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.