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Lost in translation? 7 reasons some women wince when Pope Francis starts talking

Pope Francis delivers his blessing while praying at a statue of Mary overlooking the Spanish Steps in Rome on Dec. 8, 2014, during the feast of the Immaculate Conception. Photo by Paul Haring, courtesy of Catholic News Service

(RNS) When Pope Francis this month wanted to highlight his appointment of several women to a blue-ribbon theological commission, he called the female theologians “strawberries on the cake.”

Yikes.

Two weeks earlier, when the pontiff gave a speech to the European Parliament, he used another lady-based analogy, this time underscoring the continent’s demographic decline and cultural crisis by comparing Europe to a grandmother who is “no longer fertile and vibrant.”

Ouch.

Yes, Francis is a veritable quote machine, tossing off-the-cuff bon mots that the public finds enormously appealing in large part because they are coming from a Roman pontiff — not an office known for its improv routines.

Pope Francis delivers his blessing while praying at a statue of Mary overlooking the Spanish Steps in Rome on Dec. 8, 2014, during the feast of the Immaculate Conception. Photo by Paul Haring, courtesy of Catholic News Service

Pope Francis delivers his blessing while praying at a statue of Mary overlooking the Spanish Steps in Rome on Dec. 8, 2014, during the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Photo by Paul Haring, courtesy of Catholic News Service

But when he speaks about women, Francis can sound a lot like the (almost) 78-year-old Argentine churchman that he is, using analogies that sound alternately condescending and impolitic, even if well-intentioned.

Indeed, Francis has spoken repeatedly of the “feminine genius” and the need for a church to develop “a deeper theology of women,” and of his determination to promote women to senior positions in Rome. He also points out that some of his remarks are meant as jokes, the fruit of a sense of humor that is part of his appeal.

Still, not everyone is amused.

“I am at a loss to see how this could be other than insulting to women who’ve already given up having families of their own to serve God,” The Washington Post’s Melinda Henneberger wrote after a speech in which the pope warned nuns not to become spiritual “old maids.”

And in a Los Angeles Times column this week, New Testament scholar Candida Moss of Notre Dame and Yale Bible professor Joel Baden blasted Francis’ granny comments to the European Parliament as “nothing other than crass chauvinism.”

For all his positive comments and reforms, they said, the pope “reveals a highly patriarchal view” of the value and traditional role of women.

Pope Francis greets auditors of the Synod on the Family as he arrives for the afternoon session at the Vatican Oct. 10. Photo courtesy of Catholic News Service

Pope Francis greets auditors of the Synod on the Family as he arrives for the afternoon session at the Vatican Oct. 10. Photo courtesy of Catholic News Service

Here are seven examples of what these critics are talking about:

1. “Be a mother and not an old maid!”

“Please, let it be a fruitful chastity, a chastity that generates sons and daughters in the church. The consecrated woman is a mother, must be a mother and not an old maid (or “spinster”). … Forgive me for speaking this way, but the motherhood of consecrated life, its fertility, is important.”

Address to nuns from around the world, May 8, 2013

2. “I am wary of ‘masculinity in a skirt.’“

“It is necessary to broaden the opportunities for a stronger presence of women in the church. I am wary of a solution that can be reduced to a kind of ‘female machismo’ (“machismo in gonnella,” he said in Italian, or “masculinity in a skirt”) because a woman has a different make-up than a man. But what I hear about the role of women is often inspired by an ideology of machismo.”

Interview with Jesuit publications, September 2013

3. “The fact is, woman was taken from a rib.”

Q: Do you see a bit of misogyny in the background (of your references to women mainly as mothers and wives rather than leaders)?

A: “The fact is, woman was taken from a rib.” (The pope gives a hearty laugh.) “I am kidding, that was a joke … ”

Interview with the Italian daily Il Messaggero, June 29, 2014

4. “Pastors often wind up under the authority of their housekeeper!”

Q: Can we expect some historic decisions from you, such as making a woman the head of a Vatican department … ?”

A: (He laughs again) “Well, pastors often wind up under the authority of their housekeeper!”

Interview with the Italian daily Il Messaggero, June 29, 2014

Meriam Ibrahim, the Sudanese woman who was nearly executed for apostasy for marrying a Christian man, and her daughter, Maya, meet Pope Francis at the Vatican after arriving in Italy on July 24, 2014, en route to the United States. Photo courtesy L'Osservatore Romano

Photo courtesy L'Osservatore Romano

Meriam Ibrahim, the Sudanese woman who was nearly executed for apostasy for marrying a Christian man, and her daughter, Maya, meet Pope Francis at the Vatican after arriving in Italy on July 24, 2014, en route to the United States. Photo courtesy L’Osservatore Romano

5. “Europe is now a ‘grandmother,’ no longer fertile and vibrant.”

