About six months ago, the Uncertaintist discussed the possibility of ordained women serving as permanent deacons in the Roman Catholic Church. Since then, the Pope has used several opportunities to comment on women’s role in his church, most recently during his long interview with Antonio Spadaro, featured in the current issue of America magazine, and in other Jesuit news outlets worldwide.
So far, there is nothing specific about women deacons. Pope Francis’ answer to a open-ended question about women in the Spadaro interview is the very model of bureaucratic discourse. Tea leaves give clearer counsel.
Q. What should be the role of women in the church? How do we make their role more visible today?
A. I am wary of a solution that can be reduced to a kind of ‘female machismo,’ 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. Women are asking deep questions that must be addressed. The church cannot be herself without the woman and her role.
The woman is essential for the church. Mary, a woman, is more important than the bishops. I say this because we must not confuse the function with the dignity. We must therefore investigate further the role of women in the church. We have to work harder to develop a profound theology of the woman. Only by making this step will it be possible to better reflect on their function within the church.
The feminine genius is needed wherever we make important decisions. The challenge today is this: to think about the specific place of women also in those places where the authority of the church is exercised for various areas of the church.
It is significant, I think, that the one moment of clarity piercing through the fog is when the Pope speaks about a specific woman, Mary. That is typical of the interview as a whole. Specific women are vivid, women in the abstract are a problem that must somehow and someday be better addressed.
One specific woman is Nonna Rosa, his father’s mother. The Pope often refers to her in public. He repeats in the recent interview that he carries a passage from his grandmother’s last will in his breviary. He talks about her teaching him by heart the opening of a Nineteenth Century Italian novel (I Promessi Sposi, the Betrothed, by Alessandro Manzoni). He finds a reflection of his affection for her in a poem by Hölderlin, written for the poet’s grandmother on her birthday,
I was also impressed because I loved my grandmother Rosa, and in that poem Hölderlin compares his grandmother to the Virgin Mary, who gave birth to Jesus, the friend of the earth who did not consider anybody a foreigner.
It is, however, an anonymous nun whose story leaps out. Jorge Bergoglio was hospitalized at age 21 for a lung infection. Part of his lung was surgically removed. His doctor prescribed antibiotics, penicillin and streptomycin. The nurse, a nun, agreed with the choice of drugs, but overruled the physician and tripled the young patient’s dosage because
… she was daringly astute; she knew what to do because she was with ill people all day. The doctor, who really was a good one, lived in his laboratory; the sister lived on the frontier and was in dialogue with it every day. Domesticating the frontier means just talking from a remote location, locking yourself up in a laboratory. Laboratories are useful, but reflection for us must always start from experience.
Daring indeed. Hospitals are as hierarchical as the Vatican, and the docs are the bishops and cardinals, not the nurses. And yet, in the Pope’s opinion, he is alive today, more than fifty years later, because of an uppity woman who knew better than her acknowledged superior.
There is nothing specific to report about women deacons, then, at six months into the new papacy. But that the Pope remembers two modern strong women with admiration, gratitude and affection can’t be an entirely bad sign.