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Francis is the greatest ally women have

Francis appeals to young Catholic women who love Mother Church just as she is

Does Pope Francis have a problem with women? Liberal opinion-formers certainly seem to think so. Indeed, the Holy Father’s “woman problem” crops up in headlines from all over the world, and especially in American progressive circles. The Los Angeles Times’s offering is typical. “Instead of a more compassionate and understanding take on the standing of women in the Church, Francis has repeatedly embraced the traditional Catholic view that a woman’s role is in the home,” it says.

Is this fair? No, of course not. There’s a huge difference between celebrating the role of women as mothers and home-makers and suggesting that they should stick to their domestic chores, which is what Left-leaning columnists want their readers to think the Pope said. But, in the game of hunt the misogynist, the inquisitorial eye ranges far and wide. Any pope is a natural target – even one as popular as Francis.

For a brief moment after his election in 2013 he won over the liberal media, who swooned at his “progressive” views. Then, when these views failed to overturn 2,000 years of teaching on, say, women priests, they announced that they felt personally betrayed on behalf of the whole of womankind.

What has brought this on? Here we have to concede that, yes, Pope Francis has said some sexist-sounding things. Just one or two, but enough to start tongues and fingers wagging.

When he was asked last year if he was planning to appoint a woman as head of a Vatican department, he replied: “Well, priests often end up under the sway of their housekeepers.” Also, he recently referred to the distinguished new female members of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission as “the strawberry on the cake”. And, in his searing speech to the European Parliament last November, he compared Europe to a barren and haggard grandmother.

That last observation did not go down well with Guardian columnist Joanna Moorhead. “The love-in with Pope Francis is over,” she declared, “or at least it is as far as this Catholic feminist is concerned.” Ouch!

Commentators are now forming a queue to denounce the Pope’s supposedly unreconstructed chauvinism. The headlines on columns by Sadhbh Walshe, a feminist film-maker, tell their own, increasingly wild, story. Shortly after the conclave we had “Bless on, Pope Francis”. That was swiftly followed by “Thanks for nothing, Pope Francis!” and “Pope Francis is throwing nuns under the bus for sharing his own beliefs”.

The image of the benign Argentine Pontiff pushing Sister Mary Bridget under a double-decker is an unlikely one, to put it mildly. Yes, the housekeeper/strawberries quips were ill judged, carrying with them a faint whiff of Father Ted. They reminded us that the dynamic Francis is, after all, 78 years old.

But delve into his personal history and you’ll find that his actions, rather than his words, point to a healthy and normal relationship with women, and a degree of empathy unprecedented in a pope. He’s relaxed about breastfeeding in the Sistine Chapel, of all places; he doesn’t hesitate to pick up the phone to an unmarried pregnant woman and offer to baptise her baby.

In Argentina, the then Cardinal Bergoglio upset some of his fellow prelates by attending the funeral and comforting the widow of a married ex-bishop. And in her biography Pope Francis: Life and Revolution, Elisabetta Piqué, an Argentine journalist close to Francis, recounts that the future Pope supported another widow who was struggling to cope with bereavement and single motherhood. For years, he would leave an envelope containing the equivalent of a salary every month for her to collect at the archbishop’s residence in Buenos Aires.

The woman closest to Francis today is his sister, María Elena, a mother of two – and a divorcée. We don’t know much about how this drama played out in the family, but there was a time not so long ago when priests, let alone popes, might have shunned a divorced sibling. Certainly it presents Francis’s concern for victims of family breakdown in an intriguing new light.

Francis’s empathy with women is down to earth, and different in tone from St John Paul II’s and Benedict XVI’s theological recognition of the “feminine genius”, welcome though that was. He once picked up the phone to console a victim of rape. Even feminist men might think twice before venturing into that emotionally tricky territory. But none of this counts for much in the eyes of secular progressives.

