Let's Not Forget: Everyone's Favorite Pope Still Has a Serious Problem With Women

Pope Francis in all-white, waving and looking down

"Let your women keep silent in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church."

I Corinthians xiv. 34-5

"With regards to the ordination of women, the church has spoken and says no… That door is closed."

Pope Francis, 2013

This week, another whammy from His Holiness: Pope Francis wants women to breastfeed their babies under the stirring frescoes of the Sistine Chapel. "Today the choir will sing but the most beautiful choir of all is the choir of the babies who will make a noise," extolled the 77-year-old pontiff, while baptizing new Catholics last Sunday. "If they are hungry, mothers, feed them!"

The move, which inspired delight the world over, is yet another gift from a pope who keeps on giving.

Image Credit: AP

Pope Francis — TIME magazine's 2013 Person of the Year — has surely earned his status as a media beloved: with his advocacy for the poor, his overtures to gays and to atheists, and his pledge to flatten the pyramid of privilege that corrupts and scleroses his Church. Most of all, Francis is celebrated for a single, embracing phrase, uttered last July in response to a question about gay men in the priesthood: "Who am I to judge?"

But it is easier to let a mother feed her wailing babe — or to kiss a girl's feet — than to pray alongside a woman, as equals.

Pope Francis' ubiquitous, and largely deserved, popularity belies an important fact: When it comes to women in the Church, his papacy is nothing new.

In 1979, Pope John Paul II paid a visited to Washington, D.C. One morning, at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, one Sister Theresa Kane (pictured left) rose to challenge him on the treatment of women in the Church. Sporting a blue armband (dozens of nuns were wearing them as a symbol of protest against sexism), Kane demanded that the pope ordain women and allow women "in all ministries of our Church."

By the '70s, writes Angela Bonavoglia, author of Good Catholic Girls, "Feminism was seeping into the bones of American nuns." The modernizing impulse of the Second Vatican Council was gaining ground.

So Pope John Paul II began a smackdown by: moving to limit the agency of Catholic Sisters.

On the question of ordination, in 1994, Pope John Paul would "declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women." And he urged Catholics to drop the matter: "This judgment is to be definitely held."

Since then, this judgment has been challenged. Theologians continue to argue about whether the limitation is doctrinal or ecclesiastical — definitive or "infallible."

Pope Francis, like his predecessors, has also attempted to quell the debate. "The reservation of the priesthood to males … is not a question open to discussion," Francis recently explained. In September, the Vatican excommunicated an Australian priest who supports gay marriage and women's ordination. In November, after a report in the Irish Times raised speculation that a woman might be appointed to the College of Cardinals, Pope Francis' spokesman dismissed the news as "nonsense."

Francis has also maintained his predecessors' hard line on liberally-minded American nuns, who the Vatican has criticized for their silence on issues like abortion, and for their "radical feminism." The Church, under Francis, has boosted its oversight of the sisters. "People do not know how hurt and disillusioned women are," Sister Mary C. Boys, a prominent theologian in New York, told the New Yorker.

Indeed, Francis's recent statements about women have been largely evasive. Praising the innate "sensitivity, intuition" of women, the Pope noncommittally called for "a more incisive female presence in the Church."

"Rome wasn't built in a day," sympathetic observers balk. Yes. But the pope has already shaken up several strongholds of papal tradition. Why not hear out the women who are already in his fold?

So, yes, celebrate Francis; yes, do. But also keep in mind that sometimes "Who am I to judge?" is less an ecclesiastical relaxation or an extension of grace — and is more a cop-out.