It’s a measure of how out of step the leaders of the Catholic church are that what was perceived as an “act of mercy” this week came across, to many, as a reassertion of its hard lines on social issues.
There’s more than a morsel of irony in the fact that the church is declaring itself willing to forgive women, given how much women – now and historically – have to forgive cardinals, bishops and priests for: deep-seated sexism, a failure to include women properly in Catholicism’s power structures, and an inability to properly represent women or their concerns and viewpoint at almost any Vatican event. In addition, of course, there are the even graver sins of widespread child abuse by men in positions of power and authority to consider.
What Francis is prepared to recognise, publicly, is something Catholic leaders have always been candid about behind the scenes, but determinedly unwilling to voice in public: that life is messy; people often have to grapple with a “least worst” option; perfection is not a typical human trait. The true colours of human experience are not black and white, they’re every shade of grey – and to give him his due, Francis is prepared to stand out from the popes of the past, by standing up for the grey in the world.
The subtext of what he’s saying is: abortion happens, and as a church we need to face up to that. In a similar vein, he’s also spoken of the pain of divorce and of remarried Catholics, who have been barred from receiving communion at mass. One of his recent documents, Amoris Laetitia, seems to many to suggest that local arrangements should be made to enable those who are in this situation, but who genuinely want to go to communion, to do so.
Needless to say, diehard conservatives in the Catholic church, from cardinals down, are daggers drawn and spend their time poring over his declarations, trying to encourage him to “clarify” statements he’s deliberately left ambiguous. It’s all a bit of a fudge, and the hardliners certainly aren’t rolling over – but crucially, it’s a fudge that’s going in the right general direction, and they probably aren’t going to be able to halt its progress.
So far, so hopeful, but in the Catholic church there’s a big gap between a liberal pope and a reformed church. Popes tend to be old men, and this one is 80 next month, so even if he does want to implement great change, time is against him. And while any acknowledgement of the reality of life, and women’s lives in particular, is welcome, the fact is that no pope in history has put women at the top of his agenda – despite women and girls making up well over 50% of those who worship in Catholic churches every Sunday.
So even if Francis does seem to be making the right noises (he recently created a commission to investigate whether women could be ordained as deacons, which would be a seismic change in a church that has reserved the priesthood for men throughout its history), the likelihood is that, before too long, he’ll be replaced by a pope who knows little about women, and reform will be knocked back another generation.
Interestingly, one of the first rumours to surface in the current pontificate was that the new leader might create women cardinals. There was no reason, some theologian worked out, why they couldn’t be appointed to that office. It hasn’t happened, of course. But that’s the sort of spectacular move Francis needs to make if he really wants to prove, where women are concerned, that he genuinely means business.