Francis upsets feminists not because he lets slip unfortunate expressions but because, like his predecessors, he endorses the magisterium. He’s made it clear that the door remains closed to female ordination. He talks about applying Church teaching on contraception in a new spirit of mercy, but he has not the slightest intention of revoking Humanae Vitae.

This has upset the Catholic professor Tina Beattie who, writing inevitably for the Guardian, argued that “if the Pope wants a Church that prioritises the needs of the poor, then addressing women’s reproductive wellbeing is fundamental to that goal”. Presumably this means that Ms Beattie wants the Pope to tear up Church teaching. She seems to want every pope to do this and is constantly disappointed, though the BBC is always happy to lend her a pulpit.

This is a delicate point to make, but many of the Pope’s feminist critics aren’t that much younger than he is. Their agenda took shape in the 1960s and hasn’t changed since. I’d encourage them to attend a Youth 2000 event at Walsingham and witness the cool young women kneeling in the dirt before the Blessed Sacrament, loving Mother Church just as she is. One can only guess at their reaction. Perhaps counsellors might be needed.

A few days ago I spoke to a woman who holds a leadership role at the Vatican. She had an interesting take on the undoubted scarcity of women in the Curia: it is more to do with financial constraints than misogyny, she reckons. Many positions are occupied by men simply because it’s cheaper to maintain a priest than appoint a professional woman.

She also thinks that Francis’s “strawberry” gaffe is forgivable because Francis’s exposure to high-flying academic woman has been limited. Unlike Benedict XVI and John Paul II, he has spent limited time on campuses – and the highest academic position he ever held was that of a schoolteacher.

She rejects the idea, implicit in so many feminist attacks on Francis, that simply because he is a Latin American man he must embody all the macho prejudices associated with that continent.

Let’s look at what Francis has actually done as Pope. As well as increasing the number of women on the International Theological Commission, he has made it plain that he wants to appoint women to senior curial positions – though one assumes that they wouldn’t be those directly concerned with liturgy. It’s hard to imagine a woman Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, a job for a cardinal. Technically you don’t have to be a priest to be a cardinal, so a woman in a red hat is just about conceivable – but, to be realistic, still very much in the realms of fantasy.

One area where Francis does see a crucial role for women is in the super-sensitive domain of clerical abuse. He’s appointed the courageous Irish abuse survivor Marie Collins and the brilliant British psychiatrist Sheila Hollins, a crossbench peer, to the new Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. This shows intuitive good sense. One of the many reasons the Church has been unable to move beyond the sex abuse scandals is that it has relied on men to investigate crimes committed by men; no longer.

Women also feature in Francis’s struggle to reform Vatican finances. In 2013, he asked Francesca Chaouqui, a young Italian PR guru, to advise him on the reorganisation of the Holy See’s economic and administrative structures. When risqué photos of her appeared on the internet, along with clerical whispers that she was unsuitable for a Vatican role, Francis’s support for her did not waver.

Francis has also made the global battle against human trafficking a priority of his pontificate – fully aware that this is first and foremost a fight for women’s rights.

According to the International Labour Organisation, women and girls make up 98 per cent of victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation. Francis helped to establish the Santa Marta Group, an international grouping of senior law enforcement chiefs dedicated to ending the scourge. The chief beneficiaries will be women.

Pope Francis is also not afraid to confront prejudice against women within the Church. In the Philippines last month, he interrupted a speech to complain that the organisers of his visit had pushed women to the margins. “Women have much to tell us in today’s society,” he said. “At times we men are too machista [macho] … So when the next pope comes to Manila, please let there be more girls.” Curiously few feminist commentators seemed to notice that comment, which clearly indicated his real priorities.

This week, the Pontifical Council for Culture is hosting a plenary meeting on the topic of women in the Church, naturally with the Pope’s blessing. Don’t expect whingeing, old-school feminists to give him any credit for it. Obsessed with his fidelity to his Church’s teaching, and the occasional mild gaffe, they ignore a glaringly obvious fact: that Francis, far from being a misogynist, is one of the greatest allies women have in the world today.

This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (6/2/15)