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Can women have it all? Pope Francis says they need “freedom to choose”

VATICAN CITY (RNS) The pontiff reiterated his belief that women deserve a greater role and more responsibility in the church -- at a time when some are criticizing the "feminization" of Catholicism.

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

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

VATICAN CITY (RNS) Whether women can, or should, “have it all” —  both work and family — has been one of the most contentious cultural debates of the modern age and one any secular or religious figure engages at his or her peril.

But Pope Francis is nothing if not intrepid, and on Saturday (Feb. 7) he plunged in by arguing that the Catholic Church should help “guarantee the freedom of choice” for women to take up leading posts in the church and in public life while also maintaining their “irreplaceable role” as mothers at home.

In his remarks to the Vatican’s Council for Culture, which has been holding meetings on the role of women in modern life, Francis sought to carve out a “new paradigm” in the gender wars.

He said Western societies have left behind the old model of the “subordination” of women to men, though he said the “negative effects” of that tradition continue.

At the same time, he said, the world has moved beyond a model of “pure and simple parity, applied mechanically, of absolute equivalence” between men and women.

Now, he said, the world needs to think in terms of what he called “reciprocity in equivalence and difference” — a non-ideological model, he called it, that recognizes the unique natures of women and men.

While emphasizing that women have a special role in domestic life as mothers, Francis at several points repeated his belief that the church must reflect changes in society by giving women greater responsibility and visibility “so that women will not feel like guests but as full participants in various social and church environments.”

“This is a challenge that cannot be put off any longer,” Francis said.

Moreover, he said, “all institutions, including the church community, are called to guarantee the freedom of choice for women so that they might have the chance to take on social and ecclesial responsibilities, in a way that is in harmony with family life.”

Francis provided no specific recommendations, either for public policy or for the church. And his speech gave no answer to the “having it all” debate.

His comments come at an especially delicate moment in the Catholic Church’s ongoing debate about the role of women.

U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke, a senior American churchman in Rome and an outspoken conservative, made waves last month when he declared the church has become too “feminized” with too many women — and too many altar girls — in the sanctuary.

Those women are driving men away from church life, Burke said — a theme that has been picked up by other conservatives.

The delegates Francis was addressing on Saturday were taking part in a meeting that had already become a lightning rod for criticism and debate over its depiction of women.

First, a promotional video for the conference featured an Italian actress, Nancy Brilli, who was seen as “a sexy blond” and an inappropriate model for women. The video sparked such a backlash that the Vatican removed the English version from the culture department’s website.

Then the Council for Culture drew fire when it used an image of artist Man Ray’s 1936 sculpture, “Venus Restored,” to illustrate its working document for the conference. The sculpture depicts a classical statue of Venus bound in ropes to represent the plight of women.

That document also made headlines for calling elective plastic surgery an “aggression” against women; one widely-noted phrase asked if such cosmetic procedures resulted in a “burqa made of flesh.”

Francis touched briefly on those topics.

He decried the “many forms of slavery” women face today, including the “commodification” of women and the “mutilation” of their bodies. He blasted the widespread violence against women and the “painful wounds inflicted” on them because they are women, apparently references to rape and domestic abuse, issues he has previously highlighted.

He also denounced the “throwaway culture” that exploits poor women in particular, who are subject to various forms of exploitation.

YS END GIBSON