Pope Francis has been praised as a progressive pontiff, but on one subject he’s decidedly old-school: the ordination of women as priests.
On his way back from a ceremony in Sweden to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation on Tuesday, Francis spoke to a group of journalists on board his plane and was asked if there might be women priests in the next few decades.
“On the ordination of women in the Catholic Church, the last word is clear,” he said, referring to a letter published by Pope John Paul II published in 1994 that says female priests could never be ordained because Jesus chose only men to be his apostles.
When an incredulous journalist responded “But really forever? Never?” Pope Francis said, “If we read carefully the declaration made by St. John Paul II, it goes in that direction.”
The problem is that not everyone views that letter as gospel. Indeed the Women’s Ordination Conference, a group that works to ordain women as priests, calls the document “outdated, fallible and painful” and says Pope Francis should be looking elsewhere for inspiration.
“Instead of citing John Paul II, Pope Francis might have cited the Vatican’s own Pontifical Biblical Commission that concluded in 1977 that there is no valid scriptural or theological reason for denying ordination to women, or looked to archeology and historical documents that show women’s leadership in the early Church,” the group said in a statement.
“He talks all the time about mercy, and he has no mercy on woman called to the priesthood,” Pat Brown from Catholic Women’s Ordination told VICE News.
While Francis is seen in many ways as the “cool pope,” on the issue of women becoming priests he has stuck very much to the traditional way of thinking. He declared this view publicly first in 2013 and again in 2015. The reason it’s still making news is because campaigners for a more equal Church had seen signs that Francis might be changing his stance on this topic.
“[I’m] not surprised but disappointed,” Brown said. “He has said this type of thing before, but he seemed more categoric yesterday. He had just come from a service where there was a [female] Lutheran priest and he had hugged her. You see these type of images and wonder what he is thinking.”
Pope Francis confused matters regarding female ministers further when he set up a commission earlier this year to investigate the possibility of women becoming deacons in the Church.
Brown calls Francis’ view on women a “blind spot” given the other good work he’s doing to change the way the Church operates. “We have to hope he gets some insight,” she said.
The pope also shows a lack of mercy for women who are called to the priesthood, Brown said. But despite the latest setback, she said campaigners will continue to fight. As the Catholic Women’s Ordination puts it, “Patriarchy will not have the last word.”