those about mothers issued by the Pope on January 1st, it took concrete, even dramatic steps, to permit the ordination of women, to support reproductive choice, including abortion, and to hold those responsible for sexual abuse criminally and civilly accountable.