Pope Francis’ resounding no to women becoming priests may come as a surprise considering the popular narrative of him as a reformer who seeks to bring change to the Roman Catholic Church.
Often seen as wanting to overturn the conservative thrust of recent pontificates, Francis has shown himself to be squarely on the side of Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI when it comes to women’s ordination.
“The final word is clear,” he said Tuesday when asked about women’s ordination during an in-flight press conference returning from Sweden, “it was said by St John Paul II and this remains.”
“Forever?” the journalist asked. “Never, ever?”
“If we carefully read the declaration of St. John Paul II it goes in that direction, yes,” Francis replied.
In August, Francis had raised hopes for those in favor of women’s ordination when he created a special commission to study women deacons in the Catholic Church. Like priests, deacons are also ordained, so the thinking went that if Francis allows women deacons, he might also allow women priests.
But not so fast. For Francis, the question is twofold.
One, he subscribes to the Catholic Church’s long tradition of male priesthood because Jesus chose men as his apostles and because of their theological understanding that a priest, “acts in the person of Christ,” so must be male. This is what Francis was reaffirming by quoting St. John Paul II.
Two, he does not like “clericalism,” or the emphasis on the power and privilege of priesthood. He has spent a large part of his three years as Pope speaking out against arrogant priests who are more concerned with power than service. So the last thing he wants to do is add women to that group.
“Women in the Church must be valued, not clericalized,” said the Pope in 2013 in an interview with Italian daily, La Stampa.
For him, the idea that the only position worth having in the Catholic Church is that of a priest is mistaken. In this vein, he has continually highlighted the importance of lay people and women in leadership positions throughout the Church. Although he has yet to make any major female appointments, he has created a new Vatican office for Laity, Family and Life, in which lay people can hold leadership positions.
Proponents of women’s ordination, however, argue that real decision-making in the Catholic Church is done by bishops and cardinals, all of whom must be priests.
They argue that gender should not matter in roles of authority in the Catholic Church.
But it is precisely on this point that Pope Francis disagrees: gender does matter for him and in fact is the reason he thinks women should have other roles besides priesthood.
“The way of viewing a problem, of seeing anything, is different for a woman compared to a man. They must be complementary, and in consultations it is important that there are women,” the Pope said in May, 2016 to the International Union of Superiors General.
For a modern pope, it may seem a decidedly un-modern stance, but the difference between men and women is a cornerstone of Francis’ thinking and at the heart of his no to women priests.