Catholicism, Church, Theology and Culture, Women

“Masculinity in a Skirt”: Pope Francis and the Role of Women

Masculinity in a Pants Suit?

Masculinity in a Pants Suit?

Homosexuality, contraception, abortion, authority, dogmatics, doctrine, science, prayer, reform, conscience….you name it, the Pope spoke about it in his recent interview with Antonio Spadaro, exclusively published by America Magazine earlier today.  Without doubt, there are some phrases which will resonate in the Church for a while.

For example, speaking on the Church’s focus on abortion and gay marriage in recent years, Pope Francis said, ““We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”  So that’s something.

Yet when one scrolls down to look into questions regarding women: women deacons, women priests, women lectors (official ones, which is not currently the case), women anything, one finds eleven sentences in a single, short paragraph.

First, the interviewer asks the question: What should be the role of women in the church? How do we make their role more visible today?  The Pope answers the following, outlined to see his argumentative train of thought and historical references:

The Problem: 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.

The Obvious: 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.

The Classic Argument: Mary, a woman, is more important than the bishops. I say this because we must not confuse the function with the dignity. 

Homage to Benedict XVI: 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. 

Homage to Bl. John Paul II: The feminine genius is needed wherever we make important decisions.

Francis’ Conclusion:  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.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

While much could be said about the tenuity of the ancient argument that a distinction between “function and dignity” could also be an argument for slavery, this argument is not new.  In my view, the entirety of the Holy Father’s argument–at least, where it diverges from published opinions of his predecessors–rests within the first two sentences: 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.

This translation is a smoothing out of the original Italian interview: “Temo la soluzione del “machismo in gonnella”, perché in realtà la donna ha una struttura differente dall’uomo. E invece i discorsi che sento sul ruolo della donna sono spesso ispirati proprio da una ideologia machista.” (

A literal translation of this would, instead, read, “I fear a solution of ‘machismo/masculinity in a skirt,‘ because, in reality, a woman has a different structure than a man.  But the discourse I hear about the role of women is often inspired by the ideology of machismo/overt masculinity.”

The differences in translation here might seem small, but it represents a more straightforward explication of the Pope’s answer to the question.  The phrase, “machismo in gonnella,” is a popular one for describing women in high powered roles or the branch of feminism that argues that women can be equally competent in roles of political power. The notion of a “different structure”–or, in America Magazine’s construction, “different make-up”–connotes a theological separation and difference between men and women directly in line with Pope Benedict XVI and Bl. Pope John Paul II.  Francis’ phrase “feminine genius,” in fact, derives directly from John Paul II decisive 1988 encyclical, “On the Dignity and Vocation of Women,” which indirectly ended any hopes for women to be ordained.  In case you were wondering, such hopes were directly and stringently ended by John Paul II”s later letter, Ordinatio Sacerdotalisin 1994.  

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

Early in the interview, the Pope states that despite what one may think, but he has “never been a right-winger.”  Undoubtedly this is true with regards to many aspects of church life, but despite his many remarkable statements in the interview, there is nothing remarkable or new about his conception of women in the church.  In fact, I feel as though I can say with a high degree of certainty that we will see few–if any–changes concerning the roles of women in Roman Catholicism under the pontificate of Francis.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

27 September update:  Over the past week, Phyllis Zagano of National Catholic Reporter noticed a discrepancy in the Italian and English versions of the interview, where America magazine inadvertently skipped a line in Francis’ statements concerning women.  One of the translators, Massimo Faggioli, published a personal response to Zagano, and America subsequently amended their published English-language version of the interview to include the sentence, “It is necessary to broaden the opportunities for a stronger presence of women in the church.”

Places in context, the English text  reads: “What should be the role of women in the church? How do we make their role more visible today?  He answers, “It is necessary to broaden the opportunities for a stronger presence of women in the church. I fear a solution of ‘masculinity in a skirt,’…”

I have considered the addition of this line, whose omission Zagano opines as a “big mistake,” and feel my conclusion holds up quite well under scrutiny.  In fact, Zagano makes my argument quite easy, noting that this added line “is nearly identical to those used by Pope Benedict XVI in 2006. Responding to a young priest during his annual Lenten visit with the priests of Rome that year, Benedict said virtually the same thing, asking, “Tuttavia, è giusto chiedersi se anche nel servizio ministeriale … non si possa offrire più spazio, più posizioni di responsabilità alle donne?” That is: “However, it is proper to ask whether in ministerial service … can we not offer more space, more positions of responsibility, to women?””

Zagano seems to argue that this omitted line points to a forward-thinking direction on the role of women in Pope Francis’ theology, which I find remarkably ironic: of all the passages in the interview, Francis’ discussions on women most directly follows his two predecessors, as this article and Zagano’s link to Benedict illustrate.

About John Slattery

John is a doctoral student in Systematic Theology and History & Philosophy of Science at the University of Notre Dame. He recently received his Master’s degree in Theology from Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, and, long ago, did his undergraduate work with the Jesuits at Georgetown University. His research interests lie in historical and systematic interactions between Christianity and contemporary science, including traditional theological and philosophical discussions of “faith and reason,” “natural philosophy,” and “natural theology.” He finds much strength in the theological value of liberation-related theological writings, especially in their ability to speak of classical systematic dialogues. In addition to all this, John is a proud father of three little ones and is kept from drifting too far into the clouds of academia by his amazing wife.


8 thoughts on ““Masculinity in a Skirt”: Pope Francis and the Role of Women

  1. thank you. thank you. thank you.

    Posted by Katie Grimes | September 19, 2013, 8:36 pm
  2. I had a similar reaction to the section on the role of women.There’s nothing new here. I’ll have to find something else to be inspired by.

    Posted by felicemifa | September 20, 2013, 8:56 am


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