I’ve been pretty swept up by the euphoria surrounding Pope Francis’s first few weeks in office. How many days now since a major accident? 22? That’s got to be a record.

Yesterday, Francis gave a speech to a general audience in St. Peter’s Square, and it seems that he spoke off the cuff a bit, since the Vatican’s official text is shorter than what others sources have him down as saying. (Does anyone have the full text or a video?) My newsfeed was filled with headlines lauding him for stressing the “fundamental” value/role/importance of women in his remarks. Even Jezebel.com was basking in the news, proclaiming that “Pope Horrifies Conservative Catholics by Saying that Women Have ‘Fundamental’ Value.” (Incidentally, the Jezebel article actually says nothing about conservatives being horrified by Francis’s remarks.)

But from what I can tell, Francis didn’t say anything new at all. And what he said wasn’t really groundbreaking. He noted in his remarks that the Gospel narratives have women as the first witnesses to the resurrection, whereas other statements in the Bible on the resurrection appearances (such as 1 Cor 15:5-8) only mention men as witnesses:

“This is because, according to the Jewish Law of the time, women and children were not considered reliable, credible witnesses. In the Gospels, however, women have a primary, fundamental role. Here we can see an argument in favor of the historicity of the Resurrection: if it were a invented, in the context of that time it would not have been linked to the testimony of women. Instead, the evangelists simply narrate what happened: the women were the first witnesses.”

One the one hand, that’s a good point: women’s testimony–as well as slaves’ or poor peoples’ testimony–was generally viewed with suspicion in the ancient world. If you were making up the story of the resurrection, it probably would have been a better move to have men as your primary witnesses. One the other hand, using “Judaism” as a foil to make Jesus look progressive with respect to women is really problematic, as Amy-Jill Levine has pointed out over and over again. There’s nothing uniquely “Jewish” about the tendency to dismiss women’s narrations of their own experience; it was a ubiquitous phenomenon in the Greco-Roman world (and still is today).

As others have noticed, though (take a look at the “What Does the Prayer Really Say” blog), Benedict XVI made the exact same point in his second Jesus book. So Francis’s address doesn’t really fit within the black-and-white, Benedict-vs-Francis paradigm that’s grown up over the last few weeks.

But more significant, I think, is that while Francis did mention women, he immediately folded them into the “mothers” category (what about women who aren’t, or who don’t want to be, mothers?), exhorted them to raise their children in the faith (assuming that the domestic realm is especially for women, and ignoring that many women do in fact teach people other than their own children), and then indirectly praised their childlike qualities:

This is beautiful, and this is the mission of women, of mothers and women, to give witness to their children and grandchildren that Christ is Risen! Mothers go forward with this witness! What matters to God is our heart, if we are open to Him, if we are like trusting children.

There’s nothing per se offensive about that, taken by itself (as is true for virtually any statement made by anyone anywhere), but read in the context of Roman Catholic writing on women, it’s not exactly progressive. Highlighting their domesticity, their children, their emotional availability, their sensitivity, as opposed to supposedly masculine qualities like logical thinking, rigid rule-following, skepticism, and stubbornness–in other words, gender essentialism to the max–is fairly standard Vatican-speak when it comes to talking about women, I would say.

5 thoughts

  1. I am so glad you say this. This was exactly my reaction. Reheated stuff really. Women are lovely human beings, filled with divine goodness, as long as they remain in a certain spot… Women were definitely at the cross and at the tomb. Faithful and fearless. We are invited to be like them and to stay there :-)

  2. So agree with the writer and Claire Bangasser. As a single, childless woman I wondered how I fitted in. However, although I felt excluded when I read his words, it hasn’t mad me love Francis less. I am very hopeful and if he doesn’t do everything I would like, that’s fine.

  3. “This is because, according to the Jewish Law of the time, women and children were not considered reliable, credible witnesses.”

    Women could not serve as a witness *within an orthodox rabbinical court*, but could serve as an Advocate within such a court. Which official ecclesiastical body of the Roman Catholic Church allows the participation of women, pray tell?

    Furthermore, the insinuation by Pope Francis that it is because of Jewish Law that recognition of those gospels written by women that testify to Christ’s resurrection were withheld is political rhetoric (with a small “r”) and not a reasoned theological argument.

  4. What’s interesting is that Pope Francis’ homily points out that the women were not only the first witnesses to the resurrection, but the first apostles sent by the risen Jesus to tell it to the Church and the world. That claims an apostolic role for women – recall the ancient term for Mary Magdalene as “apostle to the apostles”. And of course the men did not believe the first apostles.

    It seems to me that this presents an excellent theological starting point for developing a theology of women’s proper apostolic role in the Church today and the radical reforms necessary to implement that.

    God Bless

  5. The sound bites I saw were all along the lines of “Pope Francis says women are special!” Honestly, “women are special” is a message that makes me worry: it’s got more than a whiff of the pedestal about it. I’d much rather hear him matter of factly and consistently talk about “men and women”, “brothers and sisters”: it’s the routine inclusion of women as human beings and as Christians that matters to me.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s