Pope Francis visits the European Parliament.
Pope Francis visits the European Parliament.

(WOMENSENEWS)–He’s charismatic. His smile could light up the Sistine Chapel. He cares about everyone and everything; the poor, homeless, weak, elderly, disabled, incarcerated, refugees, the earth, air, animals, plants, sea creatures and even, algae.

He has said out loud and without apology that we have grown an economy that “kills” and a “disposable culture” that have allowed “the powerful to feed upon the powerless”; we have worshipped the false god of trickle-down economics and caused “environmental degradation” that is devastating the lives of the world’s poorest people; and he charged us to act.

On Holy Thursdays, he washed the feet not of priests in fancy basilicas but of elderly and imprisoned women as well as men. He lives in a Vatican guest house instead of a papal apartment, recently visited a local optometrist to fix his glasses and seemed to be having a good time with Angelina Jolie.

He’s Pope Francis, the former Jorge Mario Bergoglio, and his poll numbers are through the roof. Admirers cheer, content to leave the story there. I can’t. I grew up Catholic. As a journalist and author, this has long been my church to battle for women’s rights, and it’s been a losing one. But from the moment Francis stepped out onto the Vatican balcony as the new pope and didn’t talk at us but asked us to bless him, I was smitten. I stood looking at the TV in my kitchen with tears in my eyes.

Just over two years have passed. The tears are gone. My blood pressure is up.

In the lead up to the pope’s much publicized first trip to the U.S. next week, when he will be the first pope ever to address a joint session of Congress, my friends–Catholic, non-Catholic, atheist–want to know: What do I think of Pope Francis They ask with half smiles, tentatively; I know they’re secretly cheering. They want me to cheer, too. I do, to a point. But then, it all falls apart. It was hard when we had popes who didn’t see the world the way progressive women saw it, but it is even harder to have one who gets it on so many levels, but not on women.

Reproductive Injustice

What astounds me about this deeply compassionate man is the blind spot in his world view. While Francis beholds an ailing world and demands social, economic and environmental justice, what remains invisible and inscrutable to him is any notion of women’s reproductive justice. There is no awareness of the physical, emotional and socio-economic realities of a woman’s life in relationship to her ability to bear children, or of the relationship of those realities to poverty. There is only an embedded belief that father knows best as well as an insistence that women be bound by the divinely inspired dictates of theoretically celibate men who have taken all sacramental and executive power unto themselves.

While this is a particular burden for Catholic women, we are all subject to a medieval theology of women on which Catholic Church leaders, including Francis, base their promotion of public policies that compromise women’s health and lives around the world.

For example, despite the mountains of evidence of the benefits of birth control to the physical, social and economic health of women and children, Francis supports the church’s ban on “artificial” contraception. In an airborne press conference to Rome from Manila, the Philippines (a site of relentless anti-birth control church lobbying), he expounded a bit, arguing for “responsible parenthood” and cautioning Catholics that they need not breed “like rabbits.” But rather than urge a change in teaching to support that idea, he blamed the victim. He reported that he’d “rebuked” a woman pregnant with her eighth child, whose previous seven had been born by C-section, as this one would need to be, too, accusing her of “irresponsibility” while leveling no such charge at her partner, and chastising her for risking, if she were to die, leaving behind “seven orphans.”

He went on to laud the “many, many methods” of “licit” (in church terms) birth control, when only one, the notoriously undependable rhythm method, is church-approved. Francis sees “reproductive health” policy as a product of the population police, and women without agency, as victims.

Many hailed the pope’s recent announcement of a speedier process of forgiveness for the “sin” of abortion, an expression of his year of mercy. Francis characterized abortion as “a serious problem of our time,” the result of a “changed relationship with respect to life.”

Actually, nothing has changed about the relationship of women to abortion or life. Women the world over, from time immemorial, have been driven to end pregnancies they knew they could not handle, often at great cost. Today, unsafe abortions take the lives of tens of thousands of women each year. What is relatively new is that in the eyes of the church, the greatest sin is not chemical warfare or ethnic cleansing, prisoner torture or blowing children up with bombs, but ending a pregnancy, even at the zygote stage. And while women who have abortions are automatically excommunicated, not even priest rapists or murderers are subject to the same censure. It also bears noting that all of the priests to whom women must confess their abortions are male; there are no exceptions for women whose past priest confessors used the confessional as a sexual hunting ground.

Opposed to Female Ordination

Pope Francis also extended mercy to the schismatic Society of St. Pius X, allowing their priests to hear confessions, a step beyond Pope Benedict’s lifting of the excommunications of several of their bishops. Unfortunately, Francis made no such gesture towards the excommunicated members of Roman Catholic Women Priests or their advocates, such as expelled peace activist Father Roy Bourgeois. Though advocating a greater “role” for women in the church, Francis is a steadfast opponent of women’s ordination. That sounds like an in-house problem but it has enormous ramifications. It means that at Francis’ Synod on the Family–a momentous worldwide gathering in October – several hundred bishops will vote on issues that, if Francis approves, could affect women’s lives for years to come, yet there will not be a single voting woman in the room.

As to his take on feminism and women’s rights, Francis’s early public comments tended to the incendiary. Rather than respond to the female Vatican correspondent of the Rome daily Il Messaggero’s question about the underlying misogyny in the church, he joked that women came from “a rib.” To her question about whether he would appoint a woman to head a Vatican department, he countered by noting the great power of priests’ housekeepers. The pope has expressed worry about “machismo with skirts,” seeing feminists as engaged in a “vindictive battle” and holding that after women got the vote they should have packed up their placards and gone home. He has said that what the church needs is a theology of women, an incredible insult to the contemporary Catholic women–like Fordham University’s Sister Elizabeth Johnson, a proponent of the female face of God and of late censured by the U.S. bishops–who literally invented feminist theology.

More recently, he’s doing better, calling for “radical equality” between women and men, equal pay for equal work, support for balancing work and family and the opportunity for women to be employed “where important decisions are made” (except, of course, in the church hierarchy).

So here I sit, watching and waiting. I’ll be happy if Pope Francis brings his fight for economic and environmental justice to the U.S. Congress next week. I’ll be devastated if his anti-choice fervor fires up the forces committed to compulsory childbirth and defunding Planned Parenthood. But mostly, I’ll be hoping that one day he arrives at a truly coherent social justice message, one where women’s issues are world issues, and where women’s rights–including and especially reproductive rights–are human rights.

A girl can dream.

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