By Mary E. Hunt

The fanfare is well underway for Pope Francis’s fall visit to the United States, with stops in New York, Philadelphia, and New York City. His address to Congress is said to be a first of its kind for a religious leader qua religious leader; the privilege has heretofore been reserved almost exclusively for heads of governments. While ignoring the visit might be the wisest feminist option, the extraordinary press coverage alone will make that virtually impossible. This is a religious leader with wide appeal among the masses for reasons that have feminist scholars scratching our heads.

My best guess is that his popularity is the fruit of three major factors: uncertainty, incivility, and inertia. I will describe each one, in an effort to shed light on the pope’s popularity.

In an age when data bombard us from every conceivable medium, there is an increasing gap between information and analysis. We can get “news” 24/7, but few people have the time it takes for quiet reflection and critical analysis to make sense of that information. Somehow, with everything else so fluid around us, people mistakenly think that religions are timeless, for the ages—that they are still points in an otherwise chaotic universe. In fact, religions are as dynamic as everything else, even though in the Pope’s case, resisting change has been a hallmark of Catholicism.

Reliance on external authorities, figures with perceived gravitas, is common in uncertain times. Religious leaders, especially Pope Francis, who heads a billion-plus member denomination, are good candidates for the job of moral authority. Ironically, as secularism becomes more common, a few religious leaders seem to carry more and more moral power. Think of the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Pope Francis as this generation’s top contenders, all men, and all differently poised to make an impact.

While Francis has been seemingly open to conversation on many themes, he is decidedly closed on the subject of women. His brand of genial gentlemanliness, hugging babies and saying he does not have answers to questions of evil for which only tears are adequate, is very attractive. His personal austerity and simple tastes mark him as authentic in many eyes. But it is important to underscore that on the level of doctrine, nothing, but nothing, has changed in the first two years of his papacy. For the Church, abortion is still anathema; same-sex love is still wrong, and women are still thought of it terms of their bodies not their minds. No one I know is holding his or her breath for big changes in the near future. Religions traffic in certainties, and one of them is keeping their own structures intact, something this pope seems to be doing albeit with a velvet glove.

A second reason this pope is so popular is because his persona contrasts so vividly with the incivility of the world. He was notably useful when it came to pushing the US and Cuba to open relations, though business interests will surely profit most from the lifting of the trade embargo. He has pushed world leaders in the various war zones—the Middle East, Eastern Europe, etc.—leveraging his office as his predecessors have done. He has made climate change a religious issue. But the institutional Roman Catholic Church has lost the lion’s share of its previous clout in the public arena. In fact, it is my view that the disproportionate amount of Church energy and money spent on what Marquette University theologian Daniel C. Maguire so aptly named the “pelvic zone issues” seems an obvious effort to recoup a bit of that clout. Witness the US Catholic bishops joining forces with those who would repeal Obamacare over the provision of contraception.

The papal approach to women is neither nice nor civil. Barring women from ordination means not only that they cannot celebrate Mass, but also that they cannot engage in decision making on important issues. Whether it is the use of church buildings for a women’s conference or the denomination’s policy on contraception, how money will be spent or whether same-sex marriages are sacramental, men in Catholic circles make all decisions of import. Even as the number of male priests shrinks and women do more of the pastoral work, women are not the final decision makers about much of anything. So only by bracketing everything having to do with women—priesthood, birth control, abortion, job opportunities, pay equity, safety from abuse—can anyone claim that this pope is civil in his own backyard.

The third reason why Pope Francis is so popular is what I have come to think of as intellectual inertia. For example, members of the media who are generally skeptical of what they report have a certain softness to their take on this pope that in some cases amounts to the suspension of critical judgment. So when Francis famously asked a plane full of reporters, “Who am I to judge?” about the morality of gay priests, apparently it did not occur to any of the star-struck journalists to follow up. They could have asked, “Well why do you lead a church whose public teaching on same-sex loving people is that their orientation is ‘intrinsically, morally disordered’?” Would any self-respecting journalist let a national leader get away with such contradictions without a bit of prying? Even if the remark took the reporters by surprise, how is it that a year later no one has bestirred him or herself to probe? This is simply inertia.

Fortunately, my feminist colleagues in religion are not asleep at the switch. As Patricia Miller shows in her book Good Catholics: The Battle over Abortion in the Catholic Church (2014), there is a lot of ferment and plenty of blowback against Vatican policies. I added to the ferment when the recent meeting of the Pontifical Council on Culture, which focused on women, proved that little is new under the Vatican sun. Women are still perceived as wombs, not brains; mothers, not moral agents. What stunned was that fifty years of feminist scholarship was completely ignored—not refuted, but simply ignored as if it did not exist.

Few people took the time to read and dissect the Council’s study document, which Pope Francis parroted in his remarks at the end of the gathering. Maybe that is fortunate, as it was so intellectually pitiful. But feminist scholars of religion critique these inane documents not because we are pious adherents, but because we know how much damage the Vatican can and does do, especially in countries where Catholicism dominates. Restrictions on birth control alone are enough to compel our action on behalf of ourselves and other women.

So when the hoopla begins in the fall, and people sing the praises of this pope as if he were really making great strides, I caution a bit of skepticism and a lot of careful scrutiny. Otherwise, we will miss an opportunity that few members of the press will facilitate: to engage in public debate about the religious roots of women’s subordination.

MaryHunt PublicityMary E. Hunt, Ph.D., is a feminist theologian who is co-founder and co-director of the Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual (WATER) in Silver Spring, Maryland. A Catholic active in the women-church movement and on LGBTIQ matters, she lectures and writes on theology and ethics with particular attention to liberation issues. She is an editor of A Guide for Women in Religion: Making Your Way from A to Z and co-editor with Diann L. Neu of New Feminist Christianity: Many Voices, Many Views.
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