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

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.


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.


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  • 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

    Because your never more intrepid than when you’re equivocating.

    Francis lacks the stones to put American religious orders under any sort of interdict and has called off a disciplinary process which was underway when he was elected. He might suggest that women in the Church re-dedicate themselves to building and maintaining faithful religious orders to replace those being chewed up by the actuarial tables (and run by the sort of Chruch-o-crat Francis indulges). Francis actually dislikes orthodox orders, so, no, he is not going to do that.

  • One is also never more intrepid when one utters complete nonsense: “pure and simple parity, applied mechanically, of absolute equivalence”???

    Of course, the scholars will be quick to say, “What he meant to say, was…”

  • It’s not possible for Abrahamic religions to empower women without getting rid of the whole Bible’s male domination emphasis from beginning to end. Remember, there’s a reason why these religions are called “patriarchies”. Before the Abrahamic religious warfare began against pagan religions, women enjoyed higher social status as they had their Divine Feminine Goddesses in heaven above to give power to women’s lives below. The Abrahamics got rid of all the ancient powerful goddesses and installed the weak Shekkinah for us Jews and Sophia for us Gnostics, both of whom being ethereal to the max lacked the full bodied power of a Great Goddess such as Asherah or Isis or Spider Woman to inspire women. Catholics do have Mariolatry but that’s so crushed under Papal (Father) authority that its token goddess worship and very hypocritically done as well.

    It appears God’s not waiting around for Pope Francis to really get equal and step aside for a woman Mother to head the Catholic Church so God’s dumped the whole Abrahamic Pauline patriarchy on its head as now there is a New Jewish Prophesy underway of Her arrival coming soon – – and its in the heart of Native America where the spiritual purity still can be found lacking in the Old World Holy Land too spiritually polluted with religious wars and bloodshed due to male domination of religion and society it cannot spawn the Messiah anymore. Besides, God is restoring the Holy Family, the Elohim, to overthrow phony monotheism which was never true of the Godhead and a man-made doctrine to install monarchy and autocracy and with Muhammadism, totalitarian fascism in religious form – – with males running the show as usual for Abrahamic patriarchal religions. We will never move forward in religious behavior until patriarchy is overthrown and true equality, even in our conception of God is balanced in our minds. God is Holy One as we are Holy One.

  • The world desperately needs to abandon religion.

    Over population caused by Clerical denial of contraception = starvation
    Dominionism preached by Clerical wackos = Denial of scientific advancement
    Surrender of critical faculties preached by Clerics = denial of medical advancement

    We are in big trouble unless we abandon these baseless, idiotic claims of religion.

  • “Before the Abrahamic religious warfare began against pagan religions, women enjoyed higher social status as they had their Divine Feminine Goddesses in heaven above to give power to women’s lives below.”

    BWAHAHAHAHAHA!!! Really? You actually really believe this amongst all the other hogwash you spouted? One hardly knows where to begin… Perhaps you can start by actually studying the history of how women were viewed and treated in the glorious pagan cultures you worship, who were either considered sub-human at worst, the inferior of men at best, and not even in the same manner of the ‘Patriarchy of Abraham’ who for a guy so patriarchal, really tended to be obedient as a husband and listen to his wife, even to his detriment. Not to mention the patriarchal laws of the Old Testament greatly improved the status of women and were even more lenient with women than with men. Look into that sometime, when you’re not lighting incense to false non-existent gods anyway…

  • The world desperately needs to re-educate itself about its past mistakes that it keeps repeating in ignorance.

    Overpopulation Myth = Malthusian nonsense that continues to perpetuate when it is logically known that population will plateau between a natural birth/death ratio.

    Atheism = Holding science and medical advancement hostage to an unproven self-refuting and illogical philosophy that continues to retard the progress of human civilization due to beliefs in magical fairy-dust processes that miraculously formed everything.

    Given increasing practical atheism has held sway over the last few decades where we’ve witnessed the worst atrocities, more wars than the entire history of the ancient civilizations put together, the systematized murder of innocent children and elderly and handicapped and the increasing confusion over simple obvious things like whether or not one is a boy or a girl. Atheists are lunatics running the asylum. It’s time these wackos were put in their place. Then again, one can’t argue with one who denies any basis for logic as atheism does. So it’s no wonder they can’t see the forest for the trees.

  • Johnno,

    “Atheists are lunatics…”

    Atheism means “I don’t believe God is real” – that is all it means.

    Calm down.
    Show me the evidence that God exists and I promise to surrender to your logic and give myself to your god.

    Okay? I’m waiting for your evidence.