“In many quarters we encounter a general impression of weariness and aging, of a Europe which is now a ‘grandmother,’ no longer fertile and vibrant. As a result, the great ideas which once inspired Europe seem to have lost their attraction … “

Address to the European Parliament, Nov. 25, 2014

6. Woman theologians “are the strawberries on the cake!”

“I would like to note, in the context of the increasingly diverse composition of the Commission, the greater presence of women — still not enough. … They are the strawberries on the cake, but we want more!”

Address to the International Theological Commission, Dec. 5, 2014

7. “A church that seems more like a spinster than a mother”

“When the church does not (evangelize), then the church stops herself, is closed in on herself, even if she is well-organized, has a perfect organizational chart, everything’s fine, everything’s tidy — but she lacks joy, she lacks peace, and so she becomes a disheartened church, anxious, sad, a church that seems more like a spinster than a mother, and this church doesn’t work, it is a church in a museum. The joy of the Church is to give birth … “

Homily at morning Mass, Dec. 9, 2014

KRE/MG END GIBSON

About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.

48 Comments

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  • Look really we don’t need so many pope articles. His religion is on the way out. Let it fade let it fade let it fade away… That’s the real news and no need to show it 10 times a week.

  • “The fact is, woman was taken from a rib.” – Pope Francis

    No.
    That is not ‘A Fact’. It is superstitious, fatuous garbage.

    Some think this Pope is endearing.
    It isn’t!

    This kind of chauvinistic ignorance is exactly what men and women don’t need more of from any leader. It leads to abusive husbands, demeaning sex and the loss of women’s rights.

    The First Law of Religion never changes:
    “Say Something Dangerous and Stupid”

    ____
    AM
    For Peace, Civility and The Separation of Church and State

  • Like it or not, Ms. David, Hank’s right. Relative to population and absolute, Catholicism is heading down and out. The numbers might sound big now, but down they be going. Even with a lot of changes to make the religion match up with modern morals, history won’t be kind to it.

    You can tell that management is worried too. Profits and readership will be submerging faster when they lose their version of Bama as pope too and the next guy who will be more conservative gets the smoke signals to take the helm of the sinker.

  • Max, I think you are right, and observations support your expected outcomes.The Catholic church has caused misery for women and continues to do so, although its time is passing.

  • Personally i think its the whole Enlightenment “we’re so past religion” motif that’s on its way out. We’ve been hearing this mantra for the last three or four centuries, and each prediction of the total collapse of all organized religion has, well, collapsed.

    The world changes, it has always changed, and it will always change. How religion plays a role in society is different, but religion in general, or Catholic Christianity in particular, is hardly in decline anywhere but in parts of the world that are well described as “barren and infertile”.

  • What Max said.
    God can create universe with billions of stars from nothing, but needs a rib to create Eve. Sounds legit.

  • Yes. He uses misogynistic language and seems stuck in misogynistic metaphors and views of the roles of women. It does bother me and yes it needs to be pointed out.

    BUT, while the words he uses regarding women and their roles in the church and the world are cringeworthy, what he is saying behind those words is important. He really is loosening up the hard core emphasis on rules, dogma, obedience and trying to put the Church back to looking at the mercy and love of God. I believe he is trying to open minds and hearts so that the Catholic faith is not talked about and lived as if it were about contraceptives, abortion, gay marriage, teacher firings, child sex abuse, sinful people who marry for a second time without an annulment. Catholics have become very judgmental. So lets get away from all that and remember that we need to ground our hearts on the core of the faith – which is the life of Jesus and what he taught us.

    So, Pope Francis, you get another verbal twack up the side of the head for that misogynistic language and my fervent prayers that you will be help our faith life become rooted again in its source, which is not the Catholic church rules but is Jesus.

  • Translation: Francis offends people whose metier is attitudinizing. That’s the one agreeable thing you might say about the man. Suck it up, David Gibsonwanker.

  • Yes, Eve was made from one of the ribs of Adam after God had a deep sleep fall upon him. (Genesis 2:21,22).

    I like to think she was made from one of his ribs because she was a human like him who was closest to his heart and complemented his life. 🙂

  • David Gibson: Yes, Papa Francis’ comments and metaphors WERE “lost in translation”. By you. Blessings to all ♡

  • Checked out some of the Scandinavian countries. This is what I found:

    Finland has the 5th highest suicide rate in the world. And all the Scandinavian countries top the U.S. in suicide rates.

