By Chuck Smith
Pope Francis has been recognized for his evident humility, his common touch, and a commitment to addressing issues of poverty and economic justice. The new Catholic leader is a welcome breath of fresh air. Perhaps he will also be willing to reform the, at times, devious and usually surreptitious manner of governing the church.
When Pope Francis was a bishop in Argentina he advocated opening up the opaque church, "We have to avoid the spiritual sickness of a self-referential church," he contended, ". . . if the church remains closed in on itself -- self-referential -- it gets old."
As the media has eagerly informed the world about the new pope; invariably the news reports included the view that there is no chance that he will reconsider women's role in the church. Media was blasé in presenting this analysis of a continuing status quo for women. Such nonchalant reporting accentuates an unfortunate situation -- for the past 50 years the church has steadfastly refused to reconsider its draconian attitudes toward women.
I chose to become a Catholic in 1959 when I was 18. In 1996 I left the church. I departed chiefly because I was no longer able to tolerate the church's position that women's role is innately inferior to that of men nor accept its rules that women may only fill ecclesial roles subordinate to men. The church routinely ignores women's voices and denies women any crucial role in making serious decisions.
Retaining such attitudes about women is all the more offensive if the church does refocus its mission on compassionate programs to alleviate poverty and pursue economic justice. Over the past few decades, time and time again, it is churchwomen who have demonstrated courage, imagination, and direction in those efforts.
In West Virginia towns and rural counties it is churchwomen who do much, and, possibly, most of the heavy lifting, in such ministries. I have witnessed them develop and manage compassionate, creative, effective programs. Those projects serve struggling families, protect women and children from abuse and violence, work to provide children with a decent education, and supply access to health services.
In the mid-1960s I was rebuked for advocating the ordination of women. My theology teachers contended that inherent psychological differences exist between women and men. They also eagerly called attention to the fact that Jesus did not choose women to be among his 12 closest followers.
Those arguments have no more appeal than 19th-century American slave owners' theological positions. Their arguments enthusiastically quoted what must have been slaveholders' favorite lines from scripture. They frequently cited Paul's admonition in letters to both the Ephesian and Corinthian churches, "Slaves obey your earthly masters."
It is not only ironic, it is also a shame that a church that identifies among its chief missions to serve the poor, embrace the disenfranchised, and raise up the oppressed continues to deny women equal membership. It is my sincere hope that the Catholic Church someday will recognize women as full members and accept them into all leadership positions.
Smith, a political science professor retired from West Virginia State University, is active in civil liberty issues and civil rights and has published widely on constitutional protection for religious liberty.