  • One only has to look at ancient statues to see that women were able to be high priestesses and had many followers. Isis still has many followers and adding all her years of worship together Isis probably is the very most worshiped deity in the world as Egypt holds the world’s record for longevity. Because rabbis refuse to learn this or heaven forbid tell Jews this, even the name “Israel” is a continuing honor of Isis as it turns out Hebrews cobbled together three different Canaanite tribal groups into one “Israel” by god-capturing, that strategy going on all through ancient history including Judeo-Christianity and Islam, capturing the three top gods worshiped in the region between Canaan and Egypt: Isis (moon) RA (sun) EL (Saturn). = Israel.

    Do I believe this new to most people history of Jews? Having found out the religious beliefs of ancient Israelites vs. what the later Hebrews concocted, I do believe it. Israelites were in Egypt for a couple of hundred years at least as part of the failed Hyksos invaders takeover of Egypt and later routing by Egyptians taking back their country. This humiliation of the Israelites reversed in the Hebrew priests’ hands as “Moses and the Exodus”. And yes, those are the three top gods of Egypt with EL having His own holy days and EL being also the Canaanite’s top god. Captured them all in Israel. Brahma and Sarasvati were captured in the Abraham and Sarah tales. Jesus Christ captured the Invisible Sun by stealing his birthday. You go through the Bible and its filled with god capturing tales as if capturing the other guy’s god was part of war and it was. Still is as Muhammadans go berserk in their wanting to capture Moses and Jesus to put to service as good Muslims serving Muhammad’s god, Allah, a name capturing the old Sinai moon god and probably EL and Yah as well. Sorry, but I try to get some ancient religious history pertinent to our times into my posts. I do teach Celestial Torah Christianity.

  • Johnno’s comments are the best summarization of modern atheism I’ve read thus far. As a nurse, and therefore a scientist, I challenge those scientists who consider themselves atheists, to explain three mysteries (one of their most hated words!): 1. Why do two gases, make a totally different substance called water or H2O?; 2. What makes a newborn breathe when entering the atmosphere for the first time after leaving the underwater environment of the uterus (some don’t and die, even though fully mature, by the way), and 3. What (or Who), enables us to continue breathing 12-16 times a minute until death?
    Can either man or woman, “have it all?” No, of course not! Only the Infinite One has that ability!

  • The Pope is saying, as he generally does, that the Church must follow the ever changing world based on untruths, rather than the perennial truth of God’s Law.

  • A parallel comes to mind here: “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”. Pope Francis is attempting to appease all of the Veruca’s of the world, giving them their gooses that lay gold eggs for Easter.

    “Hey Daddy I want a Golden Goose!”…”Alright sweet heart, alright! Daddy will get you a Golden Goose as soon as we get home!”…”Nooooooo, I want one of those!”…”They’re not for sale…She can’t have one.”…”Who says I can’t?!”…

    “Gooses, geeses, I want my goose to lay gold eggs for Easter!”…”And by the way…I want a feast!…I want a bean feast…and…fruitcake with no nuts…” “I want the world, I want the whole world!”…”Don’t care how, I want it nooooowwwwwww!!!!!”

    Honk, honk.

    Of course, giving the bad eggs what they want just leads them down straight down the garbage shoot, to the furnace…[where there is wailing and grinding of teeth.]

  • As a great grandmother, I can tell you that a woman is best served when the male/female relationship in true marriage, and it’s fruition in non contraceptive relations is honored as. God’s gift, and not as a law of the church. Modern society has so gotten away from this ideal. But if you read. Genesis you will see that. Adam could not concieve on his own. He needed a partner, a woman’s womb and a mother’s love to father a holy family. If families consent to having many children, the woman can not work outside the home, at least without help in rearing the children. Other m/w relationships can be holy, but are not procreative in a physical way.

  • Can order come from matter? Can sequence come from anything but mind? Whence the four seasons in the western hemispheres? Whence birds who make decoy nests to safeguard their eggs? Whence the phases of the moon that affect tides and ocean life?

  • Mike,

    The answer is Nature.
    You don’t really think a god is pushing the water onto the shore with every wave do you?

    Besides which god are you imagining into existence? Neptune, the god of the sea? Or Fontana, the god of birds?

  • Sister,

    You prove that religion is a handicap and a nuisance philosophy.
    You don’t even understand why water exists?

    The science is so easy. Yet religion afflicts you with blinders.

  • Women deserve freedom of choice…but not THAT kind of choice!

    Women should be full fledged members of our society, but we won’t give them positions of actual authority within our church.

    This is just pandering to the media to give the appearance of change, but not the reality of it.

  • Stephen is a servant of The Devil. How do we know this? Easy, he sows confusion and nothing but confusion when and wherever he posts and Satan is the author of confusion.