    Also found that apparently 54 percent of Icelandic adults believe elves exist. Not so unsuperstitious, after all, are they?

    Also found that the Scandinavian countries are very racist. If you’re a Swede they’ll look after you. If you’re not… well. This both from what I found on the Internet and from several friends I know who live there.

    Also found out that Norway is backed by big oil.

    Also found out that if all the Scandinavian countries were a U.S. state, they would be amongst the poorest states.

    Also found out that these countries have a very small population – less people, less problems.

    You seem to be saying that less religion leads to more prosperity. It may be, however, that more prosperity leads to less religion. When people have everything they need, what do they need God for? Jesus did say it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God… I don’t think it’s really possible, without a presupposition, to show that less religion leads to more prosperity.

    I tend to agree with Boyd that the “we’re so past religion” motif has been trumpeted for a few hundred years now and it seems that predictions have just not turned true.

    I also think that your ‘subhuman’ comment is a clear indication of exactly where your kind of worldview leads.

    As to the article, kind of glad that the Pope doesn’t seem too worried about being politically correct. I’m tired of political correctness – I prefer honesty.

  • Poor pick and choose Ryan. You can also dig more dirt on the Christian dominated countries like ours. Just look at the CIA torture news, in our bastion of religion.

    Norway and Sweden both beat good ole USA handily in best places to live rankings.So dig deeper or stuff eet.

  • Frank, looks like you’re picking and choosing now mate 😛 My point was actually to show that Emily is picking and choosing and creating some sort of link based on her own bias. Last I looked, Australia is actually coming on tops on those sorts of lists. But what constitutes a “best” place to live anyway? Great facilities? Great culture? High suicide rates? Availability of jobs? Taxation if you go to church? (By the way, some Scandinavian countries tax you extra if you belong to a church.) Most places are lovely to live if you’ve got money and you’re part of the privileged few. Scandinavia is no exception – ask foreigners, especially those of a darker skin colour, what it’s like to live in Sweden or Denmark.

    Do you really think that Scandinavian countries are doing well (assuming they are) because of a low religious population? Or you don’t think that it might be because they’ve set themselves up so nicely and have a lot of external factors going for them? And do you really think their sort of socialism is sustainable? Have you any idea the kind of taxes they pay over there?

    If you want to make your case, then you would need to also explain the prosperity of America during those times when it was much more Christian than it is right now.

    I think this sort of argument from both of you is way too simplistic. Things are more nuanced than what either of you are proposing.

  • “Frank”? Now who is missing out on “nuance” here?

    Ryan, the good reviews of those countries, and the criteria, are very clear. Your digging for dirt was flat out desperation, and you are pathetic. Get thee back into thine hole in the sewer; the cat has seen your tail.

  • Francis is just same-old-same-old. Softer image but same doctrine. The issue isn’t ‘patriarchy’ or ‘misogyny’–of course that good man isn’t a misogynist. It’s la difference as such that’s the problem.

  • Christ stands for and teaches love, compassion, and equality. “Pope Francis Criticizes the Church for Putting Dogma Before Love,” The New York Times Sept. 20, 2013.

    With Pope Francis it looked like we were getting back to those fundamental Christian values. That is until we really listened to what Francis was saying, and saw how his language belies what he really thinks of women.

    The world is in chaos and full of pain. The Catholic Church can be a strong force for good, but only after it gets off its high horse of doctrine used to justify the tyranny of men, and gets back to the Christian ACTIONS of love, compassion, and equality.

    A hot off the press novel that pulls no punches — THUNDERBOLT – The 2014 Love Story Thriller that Will Determine the Future of The Catholic Church. http://www.ThunderboltBook.com

  • “less people, less problems”
    perceived correctly.
    BECAUSE of stopping enforced overpopulation about the time MY EXISTENCE was enforced by the vatican lobby from a raped wreck a bit south.

  • One thing I have found is that most Catholics and other Christians have a wonderful sense of humour. My father’s family, his brother was a missionary in China and the Phillipines and his cousin or nephew was a priest and his sister was a nun. They all had a wonderful sense of humour and my entire family has a wonderful sense of humour. Don’t be so stuffy, have a laugh. Laughter is the best medicine.

  • Do we need to grow out of putting feminine metaphors and similes on ‘the church’, ‘Europa’ ships and other objects?

  • Say what you want. Think what you want. Believe what you want. We are free to do so.
    But – no matter what – in the end, God wins.

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