  • Paul states it quite cleary that women should remain silent in the Congregations of God and question their husbands or their fathers when at home.

    The world is increasingly looking like it’s going to hell in a hand cart and this runs parallel with the increased numbers of women in the work place replacing men = Bolshevik Marxist Jewish feminism (but not in Israel, of course).

  • CC,

    “The world is increasingly looking like it’s going to hell in a hand cart and this runs parallel with…”

    ….people who don’t pay attention to evidence.
    The world has never been more peaceful, democratic or less crime-ridden.

    Read “The Better Angels of our Nature” by Steven Pinker.
    As religion has declined, humanity has behaved better.

  • Paul was a sick misogynist who had NO right to speak for Jesus whatsoever. It’s high to to throw off the yoke of Bronze Age superstition and join the 21st century.

  • Agreed about Paul. The guy did single-handedly ruin Christianity by not following Jesus’ teachings but Paul’s. It was Paul who told Christians that they must obey their (Roman Empire) governors or face God’s condemnation to hell. That was giving every emperor, king, queen, president, a blank check to write out conscription of Christians to be put into wars for whatever whim the governing ruler desired at the time. Millions of innocent people have died for Paul’s edict which anti-Christ to the max as Jesus Rebelled against unjust authority, rebelled to the point of giving his life to truth vs caving in to ruthless immoral power politics.

    Yet here’s the rub: Without Paul would we have Christians spread out all around the world now? And Jesus, Paul did write thee most beautiful set of words about love in all of literature, no small feat. But it is time to dump Paul and Pauline Christianity that cannot withstand either historical or ethical review. I teach Celestial Torah Christianity which is an ancient Gnostic system that relies on seeking and finding Knowledge of God, which isn’t the same thing as scholarly work but is God-guided research, review and conclusions.

  • “…due to beliefs in magical fairy-dust processes that miraculously formed everything.” WOW. If ever there was, in a “nut”shell, a more distilled form of unscientific creationist nonsense put into words, I’m glad to have not read it, lest my head implode from the stupidity. You can’t even argue with someone who says something like this, because neither the rules of logic nor the weight of evidence can possibly apply.

  • Max, study causality. Effects cannot be greater than the causes. Nothing can give what it does not have. You imagine that you know the How of material things (ignoring the immaterial soul that you were given by a Cause greater than you) yet you have no clue about the WHY of things. The purpose of your own existence for instance? For that matter, do you exist? WHO is the YOU? Do you desire to live forever? If so, where did that desire come from. You desire to stay alive, so you eat and drink. WHY?

  • Kelso,

    The universe does not owe us an answer to the question of why we are here.

    If you have no evidence for a god, you cannot claim God to exist.
    It is not acceptable to say “I don’t know, therefore I know it must be God”

    How do you know it isn’t two gods?
    Or 454 gods?
    or 50,000,392,887 Gods?.

    You are attempting to explain a mystery with another mystery. You have solved nothing and answered nothing.

    I do not believe a god exists. Why should I?

  • There should be a million women march to surround the Vatican for worldwide women’s equality. The next pope should be a women.

  • All Abrahamic religions are male domination ideologies and if you think men will let women take over Abrahamic religions without a fight think again. It is always the fundamentalist believers who dictate what an organized religion actually does once a reformer is ousted from power as I suspect Francis will be eventually. He’s only allowed there because the RCC is desperate and it’s image is so bad it has to show signs of major reforms. But I wish him luck in actually changing RCC doctrines that resist social equality for women. Look at the Episcopols with 80% laity against the leadership’s liberality.

    Chuck the whole Abrahamic deal as when are Christians and Jews going to look at Abraham as a model of what? Insanity, that’s what. I mean if you try to kill your kid by burning him alive after slitting his throat where do you end up in our times? In prison for the rest of your life yet Abraham’s insanity and that of the Moloch god he served is to be worshiped as “Righteousness”? It is sick and twisted from the get-go and needs to be dumped and the Scriptures used as ancient reference materials, not as religious idols fooling everyone who takes the stories literally. As Muhammad did, as Paul did, as the writers of the New Testament did, and the Old..

    We won’t get any relief from Abrahamic religious wars until we put Abraham into the museum of dead religions where he belongs. You who continue to foist false history onto the next generations are responsible for keeping Abrahamic religious warfare going. Isn’t 2500 years of it enough? God has dumped Abe along with Moses and all the rest of the Jewish myths of origin now exposed as such by archeological science, God’s real helpers in helping to make straight the path to God as men in priesthood costumes and fancy buildings cannot be trusted to tell the truth.